Around the horn: bye bye New Haven edition

  • Long overdue, but Atul Gawande’s incredible article on the economics of health-care costs and the dark side of competition offers many lessons for the current debate in Congress and, indeed, for policy in general.
  • The artists = crazy people thing just won’t go away. (Though, as Holden Caulfield might say, maybe it’s everyone else that’s crazy?)
  • Could more newspapers soon be moving to a nonprofit model? The Nonprofit Law Prof Blog is all over the story. Apparently the New York Times is giving it serious thought, and Senator Ben Cardin has introduced a bill that would make it easier for print publications to convert to nonprofit entities.
  • Could senior discounts be on the way out? Daniel Hamermesh (a senior himself) suggests the justifications for such discounts are largely spurious and predicts they’ll start disappearing once the recession’s over.
  • Venture capital for musicians? It’s here.
  • In case you’re wondering how the NEA got to be where it is, this Times article should get you up to speed.
  • Thinking about saving some cash by laying off staff and replacing them with unpaid interns? It might just get you into a bit of trouble with the law. In fact, according to wetfeet.com, most unpaid internships “are probably not legal.”
  • Jim Undercofler, former chief of the Philadelphia Orchestra and board President of the American Music Center (where I used to work) has taken a professorship in Drexel University’s arts administration program.
  • The Cultural Data Project is one of the case studies included in this new Hewlett report on breakthroughs in shared measurement. (pdf)
  • Sean Stannard-Stockton vividly describes the growing potential of social media in Knowledge Sharing and Ambient Intimacy.
  • So umm, this seems kind of significant: Hamas Shifts from Rockets to Culture War (h/t Culturebot)
  • RIP Merce Cunningham.
  • Want your community to be included in the next Americans for the Arts economic impact study? Here’s the info you need.
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Gifts of the Muse: the Cliffs Notes version

I’m realizing that, by making my Gifts of the Muse write-up so long, I might have gotten a bit in the way of the Arts Policy Library concept. (They won’t all be like that, I promise!) So, out of deference to those of you who didn’t make it all the way though and perhaps never will, here’s the Cliffs Notes version:

  • The main purpose of Gifts of the Muse is to articulate the (real) benefits of the arts to society.
  • The authors make a distinction between instrumental benefits (the arts as a means for accomplishing some other end) and intrinsic benefits (art for its own sake).
  • By and large, the authors claim the case for instrumental benefits (i.e., positive cognitive, attitudinal, behavioral, health, community, and economic outcomes) is shaky, weakened by poor methodology and basic flaws in approach common to many studies.
  • Nevertheless, the few strong studies cited tend to show positive instrumental impacts for the arts, especially in the areas of cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral benefits. Hands-on training seems to be more effective in producing these benefits than other kinds of arts involvement for youth.
  • Problems common to the instrumental literature in general include a failure to consider alternative approaches or investments that could produce the same (or better) result, and DiMaggio’s three fallacies: the fallacy of treatment (not all arts activities are the same); the fallacy of homogeneity (different people will have different reactions to the same treatment); and the fallacy of the linearity of effects (patterns are not always that simple). Furthermore, the cultural economics literature often fails to consider substitution effects – the idea that people would spend their money on something else if not for the arts.
  • While not discounting the possibility that instrumental benefits are real, the authors advocate for more of an emphasis on intrinsic benefits, which they describe as the pleasure, captivation, and individual growth that participants experience from art, as well as the social bonds created from enjoying it with other people. They also point out that these intrinsic benefits provide the motivation for people to participate in the arts in the first place, and thus make the instrumental benefits possible.
  • Gifts of the Muse concludes that more investment is needed in cultivating demand for the arts (as opposed to the supply), since people need gateway experiences at a young age to reap their benefits.
  • While the public reception of Gifts has focused predominantly on the schism between instrumental and intrinsic benefits, the authors see them as part of an integrated whole. They argue for more and better research on both sides.
  • Two key benefits of the arts are not mentioned: their role in creating a space in society where creativity and innovation is valued for its own sake and not a means to an end; and their role in cultivating an aesthetic dialogue between artists in the same and across generations.
  • I question whether the intrinsic benefits are actually that different from instrumental benefits. Just as the instrumental benefits can be generated through other means, I argue, so can almost all of the intrinsic benefits.
  • Since almost all of the benefits of the arts can be created through other means, then, I wonder if the point isn’t actually that the arts create benefits for certain people that can’t come from anywhere else. In other words, maybe we should stop trying to universalize the impacts of the arts and instead recognize that they will always matter to some people much more than others.
    • If that’s the case, then focusing on cultivating demand might not be the answer. Everybody should have the opportunity to participate in the arts if they want to, but if they don’t want to, that’s okay too.
  • The policy justification for subsidizing the arts, then, has to do with (a) making it possible for people to experience the arts (including artists) who otherwise could not afford to do so; and (b) promoting arts for their instrumental benefits as part of an integrated strategy that also includes other interventions.
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Arts Policy Library: Gifts of the Muse

(For a much briefer summary of this very long article, see this post here.)

For this first official installment of the Arts Policy Library, I wanted to start at the beginning. Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts was the first research study to be mentioned on Createquity, way back in the fifth-ever post published on this blog. The book’s concise, 104-page length belies grand ambitions: between the covers, the authors, Kevin F. McCarthy, Elizabeth H. Ondaatje, Laura Zakaras, and Arthur Brooks, attempt to catalog all of the public and private benefits that have been claimed for the arts, evaluate the strength of each claim, and tie it all together into a grand unifying theory.

The exhaustive literature review that went into Gifts of the Muse represents an invaluable service to the arts, even if, as the authors acknowledge, depth was sacrificed at times for breadth. With their eyes no doubt glazing over from consulting hundreds of sources in fields as diverse as cognitive psychology, linguistics, neurobiology, sociology, community development, public health, urban anthropology, political science, cultural economics, aesthetics, philosophy, and art criticism, the authors conclude that the evidence for so-called “instrumental” benefits is plagued with methodological weaknesses, and that a renewed focus on intrinsic benefits (also known as “art for art’s sake”) is in order for policymaking and advocacy purposes. But wait, there’s more! Not satisfied with simply analyzing the benefits of the arts, the authors attempt to devise a comprehensive theory for how individuals and communities access those benefits, and use this theory as the basis for several overall policy recommendations, the most significant of which involves a shift from a supply-side model for the arts toward the cultivation of more demand, specifically by investing in arts education.

Summary

That the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental benefits of the arts seems so commonplace now is perhaps a testament to Gifts of the Muse’s impact. McCarthy et al. peg the rise in prevalence of instrumental arguments (that the arts are a method of producing non-arts-related positive outcomes) to the culture wars of the early 1990s, when public subsidy for the arts in America was very much under attack. The problem with using instrumental arguments to advocate for the arts exclusively, the authors argue, is that they ultimately privilege other policy objectives like economic development, public health, etc., leaving the arts vulnerable to evidence showing that other interventions are more effective at creating said benefits. While recognizing that the arts’ instrumental benefits may well be real and are not unimportant, the authors develop and advocate an integrated model combining instrumental benefits with so-called “intrinsic” benefits—i.e., ways in which the arts are the point, not a means to an end. In the model, each category is shown on a continuum from public to private, exploding the traditional association of intrinsic benefits with private individuals and instrumental benefits with the public at large. In so doing, the authors introduce the rather novel concept of public intrinsic benefits – in other words, benefits to arts participation that manifest themselves on a public level but are specific to art.

