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January 16, 2003

Art as Economic Inefficiency?

Friedrich --

I'm going to indulge myself with a musing or two. Half-baked though I'm sure they'll be, I have this awful feeling that my arrival at them will be laborious. So I'm hoping you're in a patient mood.

I'm reading Paul Johnson's "History of the English People." It's great -- vigorous and fascinating. He wears his biases out front, so they're hard to resent (and easy to be amused and provoked by), and he never, never, never, never does that thing so many historians do of simply swamping you with facts and stories. I remember the gloom that would come over me in the history classes I took back at our Lousy Ivy College when the facts-'n'-stories would start to rain down. (It was a different gloom that came over me when the stupid-professorial-theories-about-the-nature-of-history-itself started to emerge.) Sheesh, who cares? Johnson never makes me feel gloomy in that way. He's always pursuing some point or other; he's always explaining or exemplifying something. So the facts come along as he's getting you somewhere. Yet it never feels as though they're made subordinate to his points. It's as though confronting the facts originally made him think certain thoughts, and now that he's presenting it all back to us, he's using the facts to show us his points. Bliss.

Anyway, writing about kings and war and the middle ages, Johnson talks at some length about the British lust for making war on France. As he presents it, there was little rhyme or reason to these wars. The British evidently enjoyed imagining that they might thereby get rich -- but in 300 years of war, they only lost money. Johnson's conclusion is that the British are a xenophobic and aggressive people (or were then), and that it simply suited them to pursue these wars -- which they evidently were generally in favor of, even though they often impoverished and humiliated the country when things went badly.

It suited them ... That's what's got me thinking, or re-thinking, about something I've always wanted to ask of people more familiar with economic thinking than I am. (I'll claim a pretty solid Econ 102 level for myself, and feel mighty proud of that. But I'm not loony enough to claim anything more exalted for myself.) Roughly speaking, it's this: the value of what's economically inefficient. Inefficent. I don't think economists show enough interest in inefficiency.

Economists have a bias towards economic growth, and towards economic efficiency. They often seem to think everyone does, and they can be mighty bullying when they encounter what they consider irrationality. Even Thomas Sowell, whose work and columns I generally enjoy, in his book "Basic Economics" sometimes takes on a bullying tone. Economic efficiency (and thereby growth) trump all other values -- they must, because after all don't you want everyone to be better off? And if you don't, what kind of inhumane/snobbish/elitist/totalitarian are you? Etc, etc.

Yet clearly, over and over and over again, individuals, groups and nations have opted for some behaviors that are economically inefficient. Can this really be because they're stupid? Or because they're ignorant? Couldn't it be instead that, to one extent or another, they're freely expressing preferences about how to lead their lives? In other words, perhaps they aren't being "irrational" (horrors!) at all; perhaps they're being rational, but in a supra-economic sense.

Patriotism. Team spirit. Rooting for the Jets. Supporting a Royal Family. A love of hounding the French. Do any of these make sense in terms of economic efficiency? I just got off the phone with a woman from a Southern publishing house. I was smiling -- that Southern love of amiable small talk and that Southern performance-art thing that Southern women do give me a lot of pleasure. Why do they persist? Do they make sense in the sense of optimizing anything financial or economic?

And why should they? Perhaps what should be measured -- not that it can be measured, but wouldn't it be nice if it could be -- isn't just GNP, or economic efficiency, but instead something like "life-is-worth-living units." I know I've made many decisions in my life to forgo maximum economic utility, and I know many people of whom that's true (and not all of them in the arts!). Why? Because the more-economically-efficient life simply didn't appeal to me; another kind of life did instead. And if that meant making fewer bucks, so be it.

I read economists who carry on about how some country or other really ought to do such and such in order to achieve greater economic growth. Yet I can't be the only person who's visited other countries and come away with the impression that, while (say) the Italians could always use some extra money, they simply prefer a life that isn't quite so dedicated to things economic. In fact, they're often quite articulate, forceful and funny about this -- the "you Americans, you don't know how to live" response.

But the above embarassing adolescent dreaminess isn't my point. My point is this: why don't economists express an interest in people's "irrational" choices and preferences? Why not accept that to one extent or another, individuals and groups will opt to devote a certain amount of behavior and energy to activities that make no economic sense whatsoever? Why not find this, not infuriating, but interesting? And why not investigate how people choose to live in economic terms?

Perhaps there are tons of economists doing fascinating and enlightening studies of leisure, symbolism, waste and art -- I just don't know of them. Do you?

Using my "let's accept life as it's lived for a moment or two" approach, many fresh (to my mind, anyway) questions arise. Take, for instance, the big-wasteful-federal-government question. There are many reasons why it exists, of course. But perhaps one of them is that, despite how much people like griping about big government, they prefer it. Why might they prefer it? Perhaps they like the illusion that the federal government can solve problems. Perhaps they like imagining that there's some big parent/god-like entity out there too which they can appeal and about which they can gripe. And perhaps they're willing to pay for this.

To bring this around to the only field I have any real expertise in, what kinds of questions pop up when culture and art are considered? Hmmm. Well, as I see it, a bunch. One for-instance: elite, coterie modernist art. I have nothing against it myself, except in architecture, where it strikes me as morally offensive when imposed on an unwilling public. Yet modernist/po-mo art isn't just tolerated as a fancy, obscure niche market, which is what I think it actually is. It's supported and admired as what "real art" really is, often by people who should know better (and whom the art itself often scorns). How to explain this?

