Monday, December 05, 2005

Some call it "Capitalism"

I don't remember where I found the link, but someone directed me to this Yahoo! news story sympathizing with music students up to their eyebrows in debt:

With the cost of tuition rising every year and conservatory students spending as much as six years in school, many... are swamped in debt as they enter a field in which jobs are scarce and salaries often low.

Jory Fankuchen, a graduate student at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, said he feels "lucky" to owe only $20,000. "From the time you are 6 years old, you've studied music more than a brain surgeon studies for class," he said. "But you still can't make a living half the time."

This article presents the students' debt and poor job prospects as if it were some sort of a tragedy. Admittedly, I never like to see people unable to do the work they love, but the world only needs so many concert violinists. This is exactly how a capitalist society works. If we don't need any more musicians to fill the jobs that are out there, the salaries will plummet. As more people try to get into music schools, their price will rise. And once again, Adam Smith's invisible hand will restore some sort of equilibrium to the system by monetarily encouraging would-be musicians to get a job as something else:

Jennifer Myung owes $55,000 to the U.S. government, and for the first time, she isn't worried about paying it back. That's because she has swapped a budding career as a concert violinist for an investment banking job.


At 12/06/2005 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the world only needs so many concert violinists."

how many, Random? and who should determine that figure?

At 12/07/2005 5:19 AM, Blogger Randomscrub said...

The number is determined by how many the collective market is willing to pay for. No single individual decides how many we need. Everyone decides how many there should be when they decide that they want to spend their money on. The more they spend on music performances and recordings involving violinists, the more the market will support. But if they take their money and spend it on, say, movies or food or other things, the demand for the violinists will go down. Really, this is pretty basic.

At 12/07/2005 2:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

right, I understand this, and it's a good descriptive way to view things, to some extent. however, ought it be the way things are? You say:

"Everyone decides how many there should be when they decide that they want to spend their money on."

but do everyone's decisions necessarily reflect their values? Or do they reflect the limitations of the system? People may value concert violinists a lot more than they spend money on concert violinists. In short, the "life of the mind" is not especially profitable, especially given the availability of the relevant texts, recordings, etc.

Education, research, and contemporary productions/arrangements/performances allow the liberal arts some small market share. But for the most part, the market system privilieges things that are readily packagable and consumable. To really participate in the practice of playing the violin is 1. only feasible after certain economic preconditions are met (an aspect of the argument I'm not invoking in its strong form at this time) and 2. not something that people can readily 'vote for with their dollars.' It isn't something that people can just buy. It's something that people have to live. Therefore, people "buy" it less.

This means that determining the functional differentiation of society (and more importantly, what jobs and ways of life are available) through the will of the collective market means that the liberal arts are not a viable choice in the same way that other things are. There will always be a few violinists (etc.), for educational and performance purposes. But the market cannot choose to support more beyond that minimum standard.

"Everyone" isn't failing to choose concert violinists. Concert violinist is not one of the choices avaiable due to the nature of the system.

I find this problematic, for admittedly personal reasons. But due to what I take to be the things you value, I expect you might too.

At 12/07/2005 5:52 PM, Blogger Randomscrub said...

You seem to be conflating two similar concepts here, which may be clouding the discussion. There is a difference between the good of living the violinist life (which has value only to the one living it), and the goods available to others because of the violinist (musical performances and recordings).

You seem to view the "life of the mind" as an end in itself, which is good (I'd agree). But it seems to me (and please elucidate if I'm wrong) that you think that because the life of the mind is good, someone should be willing to pay for it.

I would love nothing more than to be allowed to design machines, read philosophy, or write poetry all day. The problem comes if and when I believe that because I like doing these things, someone should pay me to do them. The way a capitalist system works is that people are only monetarily encouraged to produce things (goods, services, whatever) that have value to others which those others can recognize.

The life of the mind holds inherent value only to the one living it. Therefore, if they expect to make a living, it is necessary to produce goods (books, music, whatever) for public consumption. This is what the market demands, and where your "minimum standard" number of violinists make their living.

To sum it up, I don't see it as problematic that I can't force people who see no value to themselves in what I do to fork over their money to pay me to do it.

At 12/07/2005 6:01 PM, Blogger Randomscrub said...

Also, I might add, money is how you tell how much people value something. Mere lip service to the concert violinist does not true valuing make. Value must be measured by something with value, so to merely poll people on how much they claim to value music would be meaningless. The true value of a good comes in the choice between competing goods, not in a mere "Music: yes or no?" query where nothing is gained or lost in the choice.

I really love classical music, and spend money obtaining it. Those who do not do so either don't value it as much as they say they do or obtain it free through subsidized public concerts, which someone is paying for (or obtain it illegally).

At 12/07/2005 8:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my entire point is that the "free market" system is an unfair way to choose between competeting goods, because the external goods offered by classical music (for example) are not as commodifiable as the goods offered by other sorts of music.

even discounting the internal goods of classical music, which are considerable, simply reiterating "people vote with their dollars or illegal downloads" doesn't answer my fundemental problem with the free market systems' preference for easily packagable goods.

