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Damned Clever Title Coming in This Space Eventually

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So, John says that the free market is better than central planning, and Robert opines that we all think that the things we value the most shouldn’t be subjected to free market forces, and both of them have missed the point.

I said nothing about central planning, and I mostly have no use for it.  In a country as large and diverse as this one, it’s often a really bad thing.

And as for the thing I value most–which is not liberal arts education, but the reading and writing of fiction–the last thing I want is to see it removed from market forces.  In fact, such removal is almost always really, really bad for an art form.  If you don’t believe me, just look at French films–even French people won’t go to them if they’ve got an American or Australian or British alternative.  The result of fifty years of government subsidies to the movies in France has been an art form completely unable to connect with an audience.  Pretty much ever.

What I said, and what I still maintain to be true, is that not every endeavor is suited to a market model.  By that I DON’T mean that some things must be subsidized by the government–although I suppose there are such things, like mail delivery in rural areas where people live too far apart to be useful to private company–but that the market works best for those enterprises the purpose of which is to turn a profit.

Even in very capitalist societies, not everything that gets done, or that people feel worthwhile doing, is designed to turn a profit.  At the turn of the twentieth century, a bequest to Harvard College made possible the founding of what has come to be known as the Loeb Classical Library.  The LCL publishes small volumes of Greek and Latin works, the left hand side in the original language, the right in English translation, and its goal has always been to put the entire existing corpus of such works into print.  The LCL is not profitable, and never could be, but the people who run it think it’s very important to have these works in print, and their standard of success is all about how many they’ve managed to get and how widely they’ve managed to disseminate them.

You don’t expect the local food kitchen to judge its success by the profit it makes, either.  And that’s my point.  Some enterprises cannot be both successful at what they aim to achieve and profitable at the same time.

I pointed out the likelihood that medicine was one of thsoe, yesterday, but let me add to what I said there:  you don’t really want a hospital making medical decisions on what is or is not likely to bring in a buck.  The few for-profit hospitals that do that tend to lean very heavily on expensive but not particularly medically important procedures–cosmetic surgery, for instance, and special maternity packages that include things like single rooms with bathrooms en suite and hot tubs and aromotherapy for relaxation.

It isn’t generally profitable to care for the severely ill or injured.  That’s why tending to the sick is an act of corporal charity.  The country as a whole, and each of us as individuals, is bettered served, in the long run, if hospitals see their goal as helping sick people get well, and run on a non-profit model that assumes there will have to be some subsidy if the goal is to be reached. 

One of the things driving higher medical costs these days is precisely the fact that a lot of  hospitals and other providers have switched from a nonprofit to a “business” model, and the business model is doing exactly what you’d expect it to, including driving collection practices that no for-profit business would be allowed to get away with for a second.

In terms of education, I’m merely trying to point out that to the extent that we expect instutitions of higher education to be gatekeepers into higher paying jobs and the professions, the free market model will not work.  Students and their parents are understandably reluctant to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for the system to wash them up with a curt, “nope, you don’t measure up.  Out you go.”

On the other hand, if colleges and universities do no uphold those standards, the degree becomes increasingly meaningless and increasingly worthless on any objective level.  All it takes is somebody–where is Bill Gates when you need him?–to come along and say, “you know, these degrees aren’t telling us anything.  From now on, we don’t care if you’ve spent the last 16 years in a cave.  Come take our qualifying exam.  We’re hiring from that.”

To the extent that higher education is not being used as a gatekeeper, there are areas that will in fact do well with a market model.  That’s certainly happening with the liberals arts, where companies like The Teaching Company and The Great Courses put out entire courses–the Nineteenth Century British novel, Renaissance Art, The Rise of the Confederacy–on DVD and audiotape, and people line up to buy them.

On the other hand, if providing such courses–pretty much PC free, by the way, since the public doesn’t want PC–was not profitable, I could see it as being worthwhile to provide them with the aid of subsidies from private donors and foundations.

