Month: May 2004

What if paintings were fully reproducible?

Fabio points out that good copies of masterworks are very cheap, a fraction of the value of the original. Charles Murray make a similar point:

The technology already exists to make perfect, full-size (or any size) copies of any painting–“perfect” meaning not only absolutely accurate color values and reproductions of line, but the same kind of canvas or plaster, the same three-dimensional ridges and textures in the brush strokes, the same sheen to the varnish, and even the same cracks in the varnish, if so desired. “Perfect” means also that the most acute and best-trained artistic eye in the world would have only a 50-50 chance of picking the original over the copy.

He exaggerates the state of technology but the point remains nonetheless: what if paintings were like recorded music?

Murray continues:

Economically, I assume that the acceptance of copies would devastate the resale value of originals of everything except the first-tier work. But for the first-tier work–the owners of which would have the exclusive right to reproduce it–the amount of money to be made selling copies might well rival current market value.

It is also fun to speculate on which paintings would sell the most copies if only the intrinsic attractiveness of the art mattered. Would the market be comparatively small, on the scale of the audience for classical music? Or would great art attract a mass market? In a world where the price of the painting is not going to impress houseguests, which paintings would be used for interior decoration, and which would be the ones that ordinary people, having become collectors, would put in their private galleries for measured contemplation? How would the works of Titian and Caravaggio fare against Monet and Renoir? How would the early Picasso–the easy-to-enjoy Picasso of “Boy with a Pipe”–fare against the later Picasso?

The most exciting prospect is what low-cost perfect copies would do to visual art as part of our daily lives. As matters stand, great art is something most of us see a few times a year, if that, having no choice but to move quickly from work to work, wondering if we will be able to get to the Impressionists before our feet hurt too much to enjoy them.

My prediction: Contra Fabio and Murray, I think most people would find it oppressive to live with “great art,” as that concept is traditionally understood. They prefer the inferior rendition. They like the ¤¤¤¤ they put on their walls. So there is less of a mass market here than meets the eye. A separate question is whether museums will license their works for such reproductions. If museums could make real money through this route, would they continue to receive charitable donations and government grants? The commercialization of high art would completely redefine the question of who controls an art museum. It is not obvious that this would benefit current museum management.

A new religion of mankind?

Not the usual MR fare, but I found the following Richard Rorty essay interesting reading. Rorty appears to have moved away from his anti-foundationalism — (roughly) the belief that truths cannot be proven from first principles — and is calling for a new pluralistic religion of humanity:

Rorty believes that we in the West are all polytheists now because we think that there are various goods and no overarching good. He chooses this term “polytheism” carefully–and not altogether ironically–because he believes that the idea can bring together John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William James in the belief that “there is no actual or possible object of knowledge that would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs.” If gods and goods are plural and serve different people in different ways, why should we feel the need to rank them? In fact, it may be the pursuit of such divergent human ends that benefits us all in the long run…

So far I am close to agreeing…although I recognize the possible use of a “stolen concept” of general well-being at the end. If you can’t rank goods, don’t tell me at the end that recognizing this fact will make us all better off. There is more:

Rorty is convinced that such an inexorable transition from traditional monotheism to this secular civil religion is already under way: “I think that the religion of love has gradually moved out of the churches and into the political arena. That religion is in the process of being transfigured into democratic politics. What is left in the churches is the fear that human beings may not be able to save themselves without help–that social cooperation is not enough.” Rorty hopes that the American civil religion of democracy will be enough for most people, so that those left over will be an inconsequential minority.

I agree with much of this point, though I do not approve as Rorty does. Now how about this part:

…Rorty describes the role of college professors in almost fundamentalist terms: professors should see their work in the classroom as nothing less than an exercise in conversion. They ought “to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.” With no hint of his usual irony, Rorty writes that “students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.”

As this point I will offer no further comment.

How to lower gas prices

Here are 12 ideas to lower gas prices. Ten are from David Letterman and two or perhaps three are government ideas. Can you tell which is which?

12. Sell gas by the half-gallon

11. Sneak up to gas stations in the middle of the night and switch the price numbers

10. Cut out that expensive ingredient that gives it that delicious gas smell

9. Forget OPEC, start getting oil from Wal-Mart .

8. Stop Wal-Mart from selling gas at too low a price thereby taking over the world.

7. Step one: Oprah buys all the gas. Step 2: Oprah gives the gas away.

6. Stop gasoline stations from give awaying free coffee.

5. Build time machine, drive back to 1965 when gas was cheap.

4. Fill car with root beer. Cars won’t know no better.

3. Release the recipe so people can make their own

2. Drive really fast so you’re not driving so long.

1. Invade Iraq.

The government ideas? 8 and 6 (and arguably 1 which was also on #1 on Letterman’s list). Here’s the background. Minnesota’s Commerce Department has fined a number of gas stations, often attached to Wal-Marts, for selling gas too cheaply.

