16 July 2009

"Economists are often dimwits:" Yessirree!

The old saw that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing is well illustrated here. David Marr deconstructs the Productivity Commmission report on book publishing.

DON'T for a moment accuse the productivity commissioners of being philistines. They know it's not all about money. They recognise there's something Australian books do for us all that the market can't price. Not much, but something. It's the little extra they call the "unpriced externality component of the cultural benefits" of Australian publishing.

Dreadful jargon. They mean what the nation gets out of each of us individually buying and reading an uplifting work of Australian literature. And the conclusion they reach in their hefty report is that the market should no longer pay for this extra something as it has for years by restricting book imports.

The commissioners aren't singing psalms to the "externalities" of a vibrant national literature. They see negatives everywhere. We're too prone, for instance, to hog the cultural benefits for ourselves. "Most of the cultural value" generated by "hundreds of thousands of titles purchased and read in Australia each year", they say, will be "internalised" by the readers.

No net gain to the nation.

Hacking away at most of the arguments advanced by the authors, publishers and booksellers who support the present system, the commissioners ask themselves some big questions. Do Australian books, they wonder, really do Australia much good? "Even where books do contain ideas that have a wider influence on society, determining whether this influence translates into benefits for society can be contentious."

Very true.

These questions aren't, perhaps, the natural work of productivity commissioners. The strain shows. "While the aggregate cultural value of literature may be substantial," they write, "the cultural value of each book will vary, depending on matters such as category and genre, specific content and idiom."

Helpfully, they sketch what beneficial national literature looks like: writing that helps "diffuse social norms" in the interest of more "predictable or trustable" human behaviour. "The reading of books of cultural value may help individuals to feel more connected to, and to be more productive within, particular social groups or the wider society."

Gawd. They're the worst fears of Aust. Lit. confirmed.

Yet that's the stuff they argue deserves some sort of public support, not through a publishing industry that's prosperous because of a modest market rort, but through some kind of public subsidy. Yet their enthusiasm to get rid of the old isn't matched by any great clarity about the future.These arrangements are to be determined, but not by them.

This never-ending stoush is far from over. One side issue to emerge yesterday: the strange lack of confidence in both scrutiny and competition shown by the Productivity Commission's decision to sit tight on its 240-page report all day yesterday until 3 o'clock. This, a spokesman told the Herald, was to achieve market neutrality between TV, radio and newspapers. He wasn't joking.


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