Monday, January 03, 2005

Mastering Inefficiency

I recently read an article by Jared Diamond, author of the thoughtful book Guns, Germs, and Steel, that got my mental wheels spinning. In “How to Become Rich” he presents the question that many in business would love to have an answer to, “Based upon history, what is the best organizational system for a modern business?” (Click on the title of this post to link to the article.) He proceeds to answer the question by arguing for exposure to competition that produces innovation and efficiency. Diamond discusses how the German beer making and the Japanese food processing industries are not as efficient as their American counterparts. He rightfully argues that they are protected from competitive international markets. Germans are protective of their local beers and the Japanese are protective of having extremely fresh foods, and the local laws that govern these industries, reflecting cultural values, drastically reduces their efficiency and prevents future growth, competition, and development.

Here’s the issue that goes nearly untouched that I find fascinating: these inefficient, less competitive forms of production are presently producing far better products than their efficient, highly competitive American counterparts. Furthermore, similar legal protections can provide support to cultural traditions that are of value to society. Even though they face minimal competition, German beer, in my opinion, is superior to mass-produced American counterparts. If nothing else, it is reassuring to go down the hill here in Freiburg and order a beer and know that it comes from the region. People here appreciate that. Likewise, Americans with their efficient and competitive food production systems still don’t have access to foods that are as fresh as those that are provided in Japanese markets. In terms of living in a healthy, soulful society, I posit that we may have a vested interest in not being surrounded by efficiency-oriented systems. Diamond points out that the advance of technologies through history is nearly unstoppable, but I believe that there are questions of value that go unformed in his argument. How do we maintain and protect things we cherish from what amounts to unstoppable progress, efficiency, competition, and development?

What does this have to do with music? For one thing, orchestras, sitting at the pinnacle of classical music, practically define the word ‘inefficient.’ Classical music requires big-time protection and should never be expected to be competitive on the mass market. If we value classical music, which I assume wholeheartedly that we should, and we want it to survive, we shouldn’t try to think of it in modern business terms. For example, the trend of bringing in business CIOs to run arts organizations has had some disastrous effects (a topic for future posts). A quick example would be the classical recording industry that turned to the corporate model of efficiency. The result: they nearly stopped making classical recordings altogether. There is a ratio that orchestras follow that would startle most business people. On average their budgets come from 40% ticket sales and 60% public and private support. Giving concerts often losses money instead of brining in revenue. Try running any other business like that!

Most importantly, our inefficient product is something of real worth. We should cherish it by not trying to frame it as a commodity. If we only extend the metaphors of commerce and business to art and treat it as a commodity, it will be a continual failure by the imposed standards.

Diamond’s article also points out something important that we should note. Namely, where cultural value is affixed, inefficient, traditional systems can flourish. This tells us that the future stability of our art will not rise or decline with our abilities to become more efficient or raise money. Rather, it depends on the way we are valued as an institution. Given the present cultural climate in the US, should we have hope or should we be more concerned?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a commentator on Yglesias pointed out sometimes you have to take Jared Diamond with a grain of salt as his positions change with the wind.

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:53 PM  
Blogger The Living Composer said...

Dear Anon,

Thanks for visiting the site, I hope that you are enjoying it. I thought I'd take a moment to respond to your post and link. I enjoyed Diamonds work and think that he retains an underlying moral sense even if he isn’t sharing it. In this particular instance, I believe he knowingly omitted value judgments to keep his argument concise. He touched on this once when he mentioned that he loves German beer, brings it home from trips, and that his discussion wasn’t concerned with the value of the products, only the efficiency of their production. My argument simply uses his work as a springboard to my thoughts concerning the unaddressed value issues. Based upon my limited knowledge from the books and articles I’ve read, I find myself in disagreement with the views expressed on the linked website from Anon1; they read as fallacious arguments that distort Diamond’s work. I wasn’t persuaded.

12:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how you can construe Diamond's own writing as fallacious. His work was published in Nature and those are his own words.

Of course, one must remember that this work was published before the furor about the Bell Curve. Since then Diamond has changed his position to be one that is more politically palatable.

1:30 AM  
Blogger The Living Composer said...

Dear previous Anon,

I believe that you misread my previous comment. I find the views expressed on the website that was given as a link (by Anon1) to be fallacious, not the views of Diamond.

1:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone who is familiar with the journal Nature will know that their "News and Views" section consists of brief articles that serve as guest editorials and/or signposts to longer research articles in that journal and elsewhere. While the views expressed in that particular "News and Views" contribution of Jared Diamond's are his own, the original research cited and discussed therein is not Diamond's. A cursory glance at the 13 cited references will confirm this.

10:17 AM  
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6:26 PM  

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