Note:  I am NOT talking about government money here.  I almost never am. 

But there’s a further problem for me with a system which assumes the validity of a market model for everything, and that is that it precisely tends to make all systems of value appear relative.  The Da Vinci Code is a profoundly stupid book, ignorant (and just plain wrong about almost all its history and a lot of its locations), badly written (the damage to English grammar alone is astounding), derivative and trite.   Selling a couple of million copies does not change any of that, nor does it make The Da Vinci Code a better book than any number that sold less well–including, thank you very much, most of mine.

And I do not harbor any illusions that what I write is Literature.

The fact is that sales tell us nothing at all about how good or bad a book is, as a book, because in order to produce a really big best seller, you have to sell to lots and lots of people who read, maybe, one book every five years.  If that.  They like what they like when they like it.  They couldn’t tell you the difference between fiction and  history to save their lives.  They just don’t care if the information is accurate.  They tend to think people who use proper English grammar are snobs who think too well of themselves.  They’re not book people.

It’s because you have to sell to people like these in order to produce a best seller that the big conglomerates who have taken over book publishing are having such a hard time of it.  It is absolutely impossible to figure out what these people want to read, because they don’t actually want to read anything.  What they’re going to find fascinating next spring is a total toss up, and what they find fascinating is often what people who DO read don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole.

Some very good books sell like crazy (The Shining) and some do not (The Portrait of a Lady).  Some very bad books sell like crazy (The Da Vinci Code) and some do not (thank goodness). 

Money and popularity are nice to have, but they’re not the only worthwhile goals in the universe.  If the (classically) liberal democratic state has one overriding virtue, it is precisely in the fact that it makes it possible for lots of people to find viable niches for goals that have nothing to do with making money. 

And please, I don’t in the least despise making money.   I wish I made a lot more of it.  Something in me just isn’t wiling–and may not even be able–to write a series about a nun with a cat detective to do it.

Not everything works well on a market model, just like not every recipe does well if you just make it with limes. 

Education is a bubble because it is based on a fantasy, and the bubble will burst eventually.  But I wouldn’t expect educational standards to rise because consumers–parents or students–demanded it.  First you’d have to teach the parents and students what is important about the fields of study you want them to understand, and then…

But there’s no and then.

In an anti-intellectual culture, that selling of “diplomas” is inevitable.

And it isn’t good forus.

Written by janeh

December 9th, 2008 at 11:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Damned Clever Title Coming in This Space Eventually'

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  1. Everything said about charity, the value of honest non-profits and that some things should be done without expectation of profit is true–or at least I agree with it.

    But I’ll stand by my point that certain government policies have made our higher education system more expensive and less focused on education than it might otherwise have been. Remember a college or university has “customers” at both ends: those paying for an education, a diploma or both, and those hiring the diploma’ed products, and the Federal government is both of these.

    As the biggest employer in the country, the Fed’s policy of “any four-year degree” in non-technical hiring helps place a value on the diploma as distinct from training or education. And if what you really need is the diploma and not the education, why should the school not give it to you if you’ve paid for it? It’s not a fantasy if both students and parents are correct in thinking that the diploma BY ITSELF will open doors: they’re too often right. This blurs the line between education and extortion.

    And some Federal policies as a provider of grants and loans tend to place a floor on college prices. If the Fed offers me $48,000 in a grant or in loans I think I might not have to repay to go to college, I might consider whether a university charging $36,000 was offering me a better education. I would not consider whether it was offering me a better education FOR THE MONEY because that last $12,000 isn’t mine anyway. All colleges up to $48,000 cost me the same amount. (I picked the figures out of the air. Real numbers will be obsolete in five years anyway.)

    My point was not to desparage charity as a motive, nor even–necessarily–to discouarge Federal spending, but to point out some of the effects of the Law of Unintended Consequences, and that this is one of those cases where it’s easy to spend the money, but not so easy to get what you’re paying for.


    9 Dec 08 at 7:28 pm

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