In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Gals and Art | Main | Six Packs »

August 25, 2004

Leaf-Blowers and Economism

Dear Vanessa --

Economics depends on measurement -- yet doesn't confining yourself to what's measurable necessarily bias what's being discussed? And can't it also warp the values the discussion is based on? Lost in a forest of graphs and numbers, we can lose track of what the point of our activity is. One reason economic discussions need enhancement and correction -- from, among others, aesthetics-centric people -- is the simple fact that people who are into measurement might well be overdiscussing what's measurable and underdiscussing what's unmeasurable, or even just going unmeasured.

Here's an example. I was walking past a park this morning on the way to work. A park worker was using a leaf-blower to clean things up. I remember that some months ago, this same cleanup was done by a small team of people with brooms. Today? One guy with a very loud and messy machine.

Now, what's getting (and has gotten) measured here is no doubt certain cost-savings on the books of the park service; and from that point of view progress has been made. But from the point of view of everyone walking past that stretch of park at that moment, the quality of life had without question been reduced. It wasn't just a matter of the noise, but of dust and other crap (given that this is NYC, possibly literal crap) too, not to mention irritation and annoyance. It was a genuinely unpleasant moment.

It's pretty certain that the only number that was ever going to be put to that moment was a positive, cost-savings one. Yet there's also no question that if you could put a number to the quality of life of that moment -- park, passersby, worker, dust, etc -- it'd be lower than it was a few weeks ago. The moment was tangibly, palpably worse for many people than a similar moment was several weeks before; even their moods were affected. (How to measure the costs of increased irritation for several dozen passersby? And, even if you could, will such a measurement ever be made?) The only concrete number-style measurement says "improvement," yet the experience says "this stinks."

There are some things that numbers aren't appropriate to, or that numbers can even do a disservice to. Evaluating your mate's moods might be an example. It's also a simple matter of practical fact that there will always be a lot of situations that, realistically speaking, no one's ever going to get around to modeling mathematically.

(God bless all discoveries in behavioral economics, of course, as well as all improvements in measuring happiness and satisfaction.)

So we can't always -- we can't often -- look to numbers to give us answers. Yet we have to attend to these moments, phenomena, and things. We have to make decisions about many matters without having good numbers to put to them. If we aren't able to assert taste and judgment -- to use brains and instinct -- despite numerical uncertainty, we can find ourselves in an awful position: watching all the lines on all the graphs go up up up and telling ourselves life is getting better, while the quality of our actual experience goes down down down. We can start to doubt our judgement. Gooey and unmeasurable (or unmeasured) though certain matters may be, they can also be far more important in terms of life-is-worth-living units than the strictly-economics questions are; they can have to do with why we're bothering to take part in the economy in the first place.

Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily (here) for linking to Joel Achenbach's WashPost article about economics, here. Achenbach drives around Washington in the company of a couple of economists; the observations, disagreements, and reflections do a good job of suggesting some of the insights economics can deliver, as well as some of the messes it can plunge us into.



posted by Michael at August 25, 2004


The first time I came across such reasoning was in a book by Lewis Mumford, where in criticizing airplane travel he argued that whatever time saved by the travelers could not compensate for the time lost by the multitude down below who got distracted by the noise. According to one biographer, once Mumford got on a plane himself he rather enjoyed the experience. And who knows how many of those earthbound find inspiration in seeing an airplane soar through the sky? More inspiration than that gained from a leaf-blower, at least.

Posted by: James M on August 25, 2004 1:30 PM

Good lord! What a nightmare it'd be if aesthetic types got to be dictators, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 25, 2004 2:18 PM

"If we aren't able to assert taste and judgment -- to use brains and instinct -- despite numerical uncertainty, we can find ourselves in an awful position: watching all the lines on all the graphs go up up up and telling ourselves life is getting better, while the quality of our actual experience goes down down down. "

And really, isn't that why we are dominated by Wal-Mart while main streets are dying in towns? I do make a lot of decisions by the quality of the experience and will pay more to avoid the Wal-Mart, big box parking lot experience. I would rather that my neighbor who runs the local hardware store profits on my purchases than the descendants of Sam Walton in Arkansas. However, I am very, very alone in thinking that way :-).

