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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Music and Bathtubs



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Tyler Cowen, riffing on Michael Mandel’s suggestion that the main economic problem facing the United States is the “massive write-down of U.S. knowledge capital over the past 10-15 years, combined with anti-innovation policies on the part of the government,” offers an intriguing hypothesis:

I sometimes think of an imaginary economy with two sectors: music and bathtubs.  I believe that my bathtub is over thirty years old, yet for me it works fine and I have no desire to buy a new one.  When it comes to music, most people want to listen to what is new and hot, not Bach’s B Minor Mass. 

This might reflect increasing returns to scale in leisure. Just as weekends solve a coordination problem, listening to popular music makes it more likely that you will find others who share your enthusiasm. 

There is, of course, more to this phenomenon. Consider that there is often more cachet to enjoying relatively obscure music to relatively popular music. Yet this may have changed as the “price” of musical connoisseurship has declined. To find obscure B sides, you once had to scour used record stores. Now, with the advent of digital media, it’s quite a bit easier. But of course this could just ramp up the level of competition, and drive would-be musical connoisseurs to go to greater lengths to discover music truly obscure. 

Then there is Bethany Bryson’s “Anything But Heavy Metal,” on how “tolerant musical taste,” or rather “eclectic” tastes, tend to follow a “specific pattern of exclusiveness.” We signal cultural capital, or rather multicultural capital, through the breadth of our interests, and through the music we avowedly reject. At the time Bryson wrote her essay, heavy metal music was associated with lower-middle-class or working class white folkways, and was thus looked down upon by many upper-middle-class whites, etc. In the years since, inevitably, heavy metal music has gained in cachet, part of the exoticization of white working class life. 

It’s interesting to think through the direction of change. Consider the rise in the amount of leisure U.S. adults have experienced over the last several decades. One reason we feel harried and stressed despite an increase in total leisure time is that there are more competing uses for leisure time in an affluent society.

Our brains hunger for novelty, and our service-driven economy devotes a great deal of brainpower to the manufacture of novelty. This novelty helps shape and structure our identities as we choose our various portfolios of “eclectic” preferences, interests, and affiliations. And so new identity groups and subgroups are arising all the time, and merging, splitting, budding, absorbing each other, etc. This various groups and subgroups cross-pollinate, and they have their own versions of “what is new and hot.” Consider how Kanye West has introduced various  tropes from indie music to an urban audience, thus making what had been drearily familiar conventions feel new to the indie-consuming audience. This is why we collectively pay him the big bucks.

The central importance of learning and consuming in packs is, of course, why we’re so fixated on social media, and in particular on Facebook. One way of thinking about Facebook, in light of the proportion of time spent on the site that is accounted for by men looking at photographs of women they know (and don’t know), is that it serves as a “social” substitute for pornography. I assume this isn’t what Facebook tells its advertisers, but it does help account for the vaunted stickiness of the site. 

Tyler continues:

Furthermore, even within the music sector, acts seem to have declining longevity, in part due to the decline of the iconic album, the rise of the iTunes single, the fall of entry barriers, and the proliferation of genres.  The Rolling Stones are still around, or U2, but more rapid turnover is the trend. 

A while ago I read a good article about how few people on Netflix rent or stream the indie movies from the 1980s or 90s.

I’m fascinated by Netflix’s Recommended for You page, and how it knows, or rather assumes, that I’d be really into watching The Human Centipede. (No thanks.) Judging by the other films I watch and my zip code, however, it’s an excellent guess. Note that there have been minor boomlets for films that become cult films, e.g., The Warriors, a move that was mostly forgotten in the VHS era but that’s experienced a massive revival more recently. 

The more that your economy “looks like” the music sector, the more rapid the rate of depreciation for production capital and knowledge capital.  This means we may be overestimating our national wealth.

It’s worth noting that this has implications beyond our borders. I have a slightly different take: I think that the broader ephemeralization of wealth implies that hard measures of GDP are less and less useful with each passing year, e.g., the fact that our national accounts only capture the value of Google via AdSense revenues, ignoring the consumer surplus created by Google searches. 

So perhaps we’re not overestimating our national wealth after all. It could be that the best way to understand modern economies is as a shared dreamlike trance. Well, that’s probably going too far. But food for thought!



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