Education, brainwashing and media nonsense might account for some of it. But maybe also something else. I can't tell you the number of hardworking, trustworthy, squaresville people I know who have a soft spot where "the artist" (poor, beleaguered creature) is concerned. Perhaps the general public likes having an "artist" figure out there -- perhaps it means something to the general public. And perhaps the modernist/po-mo artist, despite the finger he's typically giving the bourgeoisie, is a perfect person to project a lot of fantasies onto. So maybe one way of seeing the otherwise mystifying persistence and success of the modernist art world is this: Perhaps the elite/modernist art world isn't just something the society in general is inexplicably willing to tolerate. Perhaps it's something the general public wants (for symbolic-sentimental reasons), and is willing to pay a price for.

Scrambling such thoughts with others I'm lifting from people like Oakeshott, I start wondering about beauty, love, poetry, art and economic inefficiency. I think the market is a wonderful thing, and as far as the arts are concerned can be a wonderful and necessary corrective to the tendency all the arts seem to show of wandering too far off into their own predilections. On the other hand, the house that is made with nothing other than maximizing the dollars-per-square-foot efficiency is a house that's likely to be impossible to love.

Much of what we love and enjoy not only makes no strictly-economic sense, it oftentimes seems to exist partly to defy strictly-economic sense. People like Oakeshott and Christopher Alexander, I suspect, would say "Exactly!" to what I've just written. Our private lives, our private pleasures, our private spaces -- much of what we treasure in these realms is quirky, has "character," is even a little delapidated. Gaston Bachelard (to wield some fancy Frenchiness for a few seconds) in "The Poetics of Space" argues similar things: that our imaginations and feelings often run in the direction of enclosed spaces, irrational pockets.

Perhaps we love these pockets. Perhaps their "irrationality" is part of what makes them lovable: the stinky dog by the fire, the window with the view of the rose bushes, the poem that while technically a little off reliably makes us feel some tenderness, the otherwise-crappy song that makes us feel alive.

I do understand that economic efficiency and growth must necessarily be pursued in business. I do understand that in a general way economic efficiency and growth are desirable society-wise. But how about in our private lives, our private pleasures, our families and loves? Because these are, or at least can be, the kinds of things that make us feel life is worth living. (This is part of my quarrel with the modernist/po-mo art world: they keep trying to make the argument turn on how brilliant or not-brilliant a work is. My preference is to keep the soft and subjective elements foregrounded. What does it mean that a given work is impressive if it means nothing to anyone?) Wouldn't it be fun and interesting if economists paid a little more attention to people's sense of what makes life worth living? And wouldn't it be nice if that attention were delicate, interested, open and non-bullying?

I want to know how much people are willing to pay for the ways of life that they prefer. Perhaps along these lines: if everything in the culture were devoted to maximizing economic efficiency, the culture would be at X level money-and-income-wise. But things aren't entirely devoted to economic efficiency -- they never are. Instead, the culture is, moneywise, at X-minus-Y level. Too many economists seem to find that an opportunity to start haranguing us. I'd rather see them find it interesting.

In other words, maybe there's some larger rationality at work here.

But there could be vast schools of economists devoted to doing this kind of work. I simply wouldn't know. Have you heard of any such?



posted by Michael at January 16, 2003


I'm sure many of our readers (based on comments I've seen on past postings) are far more qualified than I to discuss the current state of economics research. However, I can say that personally I agree with you 100%--a large amount of how much money people make is tied to what, for want of a better term, I would describe as life-style choices. (This term regrettably trivializes the idea: what I mean is that choice impacts economic prospects.) How much education you get (and what type of education you get), when you start having children (if at all), whether you choose to go into more or less economically dynamic industry, where you decide to live and seek work, whether you choose to be an employee or an entrepreneur--all of these choices, and countless others as well, affect the economic outcome. A bizarre "myth" deeply enshrined in our culture is that how much money you make is like the weather: it just happens to you. That has not been my experience. During my so-called adult life there was a period when I was almost completely disinterested in making money (oddly enough, I succeeded in not making much) and a period where I have worked pretty hard at maximizing my income (where I sort succeeded at making more, if not all that much in the grand scheme of things.) What irritates me about the assumption you discuss (i.e., people are income maximizers)is that it is built into our "progressive" tax code. That is, the people who bust their hump to maximize their income are not only making a personal choice, but they are subsidizing people who make different lifestyle choices. Taking into account the impact of choice on income level, I think it would be more in line with the ideas underlying progressive taxation to tax people on their I.Q., not their income. When do you suppose we can expect this idea to be ratified into law?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 16, 2003 2:33 PM

Dear Blowhards,
Reference making war on the French. This is not an economic but a sporting activity for the English.
Most of us want to sink the European Union as soon as possible too.

Posted by: Roy Ballard on January 17, 2003 7:58 AM

It was, of course, the English who had the lust for fighting France, not the British. Hence "History of the English People". Saying the British waged war on France in the Middle Ages is like saying Europe invaded Russia in 1941.

Posted by: Iain J Coleman on January 20, 2003 8:02 AM

Hey Iain -- Thanks for the correction.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 20, 2003 11:57 PM

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