The state adopted a law in 2001 that bars gas stations from selling gas without taking a minimum profit. These days, stations must charge at least eight cents per gallon more than they paid. The Commerce Department is now issuing its first fines for breaking the law.

Elsewhere, it is now illegal for a gas station to give away free coffee with gas. Walter Williams has the story and the analysis.

Thanks to Truck and Barter for the link.

A Masterpiece in Every Home

Artists and intellectuals bemoan markets for ruining art in so many ways – one could write all day about all the ways markets allegedly corrupt art. But here’s a great, perhaps indisputable, fact about art and market economies – any person can have a masterpiece in their own home, or at least a decent copy.

Consider the following: For a few dollars, any person can download pictures of their favorite Picasso from the Internet at minimal cost and print out color copies at Kinko’s. For about $40, anybody can buy a book, magazine or gallery catalogue with a full color reproduction of your favorite fish tank basketballs. If you want it on the wall, for a few hundred bucks, you could easily buy a nice poster and have it framed. For a few thousand bucks, you could probably hire an artist to make you an uncanny reproduction of the original work. And of course, if you have a few hundred thousand bucks to spend, or millions, you could have Gerhard Richter come to your house and paint a nice blurry portrait of you and your family. Not a bad deal when you think about it.

Free Market Economics Done Hollywood Style

Over at Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux asks, “Suppose that a movie with exaggerations on a similar scale [to The Day After Tomorrow] were made by a free-market enthusiast. That movie might contain some of the following scenes:”

A ten-cent increase in the federal minimum wage casts millions of blacks and Hispanics into permanent unemployment and despair; all of the unemployed women scrape up pennies by offering themselves as prostitutes, while all of the unemployed men swarm to the suburbs to rape soccer-moms and then riot so violently in the cities that the Empire State building, the U.S. Capitol, the Sears Tower, and the Bank of America building all crash violently to the ground, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including a kindly book-peddler specializing in works by and about Ayn Rand….

Cool movie. I hope Don options the rights.

Economists and sex

This paper studies the links between income, sexual behavior and reported happiness. It uses recent data on a random sample of 16,000 adult Americans. The paper finds that sexual activity enters strongly positively in happiness equations. Greater income does not buy more sex, nor more sexual partners. The typical American has sexual intercourse 2-3 times a month. Married people have more sex than those who are single, divorced, widowed or separated. Sexual activity appears to have greater effects on the happiness of highly educated people than those with low levels of education. The happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners in the previous year is calculated to be 1. Highly educated females tend to have fewer sexual partners. Homosexuality has no statistically significant effect on happiness. Our conclusions are based on pooled cross-section equations in which it is not possible to correct for the endogeneity of sexual activity. The statistical results should be treated cautiously.

Wow, read that carefully. How do you even pick a sentence to underline? 2 to 3 times a month? Greater income doesn’t buy more sex? The highly educated need sex more?

And yes, you can read more, at least if you will cough up the $5. That’s all from a recent NBER working paper.

Thanks to Karol Boudreaux for the pointer.

Shelf Pricing

Bob Michaels wrote to chide me for linking in my post on peanut butter to the “Consumers Union item that treats slotting allowances and similar store placement charges as another instance of big producers stomping on small ones.”

In my defense, linking doesn’t imply approval! (I linked only as a source for the claim that the typical supermarket has 30,000 items.) Bob, however, gives an excellent analysis of shelf pricing:

[Shelf pricing] is one of the few documented cases (compared with the parlor games in intermediate textbooks) where asymmetric information arguments may make sense. Assume that a producer of grocery items has created several products and wants stores to sell them. The producer has information from marketing surveys, etc. that most of these are non-starters, but may nevertheless be able to recover some of their costs from wholesale sales to grocers who only learn from experience that the goods are losers. Faced with far more potentially marketable items than it can possibly evaluate in detail, the grocer needs access to the market research that makers of the new products probably have but do not want to divulge. The solution: make them put up a nonsalvageable investment of the type frequently seen — force them to rent shelf space, purchase and dispose of the items whose space they are replacing, or make them commit to joint advertising efforts. The maker of the products will only place such a bet on a product that it seriously believes will sell well.

