My wife Cathy and I recently went to see the Lake Charles Symphony’s thoroughly entertaining production of “Shaken Not Stirred — The Music of James Bond.” The Symphony performed with Jeans ‘N’ Classics: a Canadian group that specializes in combining world-class rock musicians and symphonies to put on shows that appeal to a young audience. The L.C. Symphony worked with Jeans ‘N’ Classics last year to put on “The Best of the Eagles.” It was an excellent show.
We go to all the Lake Charles Symphony productions, partly because my “niece,” Sarah Perkins, comes in from Houston to play violin with the Lake Charles Symphony, and she stays with us when she comes. Sarah is not literally my niece; her mother grew up with my first wife in Copenhagen, Denmark, where they were best friends. So I’ve known Sarah since she was a baby, and I’ve always been “Uncle Mike” to her.
As I watched the show from the risers (that is, the “cheap seats”), I noticed that in spite of the effort to appeal to a younger crowd, most of the audience were baby-boomers — people 60 and older — like myself. As an economist, I have been trained to explain things, but not to judge the result. For example, nothing qualifies me to say that classical music is better than modern music or vice-versa. But I do have some thoughts as to why music today is different from music 300 years ago.
I remember channel-surfing about 35 years ago when cable television first became affordable. I was impressed by all the choices: I think the cable company offered 16 channels compared to the three channels one could get from broadcast TV … if the weather was good.
I was watching the Boston Pops Orchestra on one channel, then I switched over to MTV. “Wow!” I thought to myself, “check out the difference in the capital/labor ratio” as I switched back and forth between the two.
There must have been 100 musicians in the Boston Pops orchestra, and each one of them had many years of intensive training and some — especially in the string section — were playing hand-crafted instruments made by masters of their craft (think Stradivarius). That’s a lot of highly skilled labor. Then I switched back to MTV where there were three guys, barely old enough to vote, standing with their guitars in front of a wall of Marshall amplifiers, lip-synching to a soundtrack that had been electronically engineered so that even a cat in heat would sound good.
The capital/labor ratio measures the relative amount of capital and labor used to make a product. The cheaper capital enhanced by technology is, the more we use it; and the more expensive labor is, the less we use it. This principle permeates society, affecting not just how industry operates, but how we do everything — even in our daily lives.
I love Chinese food, especially sweet and sour pork. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to make some myself. So I picked up a book on how to make authentic Chinese food. The directions began with an instruction to go to the market and select some fresh vegetables; the next step was to marinate the meat overnight; the third step was to sauté each item in a wok. I thought “the only step they left out was butchering the hog; it will be three days before I can eat.” So I put down the cookbook, took some sweet and sour pork out of the freezer, put it in the microwave and had my Chinese dinner in 10 minutes. Today, the alternative might be to call Waitr and have some delivered in 15 minutes. My time was too valuable to make the meal the old-fashioned way.
I was once invited to a formal dinner at the Danish embassy. I was looking forward to a fancy meal. But when they put my plate in front of me, I looked at it and asked my wife what it was. “Oh, that’s beef tartare,” she said. I looked back at my plate: it sure looked to me like raw ground beef with a raw egg on top. “Boy, labor must be expensive in Denmark,” I thought to myself. I went home that night and fried up a nice steak.
Look at how we build roads in the U.S.; we use a whole lot of heavy equipment and a few workers. Go to an undeveloped, over-populated country and they will have a thousand workers with shovels and wheel barrows building a road. The same is true of how we farm, how we entertain ourselves, how we maintain our lawns, how we learn and how we communicate. Nobody writes thought-out, nuanced letters anymore; we communicate 140-character Tweets. No longer are there apprentices studying under a master craftsman for years to learn a trade; if we need to know something we just Google it and there’s a video showing us how to do it.
The word “symphony” comes from ancient Greek. It is a combination of “sym” or “sum,” meaning to bring together as a totality; and “phone” means sound. Thus, a symphony is a group of musicians using their individual talents to make a total, harmonious sound. A soloist can make beautiful music; so can a duo or trio. But when you bring 100 people together, it takes a great deal of practice and cooperation to produce a pleasing musical totality.
A society is a lot like the music of an orchestra: it is not the product of a single person or a group of people trying to make as much noise as they can to get noticed; it is the product of many people and many voices coming together and cooperating harmoniously. Unfortunately, modern technology has given us all Marshall amps and microphones so we can be heard above the crowd. But we are not all playing from the same score. Without cooperation, we are simply producing a social cacophony.