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Why Oh Why Can’t We Have More Economically Literate English Majors?

16 Oct

I find myself scratching my head at this Kenyon Review blog post about the online presence of literary journals and the value of literary commodities. It starts out with a discussion on the end of Times Select:

Now let me say, I’ve never taken an economics class, but I get the principle here. As the New York Times recently found in the failure of their online subscription service, people will pay for a hard copy of a newspaper, but not its online equivalent. This partly reflects our sense of the internet as a free space, not only in the sense of the free-flow of ideas, but a place where everything is free. But it also reflects the fact that we live in a commodity culture: we value the object — the book — more than its contents.

The demise of the Times paywall is the wrong analogy. The problem wasn’t that people would pay for an actual paper in lieu of an online copy, but that future advertising revenue was likely to outstrip online subscriptions. The New York Times, and now the Financial Times (with the WSJ likely to follow) went full-access (mostly) because, as Felix Salmon noted, they were losing potential pageviews from Google because their content was behind a subscriber firewall. Attention is the big value on the internet (and in “old media,” if you can attract advertisers), thus, less attention meant less revenue. Everything isn’t “free,” it’s just that it’s being paid for in a different way: advertisers instead of subscribers.

Lobanov-Rostovsky is right when he suggests we often “value the object–the book–more than its content.” Books are a type of “symbolic good,” (PDF) which we as consumers buy because of the way it makes us feel about ourselves or as a way to signal to other people that we are educated and cultured. This is less true of writers and literature lovers, who are looking for the content inside the pages, but the basic observation that people will buy books less for what they contain then for their “cultural aura” is correct.

But then Lobanov-Rostovsky makes an argument I’ve read before, but still doesn’t make any sense:

Still, I find this concept surprising when we apply it to literature. I’ve always assumed that one thing we can all agree on is that a literary text can’t be reduced to a commodity. I’m thinking here of Lewis Hyde’s view of literature as a kind of gift economy, in which the intellectual and spiritual labor that goes into the making of a literary text far exceeds anything that the poet or novelist can expect to receive in return, except in the pleasure of reading other literary texts. In a sense, the value of a literary text far exceeds its cost, but only to those who already share a common set of cultural values.

I have no idea why a literary text can’t be reduced to a commodity. Perhaps one would argue it shouldn’t be, but that is a separate argument. A quick look inside the local Barnes and Nobles, Borders–even a college bookstore or small press–suggests that a text can definitely be a commodity. Books are discrete, excludable goods that you have to pay for and can carry around. And although no one can “own” ideas, creative works–while not physical commodities–are protected under intellectual property rights. We can’t quantify the “spiritual labor” that goes into a work, so we can’t compensate someone for that; we can only measure opportunity cost in the form of forgone productive labor. But that is irrelevant, because we can’t quantify the spiritual labor for anyone–doctors, lawyers, teachers, or poets.

I think this conceptual breakdown occurs because Lobanov-Rostovsky, like many others in the literary community, sees market value imputed by something like the “labor theory of value.” But as Brad DeLong put it, “[n]obody who ventured into the labor theory of value has ever emerged.” This is where the occasional economics class might help to clarify things–or at least make for more economically sensible blog posts.