Most of the public discussion since Gifts’s release has focused on its call to the arts’ roots in intrinsic benefits, the basic pleasure they afford to large swaths of participants. But this only represents one aspect of what Gifts tries to do. Specifically, the authors:

  • Review the empirical research literature on instrumental benefits, assessing the strength of the evidence in each area
  • Fill in some of the theoretical gaps present in the instrumental benefits literature
  • Outline a theoretical basis for intrinsic benefits, and map out what the specific benefits should be
  • Develop a theory for how arts participation happens, and why, and for whom
  • Make policy recommendations based on all of these considerations put together

Needless to say, such a broad mandate does not lend itself to easy summary, which is one reason why this is (and probably will remain) the longest Createquity post ever. Just like life, Gifts seems to imply, research can be messy.

*

The meat of the report begins with a comprehensive taxonomy of the instrumental benefits that have been claimed for the arts, along with an analysis of the accompanying literature. Notably, the authors did not evaluate studies individually, instead synthesizing pre-existing literature reviews to build their case. Here is what they found in a range of areas:

Cognitive benefits (increased academic performance, test scores; improved reading/math skills, ability to learn)
The cognitive benefits literature is plagued by methodological weaknesses, particularly confusion between correlation and causation. A meta-analysis by Winner and Hetland (2000) found that only 32 of the 1135 studies they reviewed met their criteria for quasi-experimental designs (i.e., focusing on all arts rather than one discipline, using non-arts academic achievement as outcome variable, and including a control group), causing them to conclude that the overall evidence for cognitive benefits is weak. However, a few high-quality studies have shown strong positive effects for arts participation. For example, the work of Catterall (1998, 1999) demonstrated that not only did the cognitive benefits hold true within and between socioeconomic groups, but that the benefits increased as students in lower socioeconomic groups gained more arts exposure. Heath (1999) found similar effects on lower socioeconomic groups participating in community-based arts programs. The authors of Gifts of the Muse note that the much-ballyhooed “Mozart effect” (the benefit to spatial reasoning as a result of musical training) is real, but that the magnitude is small, the impact short-lived, and its importance questionable.

Attitudinal and behavioral benefits (increased self-discipline, self-efficacy, school attendance, perserverance; better understanding of behavioral consequences, working in teams; development of pro-social behaviors among at-risk youth)
Attitudinal and behavioral benefits are often conflated with cognitive benefits and studied together. Most of this literature focuses on youth, particularly at-risk youth. Many studies, including Heath (1999), found that hands-on participation is important in creating the benefits described. As with the literature on cognitive benefits, the studies tend to suffer from methodological limitations; even when a control group is used, the study is often limited to subjects in particular treatment program, meaning that the results are not necessarily generalizable to other populations or contexts.

Health benefits (improved mental and physical health among elderly, premature babies, and mentally and physically handicapped, and patients with dementia, Parkinson’s, acute pain, depression; reduced stress and improved performance for caregivers; reduced anxiety for patients facing surgery or childbirth)
The literature on health benefits of the arts is not well-developed. The strongest studies show a benefit to Alzheimer’s patients in delaying the onset and reducing the risk of dementia. Research on the other effects is generally weak, suffering from poor design or relying heavily on subjective information (for example, subjects’ self-reports).

Community benefits (increased interactions between community members, social capital, organizational capacity and infrastructure, civic engagement)
Most of the empirical study of community benefits has focused on informal/amateur arts. There is very little literature on audience participation or arts appreciation. Most approaches take the form of case studies, typically examining one form of participation and one type of benefit, rather than a comprehensive test of community asset-building. The authors note that the work of developing new concepts and methods for assessing how arts impact quality of life in communities is “in its infancy” but could yield “promising” results. The lack of longitudinal data is a big issue for this field, as is the task of isolating the impact of the arts from other social factors. These limitations make drawing substantive conclusions difficult.

Economic benefits (direct impacts: employment, tax revenue, spending; indirect impacts: the ability to draw high-value firms and workers to an area; public good benefits: increased quality of life)
According to the authors, the literature on the economic impact of arts is much more developed and boasts a longer history than that for the other instrumental benefits. The so-called “public good” economic benefits identified by McCarthy et al. include the “existence value” of arts availability, the “option value” of the ability to participate in them, and the “bequest value” of the opportunity to pass along the arts to next generation. Economic impacts on real estate prices would be included under the “option value” heading. Hedonic analysis and contingent valuation (asking people “how much would you pay for this?”) are two of the major research methods used. Despite its long history and established theory, cultural economic literature often receives criticism for the following reasons:

  1. The economic impacts are inherently difficult to measure, especially for public good and indirect benefits.
  2. Studies are usually conducted in urban environments, which may lead to bias/overstating effects by overemphasizing the role of tourists.
  3. Most studies do not consider substitution effects, or whether the money that is spent on the arts would have been spent on something else had not the arts been an option.

Of these three, the issue of substitution effects appears to be the most significant, one that the cultural economics literature as a whole doesn’t yet seem to have addressed convincingly.

*

Reviewing the literature on instrumental benefits in the aggregate, the authors notice a few patterns. First of all, a number of weaknesses in methodology plague the field, with the result that really good, useful studies are few and far between. The correlation vs. causation issue is a particularly problematic one for many efforts. In addition, many studies are so empirically focused that they fail to articulate a clear and specific justification for how and why the supposed benefits are taking place. Finally, almost all fail to take into account opportunity costs, or the extent to which the money, time, and effort put into arts activities could have produced similar or better results had they been channeled in a different direction.

It’s important to reiterate that a lack of strong methodology is not the same thing as an absence of impact. It is quite possible that these effects really do exist, and that the research has simply not, to date, done a very good job of demonstrating it. Furthermore, when it comes to cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral effects, several strong studies have indeed shown such benefits for the arts, indicating that the case seems to have some weight. The authors note that when important positive effects have been demonstrated, they have tended to come with long-term, sustained involvement in the arts, rather than a single experience or sporadic participation.

Nevertheless, it is clear from the authors’ investigation that the overall field approach could use some re-examining. They make particular note of three meta-criticisms made by Paul DiMaggio, who dubs them “fallacies”:

  • The fallacy of treatment (not all forms of arts participation produce the same effects)
  • The fallacy of homogeneity (the same treatment may have different effects on different individuals)
  • The fallacy of the linearity of effects (more treatment doesn’t always result in more impact)

*

Gifts of the Muse seeks to add to this literature in several ways. First, noting that much of the empirical investigation of instrumental benefits does not tie findings to any kind of underlying theory of why the effects are there, the authors try to fill in the blanks based on theoretical scholarship in a variety of fields. In doing so, they try their best to avoid DiMaggio’s three fallacies, though not with total success (as I’ll discuss in the following section). The first strategy is to distinguish various types of arts intervention, especially among youth, from each other. (The authors note that there is virtually no research on the cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral benefits of the arts for adults.) McCarthy et al. categorize arts education programming into four types, with the following benefits theorized for each:

