27 October 2005

Musicians With Borders

A few days ago, I commented on the current cultural-protectivism negotiations at UNESCO. Despite the US "no" vote, the treaty was passed by a large margin; now, once 30 individual nations have ratified it, it will come into force.

An item in today's Guardian on other protectionist measures in Europe—led, again, by the French—illustrates what is really going on in the UNESCO meetings. They are just another forum for expressing distrust by governments that the people who (in some form or another) elected them don't trust those same people to know what they want. Sometimes, those governments are right; sometimes they are not. I only find it ironic that this impulse is combined with cultural protectionism in a futile struggle against the influx of other cultures in an area of pervasive communication of culture. Better to hold back the tide—one can do that for at least a little while (until Mother Nature gets pissed off, anyway).

In any event, there is another reason. If the preceding paragraph seems rather surreal, it should; it's from the mythical realm of "perfect application of rational-actor economics." As Derek Scott notes in the article cited above,

But this protectionist stance is based on a false premise — we're not engaged in a race to the bottom. In reality the combination of global capital flows and free trade raises the wages of workers in poor countries rather than lowering the wages of workers in rich countries, and as output rises in poor countries so poor-country incomes also rise, increasing demand for rich-country output. Of course this does not happen overnight and there are particular sectors and communities that can face difficult adjustments, but the longer they are delayed the more difficult they become. The changes in the world pattern of production do require structural flexibility in the richer countries, but that is best done at the national level, not with some EU "stabilisation fund".

(emphasis added; fake paragraphing removed for clarity) The real problem with almost all economic arguments for change—including those I agree with!—is that they are temporally ignorant. Rather like shorthand chemical equations. A typical chemical reaction might be stated like this:

A2 + B2 → 2AB

which seems fairly innocuous. A sample reaction energy profile However, it actually leaves out some critical information that a working chemist will unconsciously consider: the energy pathway from (A + B) to C.1 That reaction might more accurately—but still imperfectly—be represented with a reaction-energy profile, something like the diagram on the right, which implies a great deal about resistance to change that seldom gets any (let alone adequate) consideration in discussing economic policy. Although Mr Scott's objections are well taken in the theoretical sense, he pays virtually no attention to the actual pathway between current policy and a "no trade barriers at all" policy. Particularly in the arts, this is a difficult concept to measure; and, because it isn't measured with sufficient precision,2 it will be ignored in creating policy.

One other factor noted in the chemical reaction energy diagram deserves greater attention in its economic analog. Note that the energy "benefit" is only 5 kCal, while the activation energy is eight times as great. This is a fairly typical reaction profile, at least for simple reactions. Once we start adding other chemicals (economic factors), the profile can have several peaks and valleys between multiple activated complexes, each with its own activation energy—and potentially lethal intermediate states and byproducts, not to mention yield of less than 100%.

Why does all of this abstract, tangential musing matter to the arts? Very simple: it doesn't, to the arts themselves. It matters to the artists. Starving artists don't paint daisies—they push them up. That's a lethal intermediate byproduct that nobody in the argument over cultural protectionism seems to care much about.

  1. Of course, that's not all that gets left out; so are yield, byproducts, reaction speed, nonchemical catalysts, solvent properties, and a wide variety of other factors that a chemist considers important to actually implementing a theoretically sound desired reaction. Similarly, I suspect that working economists would claim that analogous factors are left out of simple economic equations; the problem in both cases is that these other factors are discounted (if ever considered) by those not trained in the relevant field. Unfortunately, it's usually the untrained who ultimately make the decisions that matter—MBAs in management at the chemical manufacturer, politicians in economic policy.
  2. As distinct from "accuracy." But that is getting too close to the mathematics of stochastic processes (and simpler areas of statistics, for that matter) for this blawg.