You recognize this: "The way a capitalist system works is that people are only monetarily encouraged to produce things (goods, services, whatever) that have value to others which those others can recognize.."

The market recognizes some goods more easily than it recognizes others. And I think that the preference inherent in the system is problematic in preventing some goods (classical music, philosophy, poetry) from being voted for as much as others (celebrity music, political polemic, trash-lit). I'm not trying to invoke a high culture low-culture split. I'm trying to show how the market is problematically predisposed against certain media, and with those media, certain forms of expression and ways of life. -karl

At 12/08/2005 7:53 AM, Blogger Randomscrub said...

I guess you see it as problematic in ways that I don't. First, you haven't shown how certain things are inherently less commodifiable, so I can't really engage you on that point.

Let's agree for a moment that such commodification is harder for some things (which I'm not yet willing to concede). I don't see it as problematic that people (remember, the market is people) are just less willing to spend their money on things which they can't recognize as having value to them. The chief virtue of the free market is that it allows people to decide for themselves how much they value something, rather than having some totalitarian authority decide how much they should value something.

It's not a problem if yes, some things do have value, but no, the people just can't see it, because that leaves me with a between letting them decide for themselves or forcing them into a decision that I (the totalitarian) believe is best for them. Who am I, or anyone, to force someone to value something more than they really do? I don't know their lives and values better than they do.

Even if some things are inherently less commodifiable, this is a sacrifice I'm willing to make to live under a system that allows the individual to retain as much freedom as possible. Until someone can invent a system that finds a way to allow markets to more easily recognize these "incommodifiable goods" you claim exist, I'll stick with what we have.

Your next task, if you wish to continue the debate, is to prove that there are certain goods that are inherently incommodifiable.

At 12/11/2005 9:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my language is that of "less commodifiable," not incommodifiable. Let's not make my task too inherently impossible, shall we?

Once we return to my language of more or less commodifiable, the task seems to be fairly easy. Compare a concert violinist to a pop musician. There are relatively few ways to spend one's money on a concert violinist. On the other hand, it's easy to see that the pop musician enjoys greater exposure, greater advertising, greater celebrity, greater merchendising, etc. There are far more ways that money can be spent on a pop musician.

Therefore, your noble idea that "it [the free market] allows people to decide for themselves how much they value something, rather than having some totalitarian authority decide how much they should value something" is sadly incorrect. People aren't chosing between a concert violinist and a pop musician. They're chosing between two very different modes of consumption. And the latter mode is far more accessible, due to the nature of the system, than the former.

Now, if the problem we're arguing is that you're okay with people being "less willing to spend their money on things which they can't recognize as having value to them." and I'm not, I hope that the above claim about the relative commodifiability of certain goods shows you why I have some of the problems with the free market system that I do. Since some goods are easily commodifiable, and value in a free market system is related to money (as you've said), people are going to have an easy time seeing the value in some goods. On the other hand, if value is money and some goods are harder to spend money on, the nature of the system itself prevents some goods from being valued as much.

Again, I find this problematic.

At 12/11/2005 11:17 AM, Blogger Randomscrub said...

The problem here is that you're touching on what happpens (violinists get less exposure, merchandising, etc.), but not discussing why it happens. You claim it's the nature of the system that it will make the violinist's work less commodifiable.

What is preventing the violinist from doing the "pop icon" thing? What prevents them from the greater merchandising/exposure/celebrity? You of all people should see that this "modes of consumption" thing is not a firm dichotomy. Take, for example, Josh Groban and Luciano Pavarotti. They have celebrity of nearly the same magnitude as most pop stars, yet both are operatic tenors.

There is nothing to stop a classical musician from attempting the same style of promoting and merchandising themselves as pop stars. I'm still missing out on how the system is screwing the violinists.

And if you simply say "because it won't work," yes, we both know that, but that's nothing but a circular argument.

At 12/11/2005 4:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is nothing to stop a classical musician from attempting the same style of promoting and merchandising themselves as pop stars.

Yes, there is. namely, that pop classical music isn't classical music in important ways.

by putting "marketability" over "musical rigor" (or whatever classical violinists value), classical musicians have effectively stopped being driven by music and begun to be driven by the market. this means enslaving their music, at least in part, to market forces...which seems to make the free market an oppressive master, at least from my perspective.

so, if classical musicians are committed to music, as they likely are, I rather doubt that enslaving their music to market forces is a satisfactory solution. there's a reason it's referred to as "selling out." and I'm pretty durn sure that no one would be okay if all musicians did.

so, the options under your so-called free market system are: commodifying or being ignored by the system in significant ways due to not commodifying. in either case, the market is preventing music from happening. and that seems to be a problem inherent in the structure of the system to me.

the logical counter-argument is to call me on the false dichotomy between "work for money" and "creative work." But I don't see that it's realistic to expect musicians to do both, especially since pop classical music is a relatively small market to begin with.

At 1/05/2006 3:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 1/27/2006 3:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

criminy, don't you guys live down the hall from one another?


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