  • An arts-rich school environment (improved attitudes toward arts and school, new role models/mentors, growth in self-confidence, self-efficacy)
  • The arts as a pedagogical tool for learning (address diverse learning styles)
  • Art as a means of teaching non-arts subjects (better understanding of history and social studies at high school level for students who have already studied the arts)
  • Direct instruction in the arts
    • Arts appreciation (almost no research literature on benefits)
    • Creation of art (cumulative and integrative nature promotes and develops diverse skill set, helps students “learn how to learn” through enhancing self-awareness and monitoring capacity, develops project management skills enhancing self-efficacy)

The authors next examine the theory behind the public instrumental benefits to communities and economies. They divide community activity into three categories: creating art, appreciating art, and “supporting” art. The last category is a kind of catch-all for volunteering, donating, and leadership through board service. Participation via professional engagement in the arts (as staff or consultants) is not addressed. The authors theorize that the community benefits from creating art involve building a sense of community identity and trust through the creation of social bonds between participating members. Of course, art is not the only means of producing these benefits, but McCarthy et al. surmise that perhaps the communicative nature of the arts and the personal nature of creative expression may make joint arts activities particularly conducive to building social capital. This joint creative expression can be an effective means of promoting, preserving and communicating cultural heritage, a feature that other group activities cannot as easily reproduce. The benefits of appreciating art mostly arise from social bonds among subscribers and regulars created through same-group participation. The benefits from supporting art are seen by the authors to be much more substantial, involving specific competencies developed in volunteers and board members from running arts organizations and activities, and the collective efficacy made possible by bringing different groups together and forming connections between them. McCarthy et al. go so far as to claim that this last activity can lead to greater capacity for collective action and, eventually community revitalization. Notably, very few of the benefits described here are in any way specific to the arts; one could just as easily improve collective efficacy by bringing together other community constituencies for other kinds of shared activities.

Since the theoretical literature on cultural economics is already well-developed, the authors mostly stick to the benefits described in the empirical literature above, limiting their unique contribution to the development of a couple of models attempting to explain how the benefits happen. They do note that attendance at live performances and museums will have more of a direct economic impact than participation in community groups, simply because of the magnitude of the transactions involved. They also claim that the economic multiplier associated with the direct benefits of the arts is “essentially the same” across different industries, though I can’t determine the basis for this statement.

This theoretical investigation indeed shows that not all arts programming efforts are equal. The strongest effects on young people are likely to come from direct, hands-on, sustained involvement in the arts, a notion backed up by both theoretical and empirical literature. Of the claimed cognitive benefits, the authors think that the case is strongest for enhancement of meta-learning skills, rather than specific non-arts subjects such as math. Furthermore, most arts involvement has a social dimension, and therefore possesses the potential for social capital creation. The economic activity associated with the arts certainly counts for as much as economic activity in any other field, but only programming that involves significant tourism and paid transactions will lead to substantial direct additions to the local economy.

*

Finished with instrumental benefits, Gifts of the Muse next dives into an extended discourse on the so-called “intrinsic” benefits of the arts, categorizing them as follows:

  • Captivation (rapture, an intense and all-consuming experience)
  • Pleasure (aesthetic satisfaction)
  • Expanded capacity for empathy (increased receptivity to unfamiliar people, cultures, etc.)
  • Cognitive growth (learning that problems can have more than one solution, that there are many different ways to see and interpret the world, and that neither words nor numbers can exhaust what we know, among other lessons)
  • Creation of social bonds (the increase in intrinsic enjoyment of the art that can come from sharing it with other people; common language, shared experience)
  • Expression of communal meaning (defining and/or communicating collective identity)

This work is highly theoretical, drawn from fields such as aesthetics and philosophy; very little empirical literature on intrinsic arts benefits exists. The authors developed their own theory for how intrinsic benefits work, shown below:

Importantly, the authors focus on arts experiences instead of works of art as the key unit of analysis. What makes for great arts experiences, they ask? The answer is emotional and mental engagement – the fuller, the more intense, the better. Put simply, they argue, no one actually participates in the arts for the instrumental benefits. People don’t say to each other, “you know, I want to contribute to my community’s capacity for collective action – maybe I’ll join a chorus!” People sing and dance and draw and act and write and read and volunteer and support and attend because art is awesome, on its own merits, on its own terms. More specifically, they participate because they get pleasure out of it – a pleasure that they can’t get anywhere else. All of these other things, the instrumental benefits, are great, but they wouldn’t be possible without the intrinsic benefits providing the motivation for people to participate in the first place.

*

At this point we’ve covered both instrumental and intrinsic benefits of arts activity, looking at empirical and theoretical justifications for each. But how do people access these benefits? Why do they become involved with the arts in the first place? The next chapter of Gifts of the Muse explores these questions in depth.

The authors identify three stages of arts participation: gateway experiences that usually take place at a young age; occasional participation, involving an individual decision on whether or not to participate each time; and frequent participation, denoting the point at which the question shifts from whether to participate to how and when to participate.

Gateway experiences often come so young that they are not the choice of the experiencer. Perhaps they are participating in a mandatory arts education program at school, or their parents have arranged for them to take lessons on an instrument or take them to the art museum, or an important teacher or other mentor introduces them to the arts. If not given access to these experiences, a young person might first come into contact with the arts through pop music or films taken in with friends. Though it’s certainly possible for adults to become involved at a later age, it’s not a common phenomenon. The authors assert that the quality of the first arts experience is an important determinant of whether there will be another. It follows that almost all frequent participants in the arts will have had at least one truly compelling arts experience fairly early on, a hypothesis that fits with my own experiences and observations.

Given the theoretical and empirical emphasis on sustained involvement in the arts as a prerequisite for accessing the most important benefits, the authors spend some energy identifying what turns people from occasional into frequent participants. They define a continuum of aesthetic engagement ranging from boredom to relaxed entertainment to involvement to full engagement. The more engaged people are, the more likely they are to participate again, theorize the authors. McCarthy et al. also point out that the level of challenge must be appropriate to the level of competence that the individual brings to the task (whether it’s making art or appreciating it) in order to promote maximum engagement.

*

To conclude, McCarthy et al. indulge themselves in some policy recommendations based on what they found in the literature reviews and their theoretical exercises. The recommendations are as follows:

  • Develop a language for discussing intrinsic benefits. The authors argue that given their importance, intrinsic benefits should not be left out of policy and advocacy discussions. Because they’re hard to measure, arts advocates will need to develop a qualitative, yet convincing way of communicating their worth.
  • Address the limitations of the research on instrumental benefits. By this, they mean addressing the methodological weaknesses described in previous sections, as well as addressing DiMaggio’s three fallacies. The authors also advocate for further research into the nature of intrinsic benefits; as they note, “DiMaggio (1996) has demonstrated that empirical analysis can be conducted” on them.
  • Promote early exposure to the arts. The specific suggestions include providing well-designed programs in the nation’s schools, avoiding “one-shot” experiences in favor of long-term, meaningful projects; supporting community-based arts organizations; and tapping into young people’s experiences with commercial arts (music, films, TV) as entry point for more formal arts education.
  • Create circumstances for rewarding arts experiences. By building individual competence in the arts, developing individuals’ ties to arts organizations, and offering educational seminars to help people appreciate more challenging repertoire, the authors argue, arts advocates will grease the wheels for more productive and meaningful arts experiences.

