A couple weeks ago I got to spend an evening with Haley and Gabe in Boston discussing various things that probably bored Haley to tears (sorry!), but at least Gabe found interesting. One of Gabe’s shticks is that art should do a better job of conveying important ideas and concepts to its consumers. His favorite example of this (of everything?) is The Wire.
I want to push back on this a little bit – an alternate title this post might be “In Which I Attempt To Troll Gabe Into Coming Back To The Internet At Least In Small Doses And In A Totally Responsible Fashion Which Won’t Disrupt His Life And Waste His Time And Also Into Maybe Writing Something Interesting” but it just didn’t seem catchy enough.
Let’s take the premise at face value – that art should try to convey useful, meaningful concepts to its consumers. This seems reasonable as at least one of the things art should do. Well, it’s reasonable so long as art can convey these concepts. But can it? At face value, the answer is obvious – of course it can! The Matrix taught a generation that their perceived reality is possibly not even real. Inception did this for another generation.
But this dodges the question by avoiding the steel man: can art realistically convey new concepts to people often? Or efficiently? It’s easy to be less sanguine about this question.
A good example here is a concept from economics (and elsewhere) called elasticity. The price elasticity of demand, for example, is the % change in the quantity of a good demanded caused by a 1 % change in the price. There’s an ambiguity here though – are these percentages computed by using the original price and quantity as the base? The new price and quantity? Or maybe the average of the new and old price and quantities? Different textbooks and instructors make different decisions here, and students often get lost in a formula that doesn’t at all seem intuitive. Conveying the concept of elasticity at a high enough resolution that the recipient can understand the math is hard.
Unless they already know calculus. In terms of calculus, price elasticity of demand is dQ/dP * (P/Q), or in other words the derivative of demand with respect to price times the ration of price to demand. We can rearrange this equation as (dQ/Q)/(dP/P) in order to make it look more like percentage changes. If a student already knows calculus, it’s often very easy to explain elasticity to them – the ambiguity about base percentages goes away through the magic of calculus, and learning calculus already taught them about rates of changes. It’s also really easy to explain acceleration (the derivative of velocity) or jerk (the derivative of acceleration) or a whole host of useful concepts from a wide variety of disciplines.
I’m not just saying it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give a man a fish – as Gabe told me in Boston there’s some low hanging fruit to be grabbed just from giving people fish, and I agree. Some of the people you give fish to may have starved after all! But there’s something else going on here – not everyone knows how to eat fish. The fish eating novice might not chew thoroughly and miss the small bone tucked in the flaky goodness, resulting in some discomfort, post traumatic stress syndrome, and a lifetime devoid of fish. This, I contend, is a potential problem with trying to give someone the concept of elasticity who has never had calculus. Fundamentally, this is a really hard thing to do in such a way that requires no work on the recipient’s end.
Perhaps this is why Gabe reveres art which successfully conveys important, meaningful, and difficult concepts well – precisely because it’s so difficult. But I must ask the question, was is really that successful? Or did the people who got the concept already have the equivalent of calculus under their belt? Consider The Wire. As Robin Hanson notes:
The overall moral of the story seems to me largely libertarian. A renegade cop effectively legalizing drugs in one area works out great, and the show’s writers have a Time oped supporting drug law jury nullification. Dire consequences follow from child labor and prostitution being illegal. The police, courts, prisons, schools, and city hall are unrelentingly corrupt and dysfunctional, because voters don’t much care. In the background of the story, industries managed mainly by private enterprise, such as stores, hotels, shipping, and cars, seem to mostly function well. Private newspapers look bad, but mainly because readers don’t much care.
Apparently, however, many see The Wired as calling for more government. At a Harvard symposium on The Wired, many panelists said the answer was more funding. Simon was there:
The wire is about a world in which people are worth less. … We depicted a world in which market forces always have their say and in which capitalism has triumphed, and marginalized labor – it makes labor cheap. … What we have here is a market-based [world]; capitalism has been the God. To even suggest that there should be some social compact along with the capitalistic forces, to mitigate any of that, over the last twenty-five years, has been political suicide. … We are only getting the American that we’ve paid for, no more, and God damn it, we deserve it.
To many people, The Wire illustrates all the reasons why capitalism caused the problems of Baltimore and other cities. Any understanding of market forces goes over their head. But to libertarian leaning economists like Robin and Alex Tabborak, The Wire is obviously illustrating how market forces work and the problems that arise when we ignore these forces. We can give these men fish; they already know calculus.