Bryan Caplan

Economics and Modernity

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Before I came to GMU, I would have completely agreed with David Friedman's economic take-down of modern culture:
Suppose you are the two hundred and ninetieth city planner in the history of the world. All the good ideas have been used, all the so-so ideas have been used, and you need something new to make your reputation. You design Canberra...

I call it the theory of the rising marginal cost of originality--formed long ago when I spent a summer visiting at ANU.

It explains why, to a first approximation, modern art isn't worth looking at, modern music isn't worth listening to, and modern literature and verse not worth reading. Writing a novel like one of Jane Austen's, or a poem like one by Donne or Kipling, only better, is hard. Easier to deliberately adopt a form that nobody else has used, and so guarantee that nobody else has done it better.

Of course, there might be a reason nobody else has used it.
During my first years at GMU, though, I spent many lunches arguing with Tyler Cowen about the defects of modern culture.  While he never made me love Pollock or Boulez, I eventually realized that Tyler was basically right: Modern culture is awesome. 

Yes, a handful of people create ugliness on purpose, and some "timeless" genres are senile or dead.  However, the market constantly revives old genres and creates new ones.  The top 10% of this creativity is excellent.  (Yes, it's time to plug Dexter and Big Love again).  The total volume is so massive we couldn't consume that top 10% if we tried with all our might.

Those are the facts as I see them.  But how are they possible in theory?  There's something to Friedman's search-theoretic critique of modernity.  It helps explain why genres have a life cycle of creativity followed by decline.  (Don't forget, though, that from consumers' point of view, it's stocks of culture that matter, not flows).  Friedman's problem is that he ignores the countervailing effects of population and wealth.  Lots of creative people serving a big market of rich consumers is a recipe for progress - and that is precisely what see we all around us.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Constant writes:

I think that David Friedman is right that there are limits, but I don't think that the space of possibilities has come anywhere near to being exhausted in any field. So I think he has a theoretically valid point but I don't think it is actually applicable anywhere.

While there surely are highly restricted possibilities in certain respects (David Friedman's example of building plan geometry seems about right), if we look at the history of architecture we can see that throughout history architects have managed endless creativity within those tight restrictions, because there are many other dimensions of design space that can be played with. As an example, buildings throughout history have mostly been rectangular in floorplan, and yet we have age upon age of novel architecture, all remaining within the confines of the rectangular floorplan. David Friedman points out a specific building with a non-rectangular floorplan which is consequently confusing to navigate, but I believe that he is mistaken in blaming this on exhaustion of design space. The rectangular floorplan has been used for millenia. Why didn't architects turn to non-rectangular architecture thousands of years ago and never look back? I believe it is because

a) They recognized that the rectangular floorplan is really good, and

b) They had plenty of other dimensions to play with in coming up with novelty. Just look at the buildings of different ages and cultures. They can hardly be mistaken for each other, all while remaining within the confines of the rectangle.

I think what has happened is not that these other dimensions of design space have suddenly become exhausted, but that the structure of incentives has changed. One possibility is that the users of the building, and those who hired the architect, drifted apart, so that the actual occupants had limited voice. This sort of dynamic could lead to a kind of architecture that displays contempt for the occupants.

Constant writes:

To clarify my above discussion of rectangularity, it references David Friedman's mention of the Coombs building, which has a non-rectangular plan which David Friedman finds disorienting (and I am sure I would too - I was fairly disoriented when I went on a group tour of the Pentagon).

Here is a page showing the Coombs building.

RobertB writes:

I think the defect in the argument is that it assumes that culture-creators from all time periods are working in the same search space, for the same goals. In fact, what we think of as "beautiful" and "original" is constantly changing. In the Middle Ages, most beautiful art was about God in some sense or another. Today, there's much less devotional art. The ground artists are picking over is constantly shifting as society develops.

Troy Camplin writes:

I think general systems theory helps us to understand the evolution of art. One can look at Kuhn's work in the philosophy of science as a potential model. Or the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium. You have periods of relative stability, "normal art" in the same sense of Kuhn's "normal science", followed by revolutionary periods of rapid change. These cycle. Right now things seem to have settled into a "normal art" stage, where everyone is investigating the subtleties of all the forms created during the revolutionary periods of Modernism and Postmodernism (though I suspect history will show the latter to be merely the postscript to Modernism). As all those run out of steam, as changes accumulate to such an extent as to create instability of ideas in the art world, we will enter another revolutionary period. Such things are modeled by catastrophe theory, which is the mathematical model for emergence. The art world itself is a spontaneous order of much greater stability, though. The basic institutions are what they were 150 years ago, for example, though they have undergone subtle changes.

What Friedman doesn't seem to realize is that the first to do something often don't produce good work. Look at the history of T.V. Not very good stuff early on, but now we have some real art out there. Once upon a time, film stars would never go on T.V., as it was a career-killer. Now T.V. is a career-savior. Think of 24 or Two-and-a-Half Men. The same works in the arts. SOmeone may create a visual piece that isn't very good, but a better artist may come along and see the potential in it and use the style to create a masterpiece. The same in literature. I love Faulkner, but he is considered even by the great critics to be a brilliant failure in most of his novels. Toni Morrison came along and perfected much of what Faulkner started. Both rightly received Nobel Prizes.

This is an idea I'm hashing out. My brother, who is a visual artist, and I are planning a full paper on the subject.