In making these recommendations, McCarthy et al. hold that instrumental arguments are unduly focused on the supply of arts, meaning that they are primarily used as advocacy tools to scare up more money for nonprofit arts organizations. By contrast, what’s needed most from a policy perspective is a strategy to cultivate demand – because the ultimate goal, as they see it, is “to bring as many people as possible into engagement with their culture through meaningful experiences of the arts.” To do so, arts policymakers should “acknowledge the role of the commercial and community-based sectors in making the arts accessible to the public,” as well as invest heavily in arts education.

Analysis

Just as Gifts of the Muse’s contribution to the literature cannot be easily summed up in a paragraph or two, neither can my reaction to it. I will say that the document clearly represents a huge investment of energy, an extraordinarily ambitious project carried out with seriousness and professionalism. The review of the empirical literature is extremely valuable for helping everyone get on the same page regarding the benefits of the arts, and the theoretical frameworks by and large represent sound contributions to the conversation. The semantic distinction between intrinsic and instrumental benefits is useful, though given the way the report’s reception has played out, at risk of being overblown (the authors themselves admit that “not much is gained by separating the discussion of instrumental effects from that of intrinsic effects—the two are intimately linked”).

I’m most grateful to the report for hammering home several really important and not-at-all obvious points. First, the authors draw much attention to the fact that many of the positive individual and social impacts described for the arts can be replicated through other means. A community interest group can build social capital much the way that a chorus can; a sports stadium or new transportation hub can generate economic benefits too; we can teach kids to learn math better by having them spend more time on, um, math. Second, they point out DiMaggio’s three fallacies and explain how they apply to most of the existing research literature out there. The DiMaggio fallacies—particularly the fallacy of homogeneity, in my opinion—represent devastating critiques of applied social science research in all fields, not just in the arts. Finally, Gifts of the Muse wisely chooses to focus on arts experiences, rather than the art itself, as the defining unit for the discussion. In doing so, it implicitly acknowledges that the same work of art or the same art activity can have vastly differing impacts on different individuals. And it very correctly, in my view, hones in on extraordinary, fully engaging arts experiences as both the prerequisite and primary motivator for continuing arts participation.

With regard to the discussion of the arts’ instrumental benefits, I found little to complain about. In part this is because I don’t have much personal familiarity with the literature on the cognitive, attitudinal, behavioral and health benefits of the arts. In the social and economic realms, where I find myself on firmer footing, I considered the analysis basically on target, if a bit superficial in spots. For example, I was disappointed that creative class theory is barely mentioned by the authors, despite Richard Florida’s high profile at the time and the fact that their model for “indirect economic effects” is basically a mangled version of his argument.

Furthermore, the authors’ discussion of community revitalization through the arts and their bibliography reveal only a cursory familiarity with the work of Mark Stern and Susan Seifert at Social Impact of the Arts Project in Philadelphia. Both areas have seen a lot of exciting work undertaken since Gifts of the Muse was published five years ago, and the authors certainly can’t be faulted for not including it in their analysis; nevertheless, as a result, the sections on social and economic benefits now read as a bit dated.

Moreover, at least one knowledgeable observer finds fault with the treatment of cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral benefits as well. Professor James Catterall, whose work is mentioned favorably several times in this section, wrote in a comment to a thread on ArtsJournal in 2005 that:

…the chapter on extrinsic benefits is held up as a literature review; it is clearly accepted as such, judging by the words of the invited panelists [in the ArtsJournal discussion]. However, it’s not. Only four specific studies are cited and actually discussed in the review of research on extrinsic benefits; and these four studies, the authors state, in fact reach valid positive conclusions about important extrinsic benefits. The arguments critical of research on instrumental benefits are not based, as reported, on the reviewing of research studies by the authors; they are drawn entirely from a study of studies by Project REAP (2001). REAP remains highly controversial; this is because every one of the academic effects reported in their good research syntheses was positive. This is curious – how could RAND get this wrong? I think they got it wrong by reading and quoting only REAP’s Executive Summary – not through an independent review of the underlying studies. Any conclusion that REAP found no instrumental effects of the arts simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

(Emphasis mine.) Catterall is correct about the dearth of actual studies cited in the text of the document, though reams of them are mentioned in the bibliography. Regardless of the validity of Catterall’s criticism, clearly the takeaway from Gifts of the Muse should not be that instrumental benefits don’t exist, or that they’re not important. Rather, the authors seem to want to play up the role of intrinsic benefits and qualitative arguments, which they feel have been neglected.

Once the authors get away from reviewing the work of others, however, their ventures into theoretical models begin to suffer from some fallacies of their own. For example, most of the discussion on participation seems largely rooted in an artificial supply vs. demand dichotomy from an earlier era (though creation of art is nominally included as a kind of participation). Generally speaking, the focus is on children and youth as makers of art and adults as appreciators of art. Yet the concluding recommendations on developing capacity for appreciation among adults make little sense in light of the authors’ own observation that hands-on experience is the most effective means of engagement for young people, and the almost total lack of research study on the benefits of arts appreciation. If sustained, hands-on participation is most effective for children, why would the authors assume the story is any different for adults?

Perhaps it’s because very little attention is paid to the benefits of arts participation to the artist, and almost none to professional artists. Furthermore, at no point do the authors acknowledge the sweeping societal and technological changes that have given rise to the Pro-Am artist, that peculiar breed of creator who works at a professional level but makes his or her living elsewhere. The extent to which artist and audience are more and more becoming the same people in different contexts is not discussed in Gifts of the Muse at all.

But these are still relatively minor points. The one major gaffe I found in Gifts has to do with a central premise: that the intrinsic benefits the authors identify are distinguished from instrumental benefits by virtue of their uniqueness to the arts. McCarthy et al. state that the intrinsic benefits are “inherent in the arts experience” and include “a distinctive type of pleasure and emotional stimulation.” The inference, it seems, is that the reason people participate in the arts in the first place (and the reason, therefore, to subsidize them) is because they can’t get these kinds of benefits anywhere else. Or at least that is the position implied by the authors’ withering criticism of the instrumental benefits literature for not considering the opportunity costs of supporting the arts to achieve broader policy goals.

In the course of their discussion of the intrinsic benefits, though, the authors let slip an interesting quote from one of the few sources directly cited in the chapter. It’s buried in a footnote on page 46, so the casual reader could be forgiven for missing it. But it casts a profound shadow over the entire discussion of intrinsic benefits. The footnote is drawn from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and the Discovery of Psychology and Invention, and is as follows:

When people are working creatively in the areas of their expertise, whether arts or nuclear physics, their various everyday frustrations and anxieties are replaced by a sense of bliss. That joy comes from what they describe as “designing or discovering something new” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p. 108)

So nuclear physics counts too, eh? Indeed, elsewhere on the page, McCarthy et al. write “[Csikszentmihalyi]’s study of creativity is based on interviews with 91 exceptionally creative people from the arts, sciences, business, and government, [and] argues that we have underrated the role of pleasure in creativity of all kinds. His subjects all talk about the joy and excitement of the act of creation itself. But that enjoyment comes with the achievement of excellence in a certain activity rather than from the direct pursuit of pleasure.

