Tutoring Ms. Coppola on public goods.

Twitter doesn’t allow the more detailed examination of matters so, something I can link to from there.

Frances Coppola is insistent that music is a public good. The origin of this was about music degrees and how folk don’t make much out of having done one. Because, music is a public good, d’ye see?

The background to this argument is that there are sensible and reasonable arguments to say that public goods are underproduced in a purely market economy. It’s rather like the opposite of the externalities argument. Or perhaps we have positive externalities here which are not included in market prices. Just as negative externalities should be taxed or regulated away – which we use just depends upon the details of what we’re talking about – so we might want an intervention into the production of public goods.

The definition of this public good is not something good for the public, not something the public thinks is good to get. It’s highly specific – it must be something non-rivalrous and non-excludable. The mandatory citation from Wikipedia:

Note the “cannot”. It is not sometimes isn’t, often not, it’s cannot.

The standard exemplar is vaccination and that’s wrong. Because a vaccine, as we’ve all just found out, can be given to someone or not – it’s excludable. Also, since we’ve been having shortages it’s also obviously rivalrous. If one person gets one then another can’t have that same one – that’s what rivalry means and we can only have shortages of something extant if that is true.

The public good is the herd immunity of that necessary percentage of the population being vaccinated. Once that has happened then there is no way that we can exclude someone from gaining that benefit. Whether they’re vaccinated or not they enjoy that safety of being in a population the disease cannot pandemic its way through. Further, their enjoying that herd immunity doesn’t stop someone else from also enjoying it.

The point of the analysis being that in a market economy we tend to think that public goods will be underproduced. Because it’s really damn difficult to make money out of herd immunity. Or something that can be created once, copied thereafter and the quantity available never reduces.

Which is why we have time limited patents on inventions. The invention is a public good that cost a lot – maybe – to create that first time. But why would people spend a billion on making a new drug if the generic companies could just copy it on Day Two?

We can vary what the intervention is. Patents, the invention of property rights in order to create excludability, is one answer. As Ronald Coase pointed out about lighthouses, we could say that boats docking at domestic ports pay lights dues which go to the private lighthouses. We’ll just ignore the free rider problem of boats passing by because that solution is good enough. We could have regulation, we could have government spending. Adam Smith thought the benefits of being part of a generally literate and numerate society were worth government subsidy to primary schools. Now all we need to do is get the schools back to teaching readin’, ‘ritin’ ‘n’ numbering.

Or, to remain with vaccines, in order to gain that herd immunity we could use the NHS solution – government pays for all the kiddies to have them. Or the US, the kiddies can’t go to school until they’ve had their shots – the regulatory answer.

OK, fine. The crucial part of the argument though is that there is a general agreement that a purely free market system will underproduce some or many of such public goods. Intervention is thus justified. What the intervention is depends upon the specific circumstances – as with the inverse and Garrett Hardin on commons tragedies. The what depends upon the details, the whether on the identification of there being a public good here.

Which is, to repeat, that something be non-rivalrous and non-excludable.

So, to music. Is this something non-rivalrous and non-excludable?

“Music” is too wide a sector for there to be a correct answer. So let’s divide it into two. There’s the creation of new music – composition. Then there’s the performance of music that has already been composed.

OK, so we can exclude people from a performance of a piece of music. Note, as above, that our definition of public good does not depend upon whether we normally exclude, often do so, it’s whether we “cannot” do so. But clearly we can. So, music performance is not a public good. Yea even if much music is performed in public and for free, even if it’s good music for free and in public, a much stricter, erm, stricture, it ain’t a public good.

Ah, but composition. Once Amadeo had scribbled down those too many notes anyone could – and did – copy them. Anyone can now too. That’s a public good. Or as those two sisters created – or didn’t, as the controversy is – Happy Birthday. As millions of people will prove, this very day, it’s not possible to exclude people from singing it now that it’s been created. And their doing so doesn’t deplete the Happy Birthday Mines – so no complaints from George Monbiot about the damage Big Birthday is doing to Mother Gaia – that will allow people to do the same tomorrow.

Now that it exists Happy Birthday is a public good – non-excludable and non-rivalrous. At which point we’ve our public goods problem, people won’t invest in producing public goods “enough” because of the difficulty of profiting from having done so. To which the societal solution is copyright and yes, that’s absurdly overcooked. 70 years after death of the songwriter is nonsense. But that’s what the problem is. Composition is, once done, a public good so we do something about encouraging it. We could use other solutions. Creation of property rights isn’t the only way – we could have direct government subsidy of songwriters of course. That’s even been tried and gave us such famed pieces as “The Bones of the Ukrainian Helots are Crumbled Under the Weight of the Exceeded Tractor Production Targets” and other such light ditties.

Ms. Coppola has been arguing that performance of music is a public good. T’ain’t. Composition is. Which is why we already have a societal solution to that public goods problem of gaining more compositions – copyright. That performance is excludable means we don’t have to have a public goods solution because there isn’t a public goods problem here.

