Undercover Economist

In search of a better Don Giovanni

The Undercover Economist – FT Magazine 20 May

“There are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.” Joseph II’s friendly advice to Mozart – as presented in Peter Shaffer’s screenplay for the film Amadeus – provokes harsh laughter from any writer who has dealt with the editor’s pen. Mozart is said to have replied, “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

Mozart’s urbane response made the emperor look absurd. But Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, seems to have a similar perspective in his new book about arts funding, Good and Plenty: “Mozart’s Don Giovanni has musical beauty, terror, comedy and a sense of the sublime, making it a favourite of opera connoisseurs. But what if consumers draw their comedy from one work, their terror from another, their beautiful music from yet another, and so on?” Cowen knows that the idea is outrageous for Don Giovanni, but not so for lesser works.

Move away from the peaks of artistic creation and there lie many albums, books, television shows and films whose artistic qualities are unbundled, tweaked and repackaged to suit the demands of the petty emperor in all of us. Music is remixed in “mashups” combining vocals from one source and instrumentation from another. Favourite sitcom characters gain independent life in their own shows. Films are released and re-released offering director’s cuts and a choice of endings. What is more, these lesser packages of comedy and terror, not Don Giovanni, are the artistic products that most of us consume in quantity.

Products are bundles of characteristics. Sometimes the characteristics are easy to spot and interchangeable, such as your MP3 player’s memory, battery life and styling. Sometimes, as with Don Giovanni, part of the product’s appeal is that the characteristics are perfectly balanced. But more often than we might think, we gain real satisfaction from being able to choose from products with a different range of attributes.

The man who first thought of products as bundles of valuable characteristics was the Australian economist, Kelvin Lancaster. He realised that customers do not much like “one size fits all” and would prefer to have products that exactly matched their needs. The reason we do not all enjoy perfectly tailored products is not that the idea is absurd – although it is easy to mock “the ultimate chill-out album” – but because of increasing returns to scale. I would like to hear U2 produce more tracks such as “Acrobat” and “Exit”, but Bono and company do not find it profitable to write them just for me.

Lancaster showed that producers can do a better job of satisfying individual customers when the market is bigger. In London I can find something close to my ideal restaurant experience because there are enough people like me to keep the restaurant afloat. In a small town a restaurant cannot survive on the passing trade of one person per decade with Tim Harford’s tastes, so I have to enjoy what is there, even if it is not quite what I would have chosen myself.

The same should be true of the arts, and that is one reason why fears of global homogenisation are overstated. Given that there are more customers out there than ever before, and given that it is easier to move around goods and services too, it is now much more likely that there will be kindred spirits who share my tastes enough to encourage some entrepreneurial artist to produce exactly the products I want.

I can find them too. I searched the internet for “Don Giovanni abridged”. It turns out, incredibly, that such a work exists and was performed in New York this month. Emperor Joseph II, take note.