Huh. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that that sounds an awful lot like an instrumental argument for pleasure. As in, I get pleasure from the arts because I’m good at them, not because there’s anything so special about the arts. (There might be something special about the arts for me, but not in their capacity to be a source of this kind of pleasure generally.) Indeed, a closer look at the supposed intrinsic benefits for the arts reveals a similar pattern: almost all of them can be generated by lots of things besides just the arts. Captivation? If I’m running a race or performing delicate surgery, am I not equally captivated while doing so? Expanded capacity for empathy: does this not happen to me when I volunteer at a homeless shelter? Cognitive growth: could I not see many of the same effects from taking a class in computer programming or statistical analysis? Creation of social bonds: you’re telling me that playing on an amateur sports team, following World Cup soccer, going to Star Trek conventions don’t all do the exact same things? Expression of communal meaning: well, what the hell do you call religious services?

The entire chapter on participation patterns—everything from gateway experiences to frequent participation—could have written about any of a million hobbies and Pro-Am activities, from gardening to stamp collecting to astronomy to cooking and beyond. But curiously, the one “intrinsic” benefit that truly is unique to the arts—the creation of a space in society for experimentation and imagination for its own sake—is never mentioned. Nor is the capacity for communication between artists, either in the same generation or across generations, which allows them to cultivate a common language and heritage of aesthetic expression that is specifically about art itself.

Implications

I think all of this suggests a somewhat different lesson than the authors of Gifts of the Muse take from their literature review. Perhaps the salient point is not whether or not the arts produce benefits—of any kind—that are absolutely unique among all the various things that humans could be doing with their time or money. Perhaps the point is that, while running in a race can engender the same kind of personal pleasure, captivation, etc. as making art can, running in a race will engender nothing of the sort for me, Ian David Moss, because I suck at running. Or that while arts education on average produces small effects and/or statistically insignificant impacts on the grades of large populations of students, it might actually save one student’s life. Should we cast out such huge impacts on specific people because they’re statistical outliers?

In a way, the authors have, despite their best efforts to the contrary, fallen prey to DiMaggio’s second fallacy—the fallacy of homogeneity. For while they talk at length about how arts experiences will have different impacts for different classes of individuals – those who have been exposed to it early in their lifetimes, for example, or those who are already frequent versus infrequent participants – there’s never a real acknowledgement that even very similar people in similar contexts can have very different arts experiences. I love classical music more than most, but I don’t think I’ll ever find Handel especially compelling. I remember having brutal arguments with my composer friends back in school over the quality of the piece we had just heard in concert. The fact is, the arts are one giant sea of different strokes for different folks—and if that’s the case, then why assume that there’s anything universal about the arts as a whole?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe the arts aren’t for everybody—and maybe that’s okay. We should be glad that they produce all of these various benefits for some people, especially those who might have a hard time getting those benefits elsewhere, and equally happy that there are many opportunities for individuals who don’t connect to the arts to express their creativity and strive for excellence and seek to understand the world around them in other contexts. And maybe the policy justification for supporting the arts on a participation basis is simply this: everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to participate in the arts , which means that people who can’t afford to do so themselves should be given the assistance they need—including, I suppose, the artists. Similarly, people who want to participate in sports, hobbies, etc. should be given that opportunity as well. But I don’t necessarily agree that the goal should be “to bring as many people as possible into engagement with their culture through meaningful experiences of the arts.” I don’t see how that represents success, unless that’s what those people want for themselves.

Further reading:

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More on economics and value

I’d planned to do this with my post on beating the recession, but since no one seems to be interested in that topic (who knew?), I’m instead going to post some comments from my thread from earlier this month on economics and the true meaning of “value.” In my original post, I asked:

This, however, leaves unanswered the question of what we mean by “value.” Since we’re not, in fact, talking about money, what is it? And what makes more of it possible? Is it technology alone? New workers? Education? Some combination of all of the above and more?

Josh Futrell chimed in with a helpful review of microeconomics, excerpted here:

I think that “value” is result of the human energy and creativity to manipulate raw materials and create utility where there was none before.

Let’s say that I am a farmer in the example above who transforms the land to grow crops, which then provide value to them in the form of food. If I did not do so, my family and I would risk starvation or have no commodity to trade for other goods and services. So, through our work, we are adding value to own lives and, as a result, to the society as a whole. This is on a purely substantive level.

[...]

Finally, let’s say that I am a farmer who admires the jewelry made by my counterparts. I see value in it because of the way it looks and the way it makes me feel when I see it, wear it, or give it as a gift. Further, let’s say that I cannot make this jewelry on my own: either I do not have the innate skill necessary to create an object that elicits the same utility or the effort/energy to acquire the skills and tools to make such an object greatly outweighs the price the other farmer is asking in trade. I offer a trade and if the basket maker sees value in my offered trade (be it food or a basket), they accept. Value is then created for both.

This is how the artist traditionally adds value.

[...]

I think that the bottom line is that it is the exertions that we, as human beings, make improve our lives and welfare beyond the bare minimum needed to sustain life that create value. We do this by 1) making a living by exchanging our effort, time, and knowledge for goods or money, 2) purchasing goods or services that have utilitarian purposes or creating entities that provide them, and 3) purchasing goods or services that have emotional/artistic value or developing the skills needed to provide them.

To which I responded:

Thanks, Josh, this is great. I realize now that I was a little imprecise at the end of my post. You’ve basically said that value = utility, whether utility in the sense of efficiency (i.e., I can be more productive with the time saved from my basket), or a psychic utility like happiness. OK, I agree with you. The bigger question for me, though, is the second one: what makes more of it (value/utility) possible? We’ve identified a couple of examples already. Baskets are a technology. It improves productivity, which means that I can do more work in the same amount of time. That increases value, assuming there’s a market for the additional work. (But what if there isn’t? Does that make the technology useless? I guess so–until someone else adds value by building off of it to make something that people will use.) Jewelry is a new product. There’s no direct productive use for it, but it makes the customer happy. It makes the customer happy, presumably, in a way that wasn’t possible before. So we have created value. But what if the farmer doesn’t like the jewelry, and therefore it goes unsold (=0 value), but then 30 years later after the jeweler’s dead, the farmer’s son discovers it in his abandoned house and wants to keep it? Does the jewelry suddenly gain value simply because now there’s a customer for it? But how would we know, since there was no transaction to record how people valued things?

This is where the arts and economics start not getting along so well. Despite having dissociated the notion of value from the notion of money in theory, in practice any kind of real-world economic analysis has the two intimately linked. Which means that if some kind of transaction or activity doesn’t involve money, it doesn’t get counted – even if it creates, as Josh describes, a whole lot of utility. Certainly lots of artmaking falls into this category – as does volunteering, in-kind donations, and open-source software development, all things that can clearly increase value (especially if there are productivity gains involved). Now, that value will most likely show up in economic transactions somewhere, eventually – whether it’s by businesses that are made possible by the existence of Linux, or real estate values that go up because of the contributions of artists, etc. – but the problem is that the source of that value is exceedingly hard to track. Especially in tricky network economies in which every new entrant makes everyone else’s membership in the network more valuable.

As far as I can tell, value comes from two things: 1) productivity and 2) happiness. They are not the same thing, and can sometimes be in conflict. I’m not sure what exactly the right balance is, nor exactly how one would go about figuring it out. But here’s what I am thinking:

  1. I would like to know what economists think and say about volunteerism, specifically how they value people’s time when they aren’t getting paid for that time. What is used as the baseline?
  2. I would like to know more about “happiness economics” (which I understand is big at Princeton) and Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness.
  3. I would like to think about what kinds of things make more productivity possible. Not just the obvious stuff (more capital! more labor!) but looking beyond that: what makes more capital possible? what makes more labor possible? what makes efficiency improvements possible?
  4. I would like to learn more about how the monetary supply and the overall value of things (“quality of life,” I suppose) are kept in balance with each other, if indeed they are.