Ken Bernsohn writes:

You can't repeal Sturgeon's Law. Back in the late 1950s writer Theodore Sturgeon was asked at a science fiction convention, "Why is so much science fiction so bad?" Ted thought for a while and replied, "Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That's because 90% of everything is crud." Oddly, when Sturgeon's Law is cited, the final word is almost invariably changed to `crap'.
How many bad television shows have you watched? How many bad books have you tossed? How many albums have you decided were crud? How many economists have you read?
You can't repeal Sturgeon's Law

Zubon writes:

Is your post an example or counter-example of what David Friedman was saying? You could have just said, "Sturgeon's Law. Next." But instead you have a wordier version of, "there is still some good stuff in there," although lacking the implication that 90% of the writing in Jane Austen's time was also crap.

And then this comment is a meta-example...

fundamentalist writes:

I would have to have a clearer definition of "culture" to really discuss this. Henderson seems to equate it with art, so I'll follow that lead. Professional writers consider Shakespeare the greatest writer in English of all time. They consider "Don Quixote" the greatest novel of all time. In literature, we haven't improved on the past. I would doubt that many musicians would consider themselves the equal of Mozart and Beethoven.

Of course, all of that depends upon what you consider good art. If creativity is your only variable by which to judge art, and by creative you mean novel, then I would have to agree with Caplan that our generation is very creative. On the other hand, if by creative you mean that the artist has mastered technique and employed it in such a way as to provide deep insight into human nature as well as touch us emotionally, then I think modern culture fall far short of the classics.

Modern culture is best at shocking people. But a loud fart in a crowded room will do the same.

John Markley writes:

Friedman seems to be treating all artistic developments as if they were all equally available at once, which would lead to all the best ideas being reached first. But artistic development is a cumulative process. At the dawn of humanity, the total number of possible artistic innovations was higher than it ever would be again- but most of them were in practice inaccessible because their more basic component ideas did not exist.

For instance, if no one has yet come up with the idea of hollowing out a bone and blowing into it to make pleasant sounds, you could be the person to invent instrumental music. But you will never compose a great symphony, even if you have the technological and economic base needed, because going from no idea of musical instruments to the idea of one guy tooting on a hollowed-out bone to eighty guys playing a variety of specialized instruments together requires a whole series of incremental steps and developments that couldn't possibly be done by one man or even one generation. You won't even be the best hollow bone player or composer, because future generations will have time to refine and add to things that you learned from scratch.

So it's not necessarily the case that being the first to invent an idea leaves fewer or worse ideas for those who come along later. To reach the heights, you need some giants whose shoulders you can stand on. I think the state of high culture today has more to do with ideological factors- the idea that the great artist must be at odds with the rest of society, which leads to some people making a fetish out of boring, baffling, or repulsing the average person- than with the good ideas themselves being exhausted.

Troy Camplin writes:

Markley is right -- and he pretty much just restated my contention that art is a spontaneous order.

Scoop writes:

Cowen's argument is correct in fields where work accumulates, fields like literature. We don't need more people writing like Austen because we can read her books.

Friedman's argument does better in areas where use is exclusive to certain people. Great cities, like Paris, can only be enjoyed by people who live in them, so the logical thing to do would be to copy the best cities so more people could live in such conditions. But architects see themselves as artists who must be original rather than craftsmen who must produce excellent variants on established designs, so they produce original but lesser works.

It's probably an exaggeration to say that all the good ideas have been taken, but discovering a new good idea is very, very hard, so most architects fail on most buildings. Society would be better off if they simply copied good ideas from others.

Here, too, Paris is an example. Most of the buildings across the city are basically the same building. Every structure need not be different.

If you, Bryan, or Tyler thinks we're building cities better today than we did in the 18th century (excepting things like running water and AC) you're nuts.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I presume you have read the famous book "Decline Of The West" by Oswald Spengler, written a hundred years ago. It practically proves that all cultures proceed as an arc, with a wildly creative early phase that matures and eventually stagnates into derivative artforms.

Spengler says that cultures are built on a world-view, which provides for the dimensions, and the limits, of cultural exploitation. As a simple example (Spengler offers a multitude), the Greeks understood numbers but not zero, so eventually their math artforms stagnated when it could not circumvent this limit. The Greek mind was simply not capable of understanding zero.

The Western mind splits the subjective and objective experience. It is hard for westerners to understand eastern-style "zen enlightenment". Our world-view has several such limitations. That our culture is reaching its limits is obvious from our derivative music, derivative art, derivative architecture, etc.

Troy Camplin writes:

I think Spengler is right, but only partially so. I think cultures cycle. Again, systems theory shows how this happens. Look at the arts. You have in Europe a Medieval style of art that dominates. There is a decline in that work. Then you have a revolutionary Renaissance, where there is a proliferation of new forms. In the wake of the Renaissance, you have people working within the styles developed in the Renaissance. When this runs out of steam, you get Modernism. We are now in the phase of working within the styles developed in Modernism. This has been noticed previously, and given 4 stages: primitive, classic, baroque, and decadent. J.M.W. Turner, for example, could be seen, in his last years, as a primitive Modernist. Or at least, a primitive Impressionist. Perhaps one could see Impressionism as primitive Modernism, preparing the groundwork, as it did, for High Modernism. Is, then, "Postmodernism" baroque, and the stage we are in the decadent period? Or are we jumping the gun on the latter one? If we are in the stable, baroque, period, we still have a way to go to get to the decline, decadence. But only if we reach decadence will we get to another Renaissance.

Bob Hawkins writes:

Octavio Paz said "What separates modern art from all previous art is criticism."

Maybe the problem is that positive feedback loop. When we get novels enirely devoted to character with no plot, or paintings consisting entirely of shades of the same color, it's plausible that the system is being driven to a limit by positive feedback.

Alex Harris writes:

What about the Long Tail?

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