Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Writing Life: An Economist's Perspective

On the whole, economists have tended to regard the arts as beneath their notice. Classical economics (the tradition of Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, etc.) has tended to equate economic value with the production of tangible goods of "practical" use (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), and to slight the arts accordingly, and I suppose the habit stuck even after economists abandoned the old emphasis on tangibles to celebrate "the service economy." This attitude would also seem reinforced by the conservatism to which "reputable" economists have tended to adhere, which tends to stereotype intellectuals, and artists, as leftist social critics afflicting the comfortable, and resent them accordingly. (Indeed, Joseph Schumpeter and Milton Friedman, among others, have been openly nasty in their published remarks about these groups.1)

John Kenneth Galbraith was an exception in this regard (as in a great many other things), repeatedly visiting the theme in his books, perhaps most pointedly in 1973's Economics and the Public Purpose. Galbraith considered the artist a species of "independent entrepreneur" operating within a competitive market, much like the owner of a family-run farm or small service business. And like these other institutions, the artist survived in an economy dominated by large corporations in part because they were engaged in lines of business which did not easily lend themselves to organization--and because of their frequent willingness to work for less money than what they might make with similar effort elsewhere.

Writers certainly fit the model Galbraith described, novelists not being salaried employees of publishing firms, but subcontractors who work with their staff as the publishers deem convenient--and the data regarding their careers is in line with such a reading of the situation. As a recent survey by Tobias Buckell demonstrated, it is not at all atypical for a writer to labor for a decade to produce a book on which they can get a five thousand dollar advance, and another five to seven years spent on several subsequent books to work their way up to a twelve thousand dollar advance. As far as I have been able to tell, there is no comprehensive data regarding the investment of working hours in the production of a novel, which must be regarded as including besides the actual writing the time spent planning, researching and editing the book (and ought also to include the time spent publicizing it). Taken together, all this makes it clear that, despite the lengthy training required and the high risk involved in beginning and carrying on such careers, writing is not a handsomely rewarded occupation, a handful of publishing superstars apart.

And of course, as Galbraith notes, writers do not get much support from other quarters. Indeed, society offers an elaborate complex of reasons for not offering such support, Galbraith noting such widely held beliefs as the idea that the "true artist" can only expect to be appreciated by the few, and accordingly, meagerly compensated; that affluence, acclaim and public support would only be injurious to their performance; that the "truly inspired artist will excel, whatever the barriers to overcome"; and that the artist must, accordingly, be an "unworldly and monkish figure."

There is plenty of room for argument with such a position, and indeed Galbraith regards it as rationalization rather than explanation, reflecting the prevailing values of the "technostructure," which celebrate economic growth and technological change, while trivializing the aesthetic.2 Indeed, to put the matter into perspective, Galbraith contrasted the artist's lot with that of the scientist. Two centuries ago, he noted, it was the scientist who was expected to be "unworldly and monkish," a standing which changed when the scientist became economically useful--with the Industrial Revolution that made the application of theoretical science indispensable to economic life. Consequently, for all the anti-intellectualism we see directed at scientists, the scientist is no longer expected to forgo material well-being or public support. By contrast, the artist, who once had a "strong claim on public resources," now occupies something like the scientist's old niche--in line with the perception of their comparative "uselessness."

Galbraith was not only more attentive to the arts than other economists, but also more sympathetic to them, and so highly critical of this case of affairs. He also expected that the values of the technostructure would be effectively challenged, and the situation redressed. Alas, history was to prove him overoptimistic on these points--as on so many others.

1. As Diego Gambetta and Stefan Hertog have shown, survey data indicates that economists are well to the right of the general public--unsurprising, perhaps, given that mainstream economics has been more fully shaped by elite attitudes than other fields. At comparable levels of education, only engineers (another group whose education has been strongly shaped by the needs of business, as David Noble demonstrates in America By Design) are more politically conservative.
2. I have previously presented my take on this issue in my essay "Science Fiction and the Two Cultures," which was republished in my book After the New Wave: Science Fiction Since 1980.

On Writing and Publishing

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