Saturday, October 27, 2007

How The "Seurieus" Misunderstands Jazz

Now you have pretty rough idea on the musical preference of your barristas here. AP's for classic rock, the likes of Megadeth, Stryper, and Van Halen. I prefer jazz of Bill Evans and Brad Mehldau. Aco's fond of Miles Davis, Branford Marsalis, and, if I make no mistake, Koes Plus. Sjamsu plays The Police. And The Manager loves jazz, and until recently, hip-hop.

So you may say that we have different taste of music, and sometimes, it changes, like The Manager's swing preference to Beyonce. But do we really have different taste --and anything that refers to the term is better left to non-economist, say, psychologist ?

Gary Becker and George Stigler of University of Chicago said no. The taste neither changes nor differs significantly among people. In other words, my musical taste has no difference with AP's, and The Manager's taste on music doesn't change from pretentious jazz to cool hip-hop. Taste remains the same for everyone and at anytime.

Sound outragoeus? Not so, if you care to read their classic paper "De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum", AER, Vol 62, No.2, 1977. In their framework, the reason why I like jazz but not classic rock like AP does is not the difference of taste between us, but consumption capital accumulated for jazz. I happen to have more jazz consumption capital (and less of rock music) than him.

Having more jazz consumption capital, my marginal utility (additional leisure) of time allocated to listen to Evan's Waltz for Debbie increases --and higher than my marginal utility of listening to any of Megadeth's album. Because of that, I'd say that I prefer the former than the latter.

In the case of The Manager, her taste doesn't change, but her capital consumption on hip-hop now goes up, probably because she's watching MTV more or read gossip news about Beyonce lately, or her new guy Charlie happens to be a hip-hop fan.

So next time you hear the "Seurieus"'s lyrics "Daripada musik metal, lebih baik musik jazz" (liberally translated: In comparison to (heavy) metal, jazz's better), think again.


  1. it's more likely that you misunderstand the serieus.

    the serieus is a group of very talented artists (i sold my gear to them when i chose to abandon my musical ambition and pursue a phd instead). you can't take the lyrics in face value.

    they don't refer to individual tastes/preferences or the inherent quality of jazz&metal (if there is any). but to the social reference of jazz and metal.
    i.e. people think those who listen to jazz as more sophisticated than those who listen to metal. it's supposed to be a satire.

    sometimes i just don't understand why economists are so obsessed to explain everything wrongly; rather that explain few things correctly.

  2. Roby, make no mistake, I like the "Serieus", and that particular song. They are so much fun. Here I just use their lyrics as an example, --a catchy lead, if you want to call it. And reading the whole lyrics, I am not really clear actually on what they mean -- yet, I still like the song. In fact, I don't try to explain what the lyrics means to everyone, since perhaps it's only them the group to know what it really means.

    I hope my point here is clear, that is, according to Becker and Stigler, disputing preference (on music, for example), and setting a social rank, based on taste difference is meaningless, because it is not the taste that differs, but the marginal utility drawn for stock of consumption capital.

    Why we have different exposure to such capital, perhaps, is due to historical accident, like the manager who is obsessed with that hip-hop Charlie guy, or you living in NYC.

    On why you don't understand economist. Don't worry, we get used to it :-).

  3. Rizal, I'm missing a point here. You said that you like jazz and not rock music because of your accumulated jazz capital consumption. you compared yours and AP there. But in the case of manager having higher accumulated hip hop capital consumption, you basically compare her previous behavior with current behavior. Isn't her hiphop capital consumption higher relatively to her jazz capital consumption then?
    can we say that the manager has changed her taste?

    you don't a different taste than AP, that i can understand. LOL. you guys have sort of similarities.

    Who is this Charlie guy? does he ever comes here?

  4. dhani, Manager's taste never changes across the time too, but, as you said, her hip-hop consumption capital does. Lately it somehow increases relative to jazz for some reasons, so she starts to enjoy more BEP, --the group, not the break-even point--, than her usual playlist.

  5. rizal: i may be missing something, but i don't get the idea behind translating the simple word 'preference' or 'taste' to the concept of 'a particular consumption capital due to some historical accident'. what scientific benefits (both explanations and predictions) do we get from thinking about taste becker's way?

  6. but don't forget what Candil said at the end of the song :
    Aku suka disko!
    *gives some Beyonce's booty*

  7. Tirta, imagine this way. One day I and the Manager went to a record store. Once we got in, I'd go to jazz section, while she hip-hop/R&B. After 30 mins, I checked out Wynton Marsalis and she 50 cent (not the money, mind you). Assuming that we have more or less same income and its elasticities (also other good's price and its elasticities). How do we explain this difference in behaviour?