Note that this doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be subsidy to music. Or even, music degrees, which is sorta where we came in. We might think that warbling about the lark’s ascent is such an addition to societal happiness that we’ll cough up tax money to get ‘er done. Or we might not of course. But given that that is not a public good then the known and agreed public good justifications for such don’t apply. It becomes, instead,



For the music performance ain’t a public good.

12 thoughts on “Tutoring Ms. Coppola on public goods.”

  1. Music degrees? No.

    There is no shortage of posh girls with rich parents who want to be opera sopranos. Many of them, even ones who get big roles for good companies, are adding to their incomes by doing weddings (and for not unreasonable prices).

    If you have someone with a voice like Pavarotti who was born in a barn, there’s scholarships and competitions. People will make sure that a natural talent will make it (but in truth, 99% of singers are about as good as each other, so let the posh kids blow their trust funds).

    And in terms of pop music, there’s a ridiculous amount of music out there today, even though Spotify pays a ludicrously small sum for it.

  2. Very good post Tim. But if she was bright enough to ever follow it you wouldn’t have had to write it. Pearls/swine etc.

  3. One presumes this was prompted by La Cappola being on the public ear’ole for money.
    There two sides to the arts. There’s the pleasure people get from experiencing them. And very separately, there’s the pleasure those producing the arts get from knowing other people are experiencing them. To put it simply the “Look at me, Mummy!” factor. And there’s absolutely no reason for subsidising people’s feelz. If folk ain’t paying enough for you to do it, it probably means they ain’t much interested in you doing it.

  4. BiS,

    I ramble on historical matters military in a couple of places, for free & the fun of arguing.

    Someone suggested “you should write a book!” Thing is, I know someone who has, in fact they’ve written three, on obscure bits of military technology that are fascinating to a few sad spotters like me; their advice is “do it for satisfaction and bragging rights, and expect it to cost you money” (not just to earn trivial sums for the time expended, but once you’ve paid for archive time & duplication, picture rights et al you end up out of pocket).

    The books are pretty good, if you’re interested in either British armoured vehicle development, or the development and use of spigot mortars, but with the best will in the world those are niche interests – I’m glad Dave wrote them, I bought them and enjoyed them, but it’s a hobby not a job for him.

  5. “do it for satisfaction and bragging rights, and expect it to cost you money”

    That’s exactly my advice. I do it with the software and history research I do, and I’ve just finished proofreading and typesetting a friend’s “new translation” of some Buddhist works that she’s been working on for years as a personal effort for personal satisfaction of having done it. And there’s the personal pride of running a finger down “Books In Print” and seeing your own name there.

    The Surangama Sutra in Plain and Explicit English. ISBN 978-1-899366-60-6
    The Essence of The Surangama Sutra in Plain and Explicit English. ISBN 978-1-899366-61-3

  6. @ Jason
    I think there’s some “Look at me, Mummy!” in all of us. I made a career out of designing & making things. Made a lot of money doing it. But it’s only money. I like the fact there’s people living with what I made. Enjoying it. There’s a staircase in a French house an architect said couldn’t be made. I did the whole thing for free. For the challenge. The architect walking up it to the next floor was payment enough.
    But I’d never expect people to pay me for things they didn’t want. Just so I could enjoy myself. It’d be pointless for them & me. I do that sort of thing with my own money. Just for me.

  7. Brilliant by bis.
    The best thing about allowing the capitalist system of ownership is that it allows all these more nuanced and satisfying systems to operate below it.
    Every country that has banned capitalism is a schithole. Not even as a generalisation with exceptions. They all ended up being schit.

  8. Recorded performances are a public good too. I can listen to my copy of the Birdie Song without that affecting anyone else’s ability to do so, and, as Napster originally demonstrated and its successors still do, it isn’t excludable.

    Of course we have copyright there as well, or “phonorecord rights” (the little ℗ you find on your CDs).

  9. My current gardener is a young lad who got a first in Music from Bristol two years ago.

    Nice lad, very posh for a gardener, hard-working, and pretty good at what he does. He has no expectation of making any money out of music and in fact is going to Imperial next year to do a Masters on some aspects of military history.

    Tangentially, both he and his girlfriend have been double jabbed. Her periods have been immense and unpleasant ever since the second, and he is currently having what he describes as “a fever a week”. Neither will be having their booster, or so he says.

  10. I can’t tell what Frances Coppola might have said as there’s no link to it, but the analysis seems to assume that public money should only be spent on public goods. (And it also assumes that everyone should reserve the term “public good” for its technical meaning in economics, which is clearly hopeless).

    A good case can be made for also spending public money on things which are anti-rivalrous. These are things where my benefit increases as more people use the thing. While these are often intangible, intellectual things, a few are quite tangible. One example is phones. My phone is much more valuable to me if 90% of the populatioj have one than if only 10% have one. This is the reason why the universal service obligation was imposed on landlines in the UK (everyone was entitled to a line at a fixed installation cost – running a cable to a cabinet in the street outside your house cost the same as running it ten miles to the nearest exchange).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *