It's Protectionism, not Technology that Boosts Yo-Yo Ma Relative to the 100th-Best Cellist

April 13, 2017

It is remarkable how the protectionist measures that redistribute income upward remain largely invisible to the folks who write about things like the upward redistribution of income. Thomas Edsall gave us a priceless example of this sort of oversight in a column talking about how non-metropolitan areas are losing out to major cities. 

The gem apperars in a quote from Andrew McAfee, the co-author The Second Machine Age. McAfee is warning about the course of future technology.

“We’ll continue to see the middle class hollowed out and will see growth at the low and high ends. Really good executives, entrepreneurs, investors, and novelists — they will all reap rewards. Yo-Yo Ma won’t be replaced by a robot anytime soon, but financially, I wouldn’t want to be the world’s 100th-best cellist.”

Okay, let’s get out the scorecards. People have always been prepared to pay lots of money to see top notch musicians. They also have been willing to pay to see very good, but less than the very best musicians, as in the world’s 100th-best cellist. What has changed is not the willingness for people to pay for live performances, or at least not in any obvious way, but rather the ability of a small group of performers to completely dominate the market in recorded music.

This is not a function of technology, but rather a result of copyright protection. The government has made copyright protection both longer (extending it from 55 years to 95 years) and stronger. It has extended copyright protection to the web and also made everyone with a website into a copyright cop, with responsibility to make sure that copyright protected material is not distributed through their site. (The law makes a website liable if material is not removed after being notified by the copyright holder, thereby requiring the website owner to side with the copyright holder against its client. By contrast, in Canada, a website owner must notify the person who is alleged to have posted infringing material of the complaint.)

This strengthening and lengthening is about the political power of the entertainment and software industry, it has nothing, zero, nada to do with technology. We could have just stood back and looked at copyright fall into disuse, as something made archaic by technology as the web exploded, just as we let the photographic film industry collapse as digital cameras proliferated.

There are other more modern mechanisms for supporting creative and artistic work. (I discuss the idea of individual vouchers in chapter 5 of Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer [it’s free].) Copyright alternatives may not result in the same sort of upward redistribution as we see as a result of copyright.

However, we are not likely see alternatives if the people who write about this stuff can’t even conceive of anything other than copyrights as a mechanism for supporting creative work. More importantly for the immediate issue, this is a clear case where we have designed policy to take money from the rest of the country and concentrate it in the hands of an elite, who are likely to be living in cities. (Patent monopolies are even more important.)

McAfee and Edsall are treating this upward redistribution as being simply a natural phenomenon that was an outgrowth of technology. It wasn’t and it is understandable that the victims of the this upward redistribution would both resent it and the people who try to hide its causes.  


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