Monday, July 7, 2014

Stocks Need Flows Need Stocks Need Flows Need Stocks

Anno Domini 2014 boasts a historically impressive amount of content. Not only does the world have all of the surviving lore of the past, not only do the residents of the world produce new material proportional to the raw adult population, but now more than ever before in the history of the world have the costs of accessing that information dropped so precipitously for so many. Even without the specific ability to read, ordinary humans can watch nature documentaries about exciting new discoveries, new frontiers in science, new ventures, new horizons.

New telenovelas.

A great deal of this immense tsunami of information is, to put it bluntly, rubbish. Much of, if not most of modern entertainment is pablum, sanitized and bland and the prophet of this excess of waste is destined to be remembered as the Greatest Man of the Early 21st Century: Michael Bay. He is the Orson Welles of the naughties. Here we have a director working in the same medium that produced Ikiru and Fitzcarraldo and 2001: A Space Odyssey and what does he do with it? 

Explode everything.

But as face-blasting and mind-numbing Bay is, he is not out setting fire to the last copy of the sheet music to La Bohème. Unless it's in one of his movies. Which might actually be pretty dang self-aware of him if he did. Point is, new material only ever adds to the cultural stock, and unless you, O my careful analyst, are willing to forward the curious proposition that the people responsible for The Jersey Shore would otherwise be toiling over parchment to produce fine Italian opera, there's no fine art/crude art (f-art/c-art) tradeoff to speak of, at least in the aggregate.

But that's in the aggregate. Individuals are not aggregates. As an individual, our entertainment puzzle is to estimate the share of the giant dogpile of history we're individually willing and able to add to our own small stock of cultural knowledge. Shall I treat myself to an operetta this evening or is it more of a dubstep night? Virgil or Palahniuk? Jan de Bray or Jan ҆vankmajer? My choice of flows directly determines my cultural stock. Everyone's choice of flow determines the future cultural stock insofar as producers respond to incentives. Give the public what they want, even if what they want is the easy pickings from the dung heap left over from a few years back.

I'm a bit curious though. Does my choice to consume pop culture junk food impose upon you a negative externality? Do I have a greater propensity to be a boor, a dolt, a jerk, or a misanthrope simply because I like to listen to Front Line Assembly more than I like to listen to Dvorak (most of the time anyway... I'm listening to the New World Symphony as I'm writing this, and the 4th movement of Part 1 just came on. You know the one even if you don't know the title)?

And if there is a negative externality, what's the correct policy prescription? the f-art/c-art dilemma doesn't resolve itself by wishful thinking, so subsidies for f-art are more likely on the margin to result in wasteful failure. And I trust you shudder to think of the tax incidence for going all Pigou on lowbrow art. Poor people are already poor enough without raising the price of the latest EA title. EA is perfectly capable of ripping off their customers without your help, I assure you.

The Helen Lovejoy of it is that kids don't know any better what to put in their media diet. I'm all for the idea of joyous tolerance, that I can just loathe to the depth of my being every single note of hee-haw, yee-haw, them-thar honky-tonk badonkadonk country music that's ever drifted across the airwaves, while exulting in the knowledge that I needn't impose my narrow prejudices on my fellow humans. Dominion is a far worse negative externality than any twang of a hayseed's banjo.

Of course, there's always the Rush problem. Not so sure about that one.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?