Monday, 5 November 2018

J.S. Bach vs. the cost disease

William Baumol argued that the cost of many services was destined to increase over time, including health care and education. When Baumol first described this 'cost disease' (that economists now refer to as 'Baumol's cost disease'), the example he used was a string quartet. A string quartet playing a piece of music in 2018 requires the same number of players (four) playing for the same amount of time, as a string quartet playing the same piece of music would have in 1918, or in 1718. In other words, the string quartet is no more productive now than a string quartet three centuries ago. Baumol argued that the only way to increase productivity of the string quartet (their output per unit of time) would be for the quartet to play the music faster, and that would reduce the quality of the musical output of the quartet.

So, because productivity of the string quartet would not increase over time, but their wages would increase (in line with the wages for manufacturing workers, who are becoming more productive over time), the cost per minute (or per hour) of the string quartet must increase over time. Baumol then extended this explanation to the case of health care (doctors can't easily be made more productive, i.e. seeing more patients in the same amount of time, without reducing the quality of care), and education (teachers can't easily be made more productive, i.e. teaching more students in the same amount of time, without reducing the quality of education). The 'cost disease' would lead to an increase in the cost of health care and education (and many other services) over time.

However, maybe the central tenet of Baumol's cost disease - the inability to increase productivity without reducing the quality of service - is now under fire, and in the particular case (classical music) that Baumol first used to illustrate it. Rolling Stone reports:
Pop and rap aren’t the only two genres speeding up in tempo in the breakneck music-streaming era: The quickening of pace seems to be affecting even the oldest forms of the art. Per research this weekend from two record labels, classical music performances of J.S. Bach have also gotten faster, speeding up as much as 30 percent in the last half century.
Universal-owned Deutsche Grammaphon and Decca conducted a study into multiple recordings of Bach’s famed Double Violin Concerto in celebration of the release of Bach 333, a box set marking the 333rd anniversary of the German composer’s birth. The labels found that modern recordings of the work have shaved off one-third of the length of recordings from 50 years ago, quickening by about a minute per decade.
In health care and education, technology has a potential role to play in reducing the impact of the cost disease (as I've blogged about before). However, in this case, the increased tempo increases the productivity of the orchestra, without reducing the quality of their output (from the audience's perspective), and may even increase the quality of output (if the audience prefers the faster tempo).

This development probably isn't fatal for the idea of the cost disease. Obviously, there are limits to the productivity gains from playing J.S. Bach pieces at a quicker tempo. After all, who would want to hear the Brandenburg Concertos (running times 10 to 22 minutes) played in three minutes?

[HT: Marginal Revolution]

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