Stay tuned.

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Around the horn: dog days edition

  • The IRS says not so fast on the L3C, stressing that it has not yet weighed in on the tax implications of the new legal form.
  • Generation Y likes to talk a big game about change, but Rosetta Thurman says that if we really want it we’re going to have to prove it. Stephanie Evans wonders if arts management programs should incorporate advocacy elements.
  • The Wallace Foundation has a new report out on what “quality” really means in the context of arts education.
  • CultureFuture’s Guy Yedwab has finished reading The Rise of the Creative Class and has thoughts on it here, here and here.
  • Via Mind the Gap, an interesting critique of the downside of the wisdom of crowds (watch the video): that crowds “have no taste.” Meanwhile, Corwin Christie from Technology in the Arts wonders whether, amid all the hype about building audiences through social media, we’re actually just speaking to the choir.
  • Great list of ten things every nonprofit manager should know about information technology.
  • Hmm, what happens to economic models when it’s possible to conjure 23 quadrillion bucks out of thin air?
  • Cool new tool from the Foundation Center called Philanthropy In/Sight now available. And Andrew Taylor writes about the possibilities of geotagging for arts institutions:
    It’s not far off to imagine that any and all on-line content could include geotags, so that you could filter theater reviews, event listings, culture blogs, or political conversations to include only those related to your immediate surroundings, or your favorite places. And it’s not a big leap to see the opportunity for place-based institutions — like museums, theaters, performing arts centers, and such — to take a leadership role in ensuring such content is available and tagged appropriately.

  • In a striking show of nonprofit media power, WNYC will acquire WQXR classical radio from the New York Times.
  • This week’s BLOGGER ON FIRE is Doug McLennan of diacritical, who writes about the Attention Economy (with responses from Andrew Taylor and Barry Hessenius here and here), building community, and the value-add and pitfalls of more choice. (The last one is interesting to consider from an arts advocacy and economic research standpoint. At least one economist has told me that part of the arts’ value lies in an externality having to do with more choices.)
  • Here’s a new way to do a matching donation drive. Not bad, Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan.
  • I found this lead-in to an item on the Freakonomics blog a bit telling in light of recent discussions on gender bias:
    If you care about baseball, you should care about Buster Olney. He is the ESPN baseball reporter who seems to know everything about everything, on the field and in the general managers’ offices, and presents it with a calm authority.

    Note that there’s nothing here to suggest that Olney actually knows what he’s talking about. Just that he presents with confidence. (For what it’s worth, I followed baseball quite closely from about 2001-2005 and found Olney perfectly acceptable, albeit no Tom Verducci or Peter Gammons.) That Freakonomics (a virtually estrogen-free space) would choose these attributes to highlight above all others made me think about the phenomenon of male Twitter users following other men, the revelation that women read men’s books but men don’t read women’s, the dearth of commercially successful “big idea” books written by women, and gender differences in overconfidence bias. Not ready to make any big claims on this, but there does seem to be a pattern.

  • Seth Godin recently wrapped up his six-month alternative MBA program (SAMBA), and the participants each posted blog entries about their experience. I particularly liked this one from Ishita Gupta, especially her advice that “time is an illusion – don’t measure it by the amount of hours/effort you put in, measure it by goals you accomplish,” “doing things quickly and repetitively helps you get over anxiety about failure,” and “you don’t have to do everything alone.”
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New Blogs!

I recently switched from Thunderbird to Google Reader to view my RSS feeds, and am glad I did. I’m starting to think that blog-following is kind of like exercise – you sort of have to work yourself into shape. Luckily, my reading times are improving, because there are still a lot more great sites out there to track.

Arts Counselling
This is the blog of Mark Robinson, Executive Director (North East) of Arts Council England. Robinson is a poet and vegetarian chef in addition to his arts management role, and writes the blog in part “to show that people who work for the Arts Council, even Exec Directors, are not faceless, robotic bureaucrats.” As I start to learn more about non-U.S. approaches to arts policy, it’s great to be able to draw upon this perspective from across the pond.

artsopolis

I met Erin Gore at the AFTA Convention last month at the Emerging Leader peer group session. Her blog takes its name from the excellent cultural calendar resource based in the South Bay of the San Francisco metropolitan region (and a bunch of other cities as well), which has a blog of its own here. For her part, Erin recently graduated with an arts administration graduate degree from the University of Oregon and is generously sharing some of her work from her program and internship on the blog.

Do The Math
Well, this bandwagon took me a while to get on, but Ethan Iverson’s extended reflections at Do The Math are well worth the investment. Iverson is the pianist for jazz supergroup The Bad Plus and used to be music director for Mark Morris to boot. I also have Do The Math to thank for sending me a ginormous stream of new readers that still hasn’t completely let up when Ethan linked to my Arts and Sustainability post a couple of weeks ago. Thanks buddy!

Technology in the Arts blog
Technology in the Arts is a service of the Center for Arts Management and Technology at Carnegie Mellon University. I previously noted TiA’s excellent podcast, but somehow in the excitement didn’t realize that they have a blog as well. Well, they do, and it covers pretty much what you’d expect from the title, though Corwin Christie’s commentary ranges far beyond technology at times, exploring broader implications for arts management and strategy.

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Let's beat this recession together

(photo credit: henrybloomfield, flickr Creative Commons license)

You know, for a long time I resisted incorporating the current economic environment into my writing here, other than brief references to it in the around the horn posts, mostly because I didn’t feel like I had any brilliant answers. Yeah, it sucks that no one has any money and everybody’s cutting back. No, we don’t really have a lot of control over the situation. So why talk about it? But at the AFTA Convention last month, I started to realize that there’s a very palpable need out there to look for answers, even if we’re not sure where (or whether) we’ll find them. So in the spirit of Web 2.0, here’s what I’m going to propose: let’s crowdsource this thing. Let’s get all the information we have, collectively, on the table, and start thinking about what we can do as a field and as individuals to turn this ship around. If you have something to contribute, do so in the comments and I will respond to selected ones in future posts in order to keep the conversation going and shine a light on your ideas.

Though it’s tempting to start by thinking about this from the perspective of an individual organization or person, I want to urge everyone at the beginning to take a very broad view of the situation, thinking about the pressures and opportunities that the current environment is creating. Once we have a good handle on that, our thoughts about individual situations will be much better informed because we can place them in context.

So, without further ado, here are some thoughts on the big picture to get us started. These are in no particular order.

This recession is much bigger than any of us or all of us put together.
The biggest thing to keep in mind about the recession, I think, is that we didn’t cause it, so therefore we can’t really fix it by ourselves. (By ourselves, I mean as an arts field.) However, that doesn’t mean we don’t have any power. We can help ourselves by becoming much more involved at a political level and working to support policies that will help everyone, not just artists, much as many artists got involved at the Obama campaign last year. Follow what’s going on in Congress. There are some pretty sweeping changes under consideration that could have big implications for the future, the most obvious being health care reform, the energy bill, and consideration of a second stimulus package. The outcome of those discussions could very easily mean far more for the arts than the next food fight over the NEA budget or Kal Penn’s new role at the White House.

