Better Living Through Cultural Innovation

I have Richard Florida’s big Atlantic piece open in a Firefox tab, but I haven’t yet had time to read it. Still, I’ve been watching with interest the reactions that Felix Salmon has collected at his site. Felix quotes Florida saying:

Currid measured the concentration of different types of jobs in New York relative to their incidence in the U.S. economy as a whole. By this measure, New York is more of a mecca for fashion designers, musicians, film directors, artists, and–yes–psychiatrists than for financial professionals.

To which Arnold Kling responded:

I hate the Mets. I find the heavy-handed sensory overload of New York tiring and ultimately unpleasant, in the same way that I find Las Vegas or Disney World unpleasant…

I don’t think that the arts are all that important. To me, creative innovation that matters is somebody in a lab at MIT coming up with a more efficient battery or solar cell. It is somebody at Stanford coming up with a way to make computers smarter or cancer more preventable. I just can’t get excited about some frou-frou fashion designers and the magazines that feature their creations.

This is a very strange thing to write, for several reasons. For starters, why does Kling’s personal opinion of New York have anything to do with the economic value of the goods and services the city produces? Secondly, it’s fairly bizarre, is it not, for a libertarian to suggest that “frou-frou” innovations aren’t of any importance while all that tech jazz is. If people are willing to spend billions on clothes and entertainment, well then there must be value there. Either that, or this whole market mechanism thing is way overrated.

But the real silliness is the failure to understand that production is only valuable if there are desired consumption opportunities available. Why make the money, in other words, if there’s no stuff worth spending it on? The development of fashion, culture, and entertainment innovations generates a diverse array of valuable consumer experiences that people want, which is precisely why people continue to work after they’ve earned enough to pay for basic food and shelter.

And the tech fetish is a bit absurd, as well. Efficient technologies are nice, in no small part, because they allow us to cheaply or sustainably use electronics, either to work more productively (in order to spend on those frou-frout consumption goods) or to directly consume entertainment (like television or video games, which contain disturbingly high levels of frou-frou design, music, and narrative).

Kling seems to want us to live in some bleak, technophilic dystopia, where we work to enable ourselves to work. But that would be a poor society indeed. Cultural goods aren’t just a nice by-product of a modern economy. They’re the very justification for it.

Comments

  1. Mike Riggs says:

    Ryan,

    You take Kling’s personal preferences to mean that he doesn’t believe in a diverse economy, but Kling introduced the section you quote by saying, “Having grown up in a suburb of St. Louis, I have an attitude about that. I hate the Mets….”

    It’s a bit of a stretch to spin that into: “Kling seems to want us to live in some bleak, technophilic dystopia, where we work to enable ourselves to work.”

    I can understand intentionally misinterpreting Kling’s objection to the arts in order to use it as a foil for your defense of cultural goods (which, wasn’t even all that robust), but you could’ve made an easy defense of the same without using a straw man. (After all, how many public intellectuals share Kling’s sentiments? I can’t think of a single living person.)

    Best,
    Mike Riggs
    Washington City Paper

  2. Clark says:

    Mike, you might want to read the previous paragraph of Kling’s post, and also the next paragraph after the one you cited. He says that the arts aren’t all that important to him – innovation only matters if it’s technical.

  3. Omri says:

    A major reason people go to MIT is that so much cultural frou frou is a short walk from campus.

  4. I punched up that Florida piece a bit in the comments section here.

  5. Paul says:

    Ryan,

    I think Kling kind of stuck his foot in his mouth, and that your rebuttal is on point, at least insofar as it accurately points out the value in things Kling deems “frou frou”. However, allow me to alter the two positions slightly and bring in an analogy that strikes me as apt.

    You argue that technological advancement is nice because of the consumption it allows (whether the consumption is in the form of art or fashion, or art and fashion beamed via television). Kling seems to believe that art and fashion and many other things beamed via television are frivolous and a waste of creative energy. If Kling changes his position from “such things have no value” to “people overvalue such things” then I don’t think you have a counterpunch. It’s like an argument between someone who claims car use has no value and someone who claims car use has negative externalities and should be discouraged.

    That wasn’t actually my analogy though. My analogy is food. Imagine we all lived 100 years ago on a simple diet of ground beef and potatoes. Then, thanks to technological advancement, a wide array of new foods became available. We could use that technology to produce Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and oreos and live solely on them. Obviously these have economic value and are quite popular, so plenty of people would be content with this. Or we could use that technology to produce genetically modified tomatoes and to transport fresh fruits and vegetables from California year round.

    Both of those improvements would have value, but one of them would be a terrible way to feed a country. Viewing consumption as the justification for the modern economy is like viewing oreos and Ben and Jerry’s as the pinnacle of modern agriculture.

  6. I’ve opened the Richard Florida article in several Firefox tabs over the last several days and have yet to read it…its length is daunting.