Can we hold the interest of classical music audiences?

Museum goers love to wear headphones during special art exhibitions and hear special commentary. Perhaps classical music should take a cue from this experience:

…subscribers to the orchestra’s e-mail list have been invited to try another technological advance: this time a screen small enough to fit into your hand. The device will provide a play-by-play analysis of the music as the concertgoer listens. No pictures (so far), only words: the text changes every 15 to 20 seconds. Think sports patter, only highbrow, musical and blessedly mute.

“Curious about what Charles Ives is up to in his `Three Places in New England?,’ ” the e-mail message asked, inviting subscribers on Wednesday to a performance of the Philharmonic’s Charles Ives Festival next week. “Concert Companion will tell you as the music unfolds before you.”

Viewers had already rejected large movie screens of the performers, a’ la rock concert. Many found it “distracting.”

Here is the full story. Many American orchestras are experiencing fiscal troubles, and London’s low cost, commercial Savoy Opera just closed. So perhaps some innovation is in order.

What would I want?: I’d like to check my email during the concert; I’d also like to discuss the proceedings with my companions, perhaps through silent Instant Messaging of some kind. But I won’t predict any of these will happen. In the time of Beethoven people ate and drank during classical concerts. They played cards and sometimes brought their animals. A contemporary non-profit, dependent on donations and government grants, is unlikely to take such steps. For another solution, read this article on classical crossover. Until classical music makes a comeback in the home, it won’t be self-financing in the outside world. Perhaps the future of the genre lies in Korea.

Christians discover Tiebout

Would you like to live in a Christian nation with government similar to the early United States?

No, it’s not Colonial House (much inferior to Victorian House, by the way) but Christian Exodus has been established to coordinate the move of 50,000 or more Christians to a single conservative state in the U.S. for the express purpose of reestablishing constitutional governance… is orchestrating the move of 50,000 or more Christians to one of three States for the express purpose of dissolving that State’s bond with the union. The three States under consideration are Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. The exact destination will be chosen by vote of our membership. Our move will commence when the federal government forces sodomite marriages on our local communities or once we reach the 50,000-member mark, whichever comes first.

If this sounds kinda familiar you may recall the libertarian Free State Project “an effort to recruit 20,000 liberty-loving people to move to New Hampshire.”

Eyeballs are scarce

When you are in your hotel room what do you look at but…well…the items in your hotel room.

Given how hard it is to command consumer attention, it is only natural that hotels start selling these goods. At the Regency in Manhattan, you can now get the following:

1. A bath mat for $45

2. Down pillows for $28 each

3. A bathrobe for $69

And of course you get to test the items before you buy. Some hotels also believe that buyers will think back positively on their hotel experience, boosting repeat business.

Next in line may be the “swiveling, floor-to-ceiling TV cabinet,” priced at $3,000. Hotels are now selling beds and $4000 tubs as well. Of course if you really like the hotel merchandise you could just move in permanently.

The data are from Forbes, June 7 issue, p.124. “Markets in Everything,” as they have been known to say.

Obama and The Limits of Black Politics in America

The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber has an insightful article on Barack Obama, an Illinois state senator who has just won the Democratic senatorial primary. Leading in the polls, the election is now his to lose. Scheiber’s question is the one many have had about Obama’s victory: how did Obama avoid the pitfalls that have ensnared so many African-American politicians?

The challenge African-American politicians must overcome is this: if you appeal too much the African-American base, you’ll alienate moderate whites; if you appeal too much to moderate whites, your opponent will claim that you aren’t “black enough.” Witness Cory Booker’s difficult campaign for mayor of Newark, when the Yale educated councilman was tarred by the incumbent.

Scheiber appeals to research showing that white Americans routinely make distinctions between “good” and “bad” blacks. Once advertising showed to voters he was of Kenyan ancestry, as opposed to African-American, Schebier believes, the voters reframed Obama as different than traditional black politicians. Scheiber concludes that Obama’s act is tough to follow – how many self-deprecating half-Kenyan Harvard Law Review editors are there?

On the contrary, if successful, Obama could be in the position to establish a new brand name in national politics. It’s easy to imagine Obama establishing a sort of “DLC” for the African-American community, much in the same way Clinton tried pulling his party towards more moderate positions on trade and social programs. A congressional caucus under such a banner would powerfully reshape debates over race relations in this country.