There’s going to be some contraction.
If economies can grow, they can also shrink, and this one is shrinking. With the total number of nonprofits continuing to increase, there is inevitably going to be some attrition. From a system perspective, if this is inevitable, we want to make sure that this happens in the way that makes the best sense for everyone. To do this, we need to ask ourselves who the arts are really for. Is it the artists? Is it wealthy, educated audiences? At-risk kids? Everyone? Well-traveled international orchestra conductors and executive-level administrators? Following the money, you would think it’s the last group.

Most observers seem to agree that it’s the mid-level organizations that are going to be hit the hardest. I don’t know whether that’s accurate, but let’s assume that is for the sake of argument. Does this mean that mid-level organizations are overcapitalized? Do there need to be as many of them as they are? Or does it mean that small and large organizations are (or will be) overvalued?

We all know what the pressures are. Where are the opportunities?
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do markets. Let’s take a look at where the opportunities lie in this recession.

  1. This is a GREAT time to hire. A lot of people are out of work right now, but that doesn’t mean there’s any less talent or experience in the labor force than there was before. You have access to quite a few people in this market who wouldn’t have been available in a different time.
  2. This is a great time to SPEND MONEY. If you’re one of the lucky few to actually have money to burn in this economy, don’t sit on it! Everything is cheap right now, from real estate to services to stuff you buy at the mall. There’s not likely to be another opportunity again anytime soon when your dollar can buy so much, and as a bonus you’ll be doing your patriotic duty. And by the way, this goes for foundations too: buying impact is no less cheap for them. So consider dipping into those endowments, or even spending them down: trust, there will be plenty of people ready to carry on the legacy once things improve.
  3. This is a great time to START SOMETHING NEW. Again, there’s a lot of talent, a lot of time, and a lot of energy floating around out there that wasn’t out there before. That lends itself well to entrepreneurship, new ideas, new collaborations, new possibilities. Things will be tough at first, but you’ll also be facing a lot less competition now than you would in a more prosperous time.

Another opportunity is to make more intensive use of resources that are available to you at no marginal cost. (Meaning free, to the non-economically inclined.) Because there’s not as much cash floating around, and (some) people have more time, those resources become more valuable to you. I’m thinking about things like the Internet in general, social media, blogs, free events or workshops, and so forth.

That should be a decent start, but I’m sure I haven’t captured everything. What other large-scale implications can we think of for the recession?

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Around the horn: Sotomayor edition

  • Wow, “sustainability” is definitely the word of the month. It was plastered all over the recent Americans for the Arts Convention, my own treatment of the subject was linked by jazz blogs everywhere (thanks, Darcy) and is now the top-read Createquity post of all-time, and now this week two bloggers have given it their own take. Holden Karnofsky takes a look at sustainability from a theory-of-change perspective: what does it mean for an organization to pursue sustainable change? This essay makes me think, once again, about how different the arts are from other charitable causes. For the most part, we’re not really about eradicating problems. The arts’ raison-d’etre is fundamentally positive rather than negative in orientation – looking at possibilities rather than deficiencies. Meanwhile, Guy Yedwab considers sustainability from an organizational leadership perspective, defining a sustainable organization as one that has set up processes such that new heads can “graduate” from within when old ones leave. It’s clear we have a ways to go before we can all agree on what we mean by the term.
  • Well, as far as economic sustainability is concerned, Scott Walters reposted an earlier essay this past week on that old chestnut, Baumol and Bowen’s Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, and makes the case that we have adjusted our cost structure to the subsidized spoils available to us. Walters also gets this week’s BLOGGER ON FIRE award for a new project to pull together what data we have on the arts into one place, and this essay on the necessary centrality of participation in arts policy.
  • But hey, who needs money when you can have attention? (h/t GIA blog) After all, according to Nielsen Soundscan, fewer than 6% of all new albums released in 2008 sold as many as 1,000 copies (and that’s just counting the albums that were official enough to be listed with Soundscan!). Given the winner-take-all nature of arts markets, Richard Florida predicts we’ll soon see a celebrity even bigger than Michael Jackson. (By the way, it’s much easier to be happy at celebrities’ success when you know them personally – like Caleb Burhans, previously mentioned on this blog, who has won the $153,000 Annenberg Prize.)
  • Via the Nonprofit Law Blog, Iowa bar and club owners are complaining that the River Music Experience, a nonprofit organization, represents unfair competition. Meanwhile, this excellent Jody Dalton series on the contemporary classical recording industry reveals that the vast majority of commercial record labels specializing in this music (and most of them are, in fact, for-profit companies) are either a) subsidized by the artists, b) made possible by family wealth, or c) both.
  • Not to beat a dead horse, but Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer lays waste to the “efficient markets” hypothesis here.
  • Google Chrome personnel took a camera out into the streets of New York and found that most people don’t even know what a browser is, much less have heard of Google Chrome. MaryAnn Devine susses out the implications for arts marketers.
  • Rosetta Thurman busts out a great post on nonprofit service organizations, really digging into the potential conflict between generating earned revenue (there’s that sustainability thing, again) and serving their constituency. I think this is a huge issue and Rosetta does a wonderful job tackling it.
  • Guess those creative economy initatives don’t always work out for everyone: Hollywood is feeling the pinch from film companies looking for cheaper opportunities elsewhere.
  • Michael Kaiser weighs in on federal arts policy, just before starting a 50-state tour as part of the Arts in Crisis initiative, calling for more coordination between agencies and departments. Judith H. Dobrzynksi was at the White House press conference introducing new arts liaison Kal Penn, the man to whom part of this responsibility might fall, and lived to tell the tale.
  • The NEA is finally out with the stimulus grants, and the Art21 blog has analysis here and here.
  • Oops, never mind: Looks like Jazz Times will march on after all, and Shepard Fairey is guilty of vandalism (but only on a couple of counts).
  • Do you know what the future of arts journalism holds? Doug McLennan wants to talk to you.
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Economics and the true meaning of "value"

Thanks to Blogger and the Twitterverse, I’ve been talking recently with Tony Wang of Philosopher 2.0 about the nature of value creation in society. In addition to trading some emails and other online communication, we had in the past couple of weeks what I told him were the two most intellectually challenging conversations I’ve had all year, each of which lasted well past an hour on the phone. One of these conversations was mostly spent working out a brain wrinkle I’ve been having with economics, which has direct bearing on all of the work we do in the creative economy: how does value actually get created? I don’t mean this from the perspective of an individual actor – obviously, if I sell something at a profit, I create value for me. Rather, I’m talking about creating value inside the whole system. As in, how does worldwide economic growth actually happen? What simple, day-to-day actions of actual people translate directly into money being there that didn’t exist before? You would think this would be a simple question to answer, maybe even, you know, the first one that gets addressed in an economics class. But I’ve tried asking a number of people who have studied economics seriously or do it for a living, and everyone tells me something a little different – if they try to answer the question at all.

One economist told me that the creation of value basically boils down to work. So, if you put people to work who weren’t working before (like women in the past century, for example), you create a whole lot of value. Furthermore, if something happens to make more work possible in the same amount of time (like an improvement in technology), value creation can happen that way too. But where does the money come from to pay for this increased value? Think about it like this. Let’s say that there’s a mini-world with a population of six people. They all have their own farms and so they get the food they need to live on that way, and let’s say they all have a small amount of money to spend. Three of them make jewelry in their spare time and three of them make baskets. It turns out that the people who don’t make jewelry would like jewelry, and likewise with the baskets. So the people who make jewelry sell stuff to the people who make baskets, and vice versa, and everybody’s happy.

