Ben Casnocha blogs my Zurich talk

Here is his very useful account, including a good photo.  Excerpt:

Cowen made an interesting point about young people. He said America
empowers youth as influencers — college students sit around and listen
to music, start fads, build web sites, etc. They may not be "working"
per se, but they are contributing enormously to American popular
culture. Indeed, most of our popular culture is created by young
people, and this is the culture that is exported abroad. If a country
cares about the influence of its culture abroad, they should ask how
much power is given to youth. He noted that Latin America and Asia have
huge youth populations, making it prime for a lot of cultural influence
in this next generation.

Another question I discussed was why Switzerland has such an excellent culture of museums, opera, theatre, and architecture, but has done so poorly in exporting popular music and cinema.  The use of cities and cantons to fund the arts may be a central factor.  Intense Tiebout competition leads to quality local services but fewer national public goods (to the extent such cultural exports are public goods).

Ben is an MR reader who emailed me and tracked me down, here is his blog.


Re: ". . . why Switzerland has such an excellent culture of museums, opera,
theatre, and architecture, but has done so poorly in exporting popular music and

The answer should be clear to anyone fortunate enough to have been admitted to
this tidy, properous, and (allegedly) boring little realm. Boring Switzerland may
be to some, but my God, look at what passes for exciting these days. Switzerland
could more accurately be described as one of the few remaining bastions of
humanity, as the term was once understood.

The Swiss are, allowing for the inevitable exceptions, far too intelligent,
reasonable, sophisticated, and grown up - in a word, civilized - to churn out
the kind of asinine crap that so profitably amuses our increasingly vulgarized
and infantilized species. They are also hard-headed enough only to consider
acting like brainless spastics (I am refering here to popular music entertainers)
only if the price is right, i.e. very high. The Swiss know the value of a buck (as
well as that of about 50 other currencies) and would perhaps condescend to entertain us
in this way, but for the fact that they have hit upon so many other more
dignified ways of minting money.

Were I fortunate enough to procure one of their precious work visas, (Swiss
Embassy, are you listening?) and an acceptable Swiss job, (as if there were any other
kind) I'd be packing my bags right now, rather than composing this middle-aged

Mystery solved.

Let's look at data on Latin American creativity.

Although the media regularly blather about the "vibrant contributions of Latin-American culture," the plain truth is that California's main creative industries—Hollywood and Silicon Valley—employ few Latinos above the technician level.

But, then, has creativity ever been the strong suit of Latin America? Can we really expect to find much scientific or artistic talent among immigrants from Latin America?

To investigate these questions, I crunched some numbers from Charles Murray's recent gift to data nerds everywhere, his book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. Murray used objective methods to determine the 4,002 most prominent individuals in the history of the (high) arts and sciences.

So how did Latin Americans do?

Not terribly well at all: just half of one percent of the 4002 most famous scientists and Western artists came from Latin America.

None of the 1,414 scientists who made the cut was a Latin American.

Latin America did a little better in the sphere of high culture, accounting for 18 (or 0.9%) of the 1,990 top artists, composers, writers, and philosophers in the history of Western Civilization. (I'm including among the Latin Americans the only Brazilian in the database, composer Villa-Lobos.)

The Hispanic New World's strong suit has been literature, with 13 significant Latin American writers (or 1.6% of the 835 most eminent Western writers). Top Latin American authors include Borges and Neruda.

Presumably individual genius is more likely to reach fruition in the field of literature because in the sciences or some of the other, more expensive arts, a high degree of social support for achievement is a precondition.

The three great Mexican muralists of the 20th Century, Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco, are the only Latin Americans (0.6%) among the 479 most famous painters and sculptors.

Of the 522 best-known classical composers, only two (0.4%) were Latin Americans (Villa-Lobos and the Mexican Carlos Chavez y Ramirez).

Among the 154 significant Western philosophers, there are no Latin Americans.

Murray didn't cover the last half of the 20th Century, but the long-term trends seem to be continuing. Latin Americans have won a grand total of only three Nobel Prizes in the sciences and Spain only one.

Latin America remains more productive in literature than in other fields, with dazzling novelists such as Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa. Over the last half century, classical composition, art, and philosophy appear to have been in general decline across the Western world, so Latin America's lack of innovation in those fields no longer stands out as embarrassingly.

In the realm of popular culture, the last half of the 20th Century witnessed the overwhelming triumph of the U.S.A. Latin American pop music was vastly outgunned by American rock and roll. But even little English-speaking Jamaica wound up having more influence on music than did Cuba, which had been the most musically dynamic Spanish-speaking country. Perhaps Castro's (hopefully imminent) demise should free up Cuba's tremendous musical talent.

The more insidious Mexican ruling party bribed its artists into comfortable submission, which may account for the lack of Mexican creativity over the last 50 years. As the PRI fell apart over the last decade, several exciting Mexican movie directors have emerged.

Nonetheless, the bottom line: Latin America has been the least creative outpost of the West. And that probably won't change much.

America is unlikely to find many creative geniuses among Hispanic immigrants—especially among illegal ones.

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