Buying Collaboration II

On Monday, I described a controversial auction by William Tozier of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The highest bidder would win the chance to collaborate and write an academic article with him.

A number of readers sent interesting comments. Some, like Davis King, pointed out that collaboration for pay already exists and is quite common in some fields like computer science. He also pointed out a lot of de facto collaboration for pay, such as when undergraduates pay tuition and get the opportunity to co-author papers with professors.

Two readers noted that at least one scientist, Miriam Rothschild – a noted bug scientist, was independently wealthy and funded a long string of collaborations in fields that weren’t receiving much attention. The resulting work is well accepted in biology and her self-funding didn’t seem to raise suspicions about her work.

One reader noted that pay for collaboration might be hard to distinguish from research assistance. This is a good point, but I think there is a simple response – research assistants merely carry out the instructions of the researchers while paid collaborators are compensated for original, creative work.

Mr. Tozier himself wrote to me and told me about his current project, an online forum that would facilitate collaboration among non-academic researchers. I think the future probably holds a continuum of possibilities – universities will probably sponsor only “altruistic” research while scientists outside the academy will probably work together in more varied contexts.

(More) ideas that won’t work

Take 250 reasonably well-known artists and put their work together in a trust. Later the works will be sold. The payoff to each artist comes half from his paintings, half from the other paintings in the lot. The intermediary takes a mere twenty percent, plus it charges the artists half the costs of storage.

It is a retirement program for artists; supposedly it will minimize their risk and encourage creativity.

I can think of at least five reasons why it won’t work. To see just one, decompose the transaction. Half of your income stream remains tied up in your own art and thus risky, minus the twenty percent of course. With the other half of your pension you decide to invest in not-yet-totally-famous artists. Would anyone recommend such purchases on their own merits? Is that your idea of insurance?

Here is their web site. Here is the home page of the founder, Dan Galai; he has a prolific publication record in economics journals. For more information, see the May 29 issue of The Economist, p.75.

Paying for Open Access

Ideas are public goods so open access publishing is theoretically ideal but how to pay for it? The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the flagship journal of the National Academy of Sciences is trying an experiment. If you can’t charge the readers how about charging the authors? PNAS authors may now opt to pay $1000 to make their articles available for free immediately upon publication.

It’s an interesting idea – authors do receive benefits from publishing papers but in truth it’s more important that the paper be published than read. At $1000, I think the benefits are overpriced especially since some readers do pay for the journal and can read the articles from day one. Also PNAS opens access after 6 months in anycase.

Authors might pay $1000 if a combination of charity, peer-pressure and noblesse-oblige establishes a norm of payment. But therein lies a dilemma. The more authors that are willing to pay for open-access the less readers will be willing to pay for selective access. If every author pays who will buy the journal?

Can $1000 per author support a publication with no paying readers? The American Economic Review publishes about 100 articles a year and has costs in excess of one million dollars – so the economics don’t look good. True, those costs support a print journal and open-access would be electronic online so that makes the equation somewhat easier to balance but it’s still touch and go at best.

Even though I am somewhat skeptical I applaud the Academy for this experiment and I hope that other journals will be equally creative.

Thanks to Monique van Hoek for the pointer.

Haitian fact of the day

In Haiti’s slums, round swirls of dough can be found baking in the sun. They look almost appetizing until you learn the ingredients: butter, salt, water and dirt…

And the dirt biscuits of Haiti – called “argile,” meaning clay, or “terre,” meaning earth – are not exactly a final cri de coeur against starvation.

Like the mice in Malawi, they are a staple of the very poor, somewhere between a snack and a desperation measure. Making them has been a regular business for years. The clay is trucked in plastic sacks from Hinche, on the central plateau. Blended with margarine or butter, they are flavored with salt, pepper and bouillon cubes and spooned out by the thousands on cotton sheets in sunny courtyards that are kept swept as “bakeries.” They cost about a penny apiece.

“They’re not food, really,” said David Gonzalez, a reporter at The Times who has visited Haiti many times. “People with hunger pangs eat them just to fill up their stomachs.”

Here is the full story (NYT); it is sad to even use the “food and drink” category for this entry. Here is a previous installment of “Haitian Fact of the Day.”

Update: I wrote this post a few days ago, before the horrific flood. Flooding is such a severe problem in Haiti because of deforestation, brought on by poorly defined property rights to trees and forest.