Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cultural Policy

In a two-part item on cultural policy on The Conversation, Stuart Cunningham first outlines the contribution of the cultural sector to the economy, including jobs, and then introduces a Culture Consumption Price Index (CCPI)

The introduction to the National Cultural Policy discussion paper says;

The arts and creative industries are fundamental to Australia’s identity as a
society and nation, and increasingly to our success as a national economy.

We could first spend some time distinguishing between "Culture" and "culture". The latter represents all the various common behaviours, language, idioms and imagery of the society. The former is a formal representation of these in a specific form. The former play an important role in reflecting and creating the latter and are an important part of their diffusion throughout the community.

So "Culture" matters because of the role it plays in establishing "culture" - our social norms.

But it also matters economically. Firstly, citizens do pay to access Culture - and one issue is whether that is imported or locally produced, or indeed exported.

Discussion of the economics of Culture often leave people bemused who think that "economic production" is about the material essentials of life; food, housing etc. However the most salient observation of market theory is that markets develop anywhere and are driven by the consumption preferences of individuals. People do want to spend their money on Culture, and given that fact it is just as important that the activity occurs "efficient;y" as any other activity.

In brief disparaging high-speed broadband because one of its uses is the consumption of Cultural elements reflects a lack of understanding about the subject of economic inquiry.

The CCPI then provides evidence of significant disparity between regional areas. That is not surprising. The item in The Conversation doesn't link to the actual study, but having found it more information on the six goods in the basket can be found.

The study notes;

This constrains the basket to appear simplistic at first, seemingly missing
the texture and the fullness of contemporary cultural consumption possibilities.
But a good index is a simple index of as few items as is defensible, with their
criteria for inclusion being representativeness in cost structure.

The six goods listed are;

((1) mass culture (blockbuster movie); (2) high culture
(theatre); (3) family culture (library); (4) cultural learning (music lesson); (5)
social interactive culture (festival); and (6) home culture (music download).
While there are many other aspects we may have sought to include, we maintain
that these six dimensions capture a significant range of variation in the full cost
of cultural consumption in Australia.

The methodology of the price index construction includes direct cost and opportunity cost of time involved to travel to a cinema, theatre etc. It is hard to understand from that the assertion made that;

And Minister Simon Crean has dubbed the NBN “the most important piece of cultural infrastructure Australia has ever seen”.

One of the most important dimensions of the NBN – one that differentiates it from almost all other fast broadband plans – is the symmetry it offers between download and upload capability.

Regional Australia will enjoy much faster downloads (cultural consumption will be easier and cheaper), but there will also be huge new potential for cultural participation, exchange and profiling.

A snippet of that potential includes hyperlocal journalism providing coverage lost through broadcasting aggregation, hundreds of regional museums displaying their wares across the nation and new businesses made viable by the access provided by fast broadband.

Very few of these factors would actually change the CCPI. They don't reduce the travel costs of the mass cultural items, and possibly only a music lesson benefits from improved uplink speed (real two-way video conferencing).

An interesting dimension would be to add to cultural policy things like a "virtual cinema" which streams first release movies but can only be received by households in areas defined to be outside the catchment of real cinemas actually showing the film. The same could be constructed for broadcasting of live theatre production to remote areas.

It is a pity that such a good piece of empirical work (the CCPI) has been mis-used by simply making assertions. The NBN is an enabler for reducing regional cultural disadvantage, but it requires other policy developments as well.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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