Tag Archives: Tyler Cowen

A new name for this blog

grant mccracken II

My blog subtitle used to be “This blog sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.”  This was both too grand and untrue.  Fine for politicians but not websites.

So now it’s “How to make culture.”  For the moment.  Also thinking of “New Rules for Making Culture.”  Is that better?  I can’t tell.  Please let me know.

Yesterday, I was blogging about the new rules of TV.  And in the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking about advertising, education, late night TV, game shows, culture accelerators.  Less recently, I’ve been talking about marketing, comedy, language, branding, culturematics, story telling, hip hop, publishing, and design thinking.

All of this is culture made by someone.  And all of it is culture made in new ways, often, and according to new rules, increasingly.  Surely an anthropologist can make himself useful on something like this.  Anyhow, I’m going to try.

I have four convictions.  Open to discussion and disproof.

1) that our culture is changing.  Popular culture is becoming more like culture plain and simple.  Our culture is getting better.

I have believed in this contention for many years.  Certainly, since the 90s when I still lived in Toronto.  (It was my dear friend Hargurchet Bhabra who, over drinks and a long conversation, put his finger on it.  “It’s not popular culture anymore.  Forget the adjective.  It’s just culture.”)

This was not a popular position to take especially when so many academics and intellectuals insisted that popular culture was a debased and manipulative culture, and therefore not culture at all.  Celebrity culture, Reality TV, there were lots of ways to refurbish and renew the “popular culture is bad culture” argument.  And the voices were many.  (One of these days I am going to post a manuscript I banged out when living in Montreal.  I called it So Logo and took issue with all the intellectuals who were then pouring scorn of popular culture one way or another.)

My confidence in the “popular culture is now culture” notion grew substantially this fall when I did research for Netflix on the “binge viewing” phenomenon.  To sit down with a range of people and listen to them talk about what they were watching and how they were watching, this said very plainly that TV, once ridiculed as a “wasteland,” was maturing into story telling that was deeper, richer and more nuanced.  The wasteland was flowering.  The intellectuals were wrong.

2) This will change many of the rules by which we make culture.  So what are the new rules?

I mean to investigate these changes and see if I can come up with a new set of rules.  See yesterday’s post on how we have to rethink complexity and casting in TV if we hope to make narratives that have any hope of speaking to audiences and contributing to culture.  Think of me as a medieval theologian struggling to codify new varieties of religious experience.

3) The number of people who can now participate in the making of culture has expanded extraordinarily.  

This argument is I think much discussed and well understood.  We even know the etiology, chiefly the democratization (or simple diffusion) of the new skills and new technology.  What happens to culture and the rules and conventions of making culture when so many other people are included, active, inspired and productive?  We are beginning to see.  Watch for codification here too.   (As always, I will take my lead for Leora Kornfeld who is doing such great work in the field of music.)

4)  We must build an economy that ensures that work is rewarded with value.

I have had quite enough of gurus telling us how great it is that the internet represents a gift economy, a place where people give and take freely.  Two things here.  1) The argument comes from people who are very well provided for thanks to academic or managerial appointments.  2) This argument is applied to people who are often obliged to hold one or more “day jobs” to “give freely on the internet.”  Guru, please.   Let’s put aside the ideological needle work, and apply ourselves to inventing an economy that honors value through the distribution of value.

I have made this sound like a solitary quest but of course there are many thousands of people working on the problem.  Every creative professional is trying to figure out what he or she can do that clients think they want.  I am beginning to think I can identify the ones who are rising to the occasion.  They have a certain light in their eyes when you talk to them and I believe this springs from two dueling motives I know from my own professional experience, terror and excitement.


To Russell Duncan for taking the photograph.

Christmas gift-giving: the economist vs. the anthropologist

This is the week in which we move from inklings of alarm to flat-out panic.  Have we done our shopping?  No, we haven’t done our shopping.