Posted by: Jim L on August 25, 2004 6:11 PM

I just got back from a trip to Portland, Maine.

What does that have to do with the topic at hand? Just this: the whole town basically lives on aesthetics. Without tourism it would probably go under, or at least be in very bad shape economically. The tourists come, largely, for the look of the place: the old wharves, the cobblestoned streets, the 19th and early 20th century architecture, domestic and commercial. Even the newer buildings pretty much conform to the brick, wrought iron look.

Of course, you can round a street and come face to face with the modern horror. But for the most part, the city fathers (or planners, if that's sexist) have had the sense to recognize that aesthetics is very much a bottom line consideration.

This is true in more and more places in America. I think the days of pure homo-economicus determining how things run have been on the wane for quite some time.

Posted by: ricpic on August 25, 2004 6:41 PM

Jim L -- Well, you and I make two, at least. And, come to think of it, Jim Kunstler makes three. Have you checked out his writing? He's great -- I even rather enjoy the Jeremiah quality he brings to his p-o-v. His books are fab, and he's got a lot of stuff (including a q&a with Jane Jacobs) up on his website here.

Ricpic -- Let's hope! I've got a halfbaked theory that Americans -- for all the way they often do their best to dodge questions of aesthetics and preferences -- really do know what they like, and that you can know what that is by watching where they like to go on vacation, and where they dream of retiring. Charleston, Portland, Santa Barbara, Tuscany ... Visitors to those places are numerous, which (by my lights anyway) means that a lot of people actually know what they love and want, and genuinely have decent taste. (What to make of people who go to all-inclusive "resorts", though?) Which leaves a big question, though: why don't they demand more of these Charleston/Portland/etc qualities from their everyday lives, and from the towns and cities where they actually live? Is it due to the American tendency to put off pleasure?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 26, 2004 10:21 AM

I think Michael B and ricpic are addressing two different subjects:

1) ricpic is pointing to aesthetics in architecture and town planning as something that lies outside of the realm of economics. I think that is oversimplified. Style is something people are willing to pay for. As it happens, Virginia Postrel just wrote a book about this subject.

2) M Blowhard is really talking about noise: how noise sucks, how it detracts from daily living and how as a quality of life measure it is not included in economic statistics. Completely valid point, but I don't see how it's a refutation of economics. Economic statistics don't claim to be a completely accurate predictor of quality of life, just a reasonable approximation.

Posted by: JT on August 26, 2004 3:03 PM

The given situation is not as clear as it seems to be. Having the leaves cleared by a noisy blower rather than a team of rakers may seem to be a net loss with no offset. But before making that judgement we should find out where the savings went. Suppose the park authorities replaced four rakers with one blower and three workers picking up litter? Then the temporary irritation of the blower noise may be offset or even outweighed by the absence of litter.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on August 27, 2004 11:14 PM

JT, Rich -- I should have made my subtextual point more explicit. It's simply that numbers only give us information, they don't make decisions for us. It's still up to us to make those decisions, and no matter how many numbers you've got to play with it's still up to you to aim, and still up to you when when and if to pull the trigger.

In the leafblowing case, there are a couple of problems at least that I can see with trying to let economic-numbers alone make the decisions (even skipping the fact that numbers don't make decisions). One's practical: is anyone ever going to be able to make all the necessary measurements? Even if a situation like the one I described were amenable in a satisfactory way to mathematical modeling (I'm not sure that's the case, but ...), will it ever take place? I suspect not.

The other prob is something a little deeper: how do you assign a number to such factors as "a passerby's irritability level"? You can do so, I suppose, but will anyone be happy with it?

So it seems to me that -- since for a variety of practical and possibly philosophical reasons we're stuck making many if not most decisions in seat-of-the-pants ways -- we need to be wary about letting the numbers and nothing but the numbers dictate too many decisions. After all, are the numbers complete? Are they trustworthy? Is every relevant consideration being taken into account? Can numbers even be fairly assigned to every consideration?

Given that, in most situations in life, all of these questions can fairly be asked but probably won't be, whatever numbers we have should probably be looked at as potentially helpful, but nothing like the complete story.

So what do we turn to to complete the story? Taste and preference certainly ought to play a role. IMHO, anyway.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 28, 2004 11:09 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?