I did this little thought exercise on my own, and it turns out that no matter what changes you make to the system (i.e., someone has a child who starts working, someone magically gets a jewelry factory and starts selling more jewelry, someone introduces a new product, etc.), the total money supply never changes. It just gets shifted around to different people. The only things that will make the money supply increase are if (a) people get together and decide to print up more money (which just means each individual unit of money is worth less) or (b) one person decides to loan someone else their money on the expectation that they’ll get paid back with future money. In the latter case, the loan gets counted as an asset even as the actual cash gets transferred to someone else, so it’s double-counted in a way. This, as it turns out, is one of the primary means of money creation in the real world. But I’m not quite sure I understand how one can lend money out on the expectation that more is going to come in when there isn’t really an alternative way of creating “more” in the first place.

As it turned out, my conversation with Tony helped clarify my thinking around the problem. It turns out that the money supply issue is a bit of a red herring in my example. There are actually at least three different measures of economic wealth one can talk about. One is cash itself, which we’ve been discussing. But cash is really just a technology – a shorthand we use to make trade easier. Another, larger, measure is the total value of all of the financial assets on the balance sheets of every company and individual in the world. Anyone who’s studied accounting knows that cash makes up only a small portion of these assets; they also include the book value of things like real estate, equipment, durable goods, investments, and yes, money you’ve lent to other people. Finally, the largest of all is GDP, which measures the value of the total transactions in an economy. So in other words, when people trade on Wall Street like maniacs, total GDP goes up even if nothing is happening to the fundamentals of the underlying companies. An increase in the velocity of money – the frequency at which transactions happen – will increase GDP even if the money supply itself doesn’t increase.

Of these three, I’m most interested in what makes the total value of assets increase, besides just pumping out new loans and/or inflating the money supply. I’m starting to gather that the answer is nothing – but that that’s potentially okay. It’s potentially okay because we can create new value even if we don’t create more money. They are two separate concepts. In my little six-person world above, if somebody invents a machine to produce more food than people had previously been eating, and people’s appetite for food had not already been sated, that person has created new value. Everyone can eat more than they did before, and so quality of life has improved. But since the money supply hasn’t increased, everyone’s dollar buys more food (and more happiness/utility) than it did before. The dollar is actually more valuable than it used to be. So to bring things back into equilibrium, it makes sense in a way to increase the money supply. It’s the only way that we can keep the relationship of currency to value at a somewhat constant rate. So if we can rely on this continuing to happen in the future, it’s okay to lend to others on the expectation that future money will be created out of nothing, as long as we don’t overestimate the rate of value creation in society.

This, however, leaves unanswered the question of what we mean by “value.” Since we’re not, in fact, talking about money, what is it? And what makes more of it possible? Is it technology alone? New workers? Education? Some combination of all of the above and more? I’m leaning towards the last option, but I’m still working on it. If you’re an econ whiz and this is all review to you, a) I apologize for boring the hell out of you and b) please share your wisdom with us in the comments.

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Wow.

So, Tom Garvey’s takedown of Emily Glassberg Sands’s undergraduate thesis on sexism in theater is pretty much a must-read.

Now the ultra-articulate Sands had been in high gear from the very start of the conversation, but as I got closer to my concerns, she began to power-chatter at a nearly alarming rate. I kept trying to steer the conversation to what I thought should be the central question of her final chapter – were those closed shows actually more profitable than the male-written shows she was comparing them to? (Because profitability, or the lack thereof, is the reason producers close shows.) But every time I tried to phrase this question, Emily deflected it by claiming that I wouldn’t understand her even if she explained her method, that I wasn’t trained enough in statistics to comprehend what she was doing, etc., etc. Finally, I managed to blurt out the full question:

“Emily – do you or do you not have valid data on profitability?”

And suddenly the chatter ended abruptly; a long silence ensued. And ensued. For what seemed like minutes. “Emily? Emily, are you there?” I asked. “Yes, I’m still here,” she answered quietly, but said nothing more. “Can you answer my question?” I then ventured. “I’m still here,” she repeated. And again fell absolutely silent.

It gets more uncomfortable from there, in case you’re wondering. For those of you new to this, here’s the backstory: Emily Glassberg Sands, a May 2009 graduate of Princeton College, recently released the results of her undergraduate economics thesis, a study attempting to identify and quantify gender bias against female playwrights. Due to its topical content and a connection to Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt through playwright Julia Jordan, her thesis has received quite a bit more attention than most of her peers’ do; for her part, Sands is starting a Ph.D. at Harvard in the fall.

I haven’t yet read Sands’s report, which can be downloaded here, and I’m not sure when I’ll have time to; I already have a bunch of studies on my plate for the Arts Policy Library, and clocking in at 173 dense pages, Opening the Curtain would not be an insignifcant addition to that pile. In the meantime, though, the back-and-forth about the study is piquing my interest quite a bit.

Garvey’s analysis is compelling because, from what I can tell, he is the only journalist who has actually taken the time to dig in to the study and try to understand its underlying methodology. (Frankly, he may well be the only journalist who’s actually read the whole thing.) Not having read the report myself, I can’t vouch for his analysis of her analysis, but he does seem to be asking the right questions. His investigation demonstrates the unfortunate truth about research studies: they’re a lot more subjective than we might like to believe. Everything from the way that the data is collected to the way it is analyzed to the way it is presented can color what the public eventually sees. And all too often, only the researcher is ever in a position to examine the process from start to finish. This is why the Givewell project is so valuable — it takes the time to separate meaningful, rigorous studies from those that merely claim to be. And that’s very much a part of what I hope to do with the Arts Policy Library.

On the other hand, Garvey’s post (which goes on to tell a story about Sands and her thesis that, while plausible, is almost completely speculative) and very aggressive questioning of Sands can be read in other ways, not least through a gender bias lens. He veers between alternately complimenting her on the rigor of the study and assailing her intellectual honesty, ultimately accusing her of perpetrating fraud. (It’s important to note that even if his “gotcha” is valid, it only pertains to one component of Sands’s multi-pronged analysis – and not the part that is getting talked about the most). What I find most interesting to consider, though, is the possibility that this is just a case of “we find what we expect to find.” After all, it’s perhaps not surprising that Garvey discovered things to be skeptical about in the study, considering that he admitted before reading it that he is “hostile” to the notion of sexism against female playwrights because he “often see[s] inferior plays produced by women (Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, Lydia R. Diamond) who seem to be favored by either the academy or the arbiters of political correctness.” Just as it’s not surprising that Jodi Schoenbrun Carter was so impressed with Sands’s work that she immediately volunteered to help her spread the word as widely as possible, when just two weeks before she had pledged to use her blog to discuss “the on-going struggle [she and her female] peers go through in both the commercial and nonprofit world.”

It’s hard for everyone to escape this bias, the ultimate bias — that our expectations influence our perceptions — and researchers are no exception. The only real way to fight it, as I learned in an ethics class this spring that was steeped in behavioral psychology research, is to ask oneself at every turn, “how could I be wrong?” It is only through naming our assumptions that we destroy their power to lead us astray.

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