Economist to the rescue.  Joel Waldfogel has been arguing since 1993 that seasonal gift giving is dodgy and that we ought to rethink the exercise.

Quizzing students in his classroom, Waldfogel has determined that there’s a discrepancy of 20% between value given and value received.  This is another way of saying that our gift giving acuity is sufficiently impaired that people prize our gifts dramatically less that we think they will.  We give lamb, they get mutton.  Let’s call the whole thing off.

This really is looking the gift horse in the mouth.  In a normal American Christmas, according to The Economist, retailers make 25% of their yearly sales and 60% of their profits between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What it ignores is the social point of the exercise.  We give gifts to acknowledge, shape, and celebrate our relationships.  How do gifts work to social effect?  We carry in our heads a set of understandings, cultural understandings, about how the recipient is and what gifts mean.  We use these understandings to fashion a match.  Good matches bring delight and confirmation.  Bad matches try the patience and challenge the relationship.  But so much social value is being created here that economic waste, when this occurs, is modest.

We don’t have good metrics for this social value.  But here’s a laboratory experiment you can try over the holiday season.  Try withholding gifts from someone, and see what difference it makes.  For want of a relatively small amounts of value, our social world can change beyond recognition.  Want to live in soulless social world that Dickens threatens in a Christmas Carol?  Just follow Waldfogel’s advice.

Gary Davies, Manchester Business School, understands this.  He says of Waldfogel’s perspective:

[It’s a] typical economist’s view of an issue where it isn’t the economics that are driving the issue. It’s the social side, the symbolism of the gift. [BBC news magazine, ref. below]

The Economist gets it too.

Gift-giving, some economists think, is a process that adds value to an item over and above what it would otherwise be worth to the recipient. Intuition backs this up, of course. A gift’s worth is not only a function of its price, but also of the giver and the circumstances in which it is given.

Somehow, one feels that if Waldfogel had quizzed his students a little more broadly about gift giving he might have glimpsed the larger significance, the true purpose, of all this “wasteful” spending.

But of course many economists are tone deaf when it comes to the social and the cultural.  What Adam Smith took out, they will not return to the field of study  Most of the time, this is a spectacularly success trade off.  Excising the social and the cultural from the field of study made certain understandings, and an entire discipline, both possible and productive.

The trick then is for the economist to know where the model works and where it can not.  (There may be a simple answer here.  Waldfogel was at Yale when this work first began, and as readers of this blog have heard before, Yalies are famously obtuse when it comes to certain real world problems.  They spring from the wrong kind of Protestants, I think, to be really world embracing.)

But this is something more at issue here that insisting on paradigmatic boundaries.  As just about anyone under 35 can tell us, the very of a marketplace is being challenged by a new set of ideas, the so called “gift economy.”  As this idea claims more people, it will claim more and larger parts of the economy.  Unless economists wants to watch the problem set disappear like a polar icecap, it’s time to do better than Waldfogel.


Anonymous, 2001.  Is Santa a Dead Weight?  The Economist.  December 21.  here.

Cowen, Tyler.  1998.  In praise of commercial culture.  Boston: Harvard University Press.  here.

Davies, Gary.  n.d., Gifts and Giving.  Forthcoming.

McCracken, Grant.  n.d., Christmas Trees.  This Blog.  here.  (for more on an anthropological approach to the season, specifically that spectacularly wasteful object, the Christmas tree)

Rohrer, Finlo.  2009.  Should We Stop Buying Christmas Gifts?  BBC news magazine.  December 3.  here.

Waldfogel, Joel.  1993.  The Deadweight Loss of Christmas”. American Economic Review, December, vol 83, no 5.

Waldfogel, Joel.  2009.  Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents For The Holidays.  On Amazon here.

Wikipedia entry on the gift economy here.

Note: This post was lost due to Network Solutions incompetence some 12 months ago.  It just resurfaced on the net and I am reposted this day Dec. 24, 2010.