Sunday, December 4, 2011

Elevator Speech econ #2—the economic importance of aesthetics

Aesthetics may be the most important economic consideration of them all

Economics covers a wide assortment of human activity. Because this is true whatever the economic theory, the most relevant discussion is usually, "What was left out?"

Sometimes economic considerations are left out because of human error. In the world of technical documentation, the producers of such documents worry constantly about the steps that get left out—and that usually happens because the folks who know what they're doing just assume that others will fill in the blanks the same way they can. Yet even when professionals obsess about this problem, the biggest single complaint in instruction manuals is missed steps.

Missing economic considerations are also a function of cost and time constraints. Obviously, EVERYTHING cannot be taken into account (although as computers have gotten cheaper and more powerful, this problem diminishes on its own.). In the best case scenario, what gets studied is what is most important. More likely, what gets studied in economics is what is important to the client. If costs can be offloaded to other people or the environment, they tend to be written out of economic considerations.

Of course, the biggest constraint on broader economic inquiry in the past generation was that we limited ourselves to questions that could be studied using complex and sophisticated math. We study what we can count. Of course, this is hopelessly shallow but it was made "legitimate" by the statistician's battle cry—made famous by Robert Strange McNamara, "If you can't count it, it doesn't exist."

Unfortunately, what cannot be counted in a traditional sense is virtually infinite. But my favorite subject is aesthetics. It is easy to demonstrate the economic importance of aesthetics—beautiful prostitutes charge more than ugly ones, seaside property fetches more than land next to the dump, etc. etc. We also know that certain people can create objects of such beauty, people will pay to have them make their own lives more aesthetically uplifting. This can even happen on a mass industrial scale—it can be argued that Apple Computer has been able to charge premium prices over the years because they spent big bucks to make their products beautiful.

Reasonable people could argue that there is NO economic topic more important than aesthetics. And yet, I have yet to encounter any practicing economist who gives more than a passing nod to the subject. In their minds, aesthetics gets embedded into price information and that's all they need to know. And maybe they are right—but I seriously doubt it.

Folks may argue about the nature of beauty but when it comes down to casting a vote, there is astonishing agreement about what is beautiful. One of the things I discovered while I was in the "inner city neighborhoods must be saved" phase of my life was that committees do not get organized to save eyesores. Because a sustainable society will be one that is well-maintained, the most certain way to build a sustainable society is to build a beautiful one.

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