    We may think that we checked out different stuffs is due to taste difference. Period. Anything lead to taste difference is best left to non economist.

    Becker and Stigler moved beyond this point, while keep retaining the price theory in mind. They invented the idea of consumption capital --and marginal utility out of it. So now economist have more to say on taste.

    In term of prediction, if we know that one has more consumption capital on, say, classical music (she knows friends playing Mozart, has classical music on her highschool's curriculum, or lives near Royal Albert Hall), we can predict she is more likely prefer classical music, hence buy Karajan's record.

    For the CD record company, not only CD's price then that matters for sales, but also investment on consumer consumption capital --advertising, free concert, etc.

    The most interesting part, in my opinion, is the way Becker and Stigler demistify taste, for now it is useless to assigned certain taste to certain social ranks (upbrow and low brow culture).

    Jazz is neither better nor worse than heavy metal. It's all about price theory --a conclusion that might sound "too economist's narrow-minded", but, hey, I am one! :-))

  8. rizal... i think i get what you mean. Say that i or manager prefer listening to music while Aco or you prefer reading based on our relative capital consumption on those two goods.
    but that does not mean me and the manager are lesser persons than those who prefer to read books right?

    the same thing with those whom prefer listening jazz than rock/hiphop/dangdut... they are not better or worse than the others...

    aaaaahhh, now i get it. "lebih baik music jazz daripada music metal..." damn! it's hard to be an economist.

  9. rizal: thanks for the elaboration. perhaps it's just me, but i don't think one needs economics to be egalitarian in terms of musical taste. surely a lot of psychological and sociological factors come into play behind our preference and taste about a certain genre (how people view dangdut in indonesia would be an interesting case for becker to explain, i suppose).

    i'm going to be biased, and suggest that individual differences in musical taste are best explained not by economics, but neuroscience. there's an interesting book by daniel levitin, a rocker turned neuroscientist at mcgill, about the brain and music. not a satisfactory account, i must say, but still full of insights. i heartily recommend it to you, cafe guys.

    for example, a couple of randomized baby studies have shown that the types of beats and rythms heard while in the womb correlates with some kind of musical proto-taste when the babies became infants (this is not the crap mozart claim, mind you). a developmental neuroscience account of the consumption capital theory of yours, if you like :-)

  10. Why we have different exposure to such capital, perhaps, is due to historical accident

    exactly, and then people and artists, such as seurieus, impose meaning to these historical accidents. therefore creating normative values which become part of their identity.

  11. Detta, the lyrics would also actually be nice to discuss in term of utility consistency. But I don't feel like doing it now :-))

    dHani, yes, you got it

    Tirta, thanks for the reference. I don't think that economics is the only (best) way to discuss taste. But to explain changes in behaviour using price theory, Becker and Stigler's way serves its purpose.

    Roby, "meaning" or "normative value", alas, doesn't work well in explaining change in (economic) behaviour. Becker and Stigler made it more "positive" within price theory approach.

  12. Jal:
    You wrote:
    "In other words, my musical taste has no difference (sic) with AP's..."

    I didn't read the paper in full, but if my swift reading of it was correct, I don't think Stigler and Becker argue that everyone has identical tastes. Instead, they rename "taste" as the return to "consumption capital".

    But of course, people with more consumption capital will experience different returns (hence, what we observe as taste differences). Additionally, some individuals are surely born with higher consumption capitals (or marginal productivity to certain consumption capitals) than others. Shouldn't this count as taste difference?

    Given this, Seurieus might as well had a high jazz consumption capital, and hence claimed that jazz is better than metal. The claim, hence, is a valid one.

    Having said this, just curious: Do you really take this paper's thesis seriously? ;-)

  13. Arya, in my interpretation, yes, they do. Taste is like "...Rocky Mountains, both are there, will be there next year, too, and are the same to all men...". To replace the "difference in taste" --which doesn't exist--, they introduced the capital consumption.

    Did I take the paper seriously? I did. It's in my reading list.

  14. Jal:
    Economic models assume people have identical endowments -- doesn't mean that economists believe that they do.

    Similarly, Becker and Stigler suggest that assuming identical endowments of consumption capital, they can explain a wide array of taste-related phenomenon (and the paper's emphasis is mainly on the stability of taste). The question is whether identical endowments is a necessary assumption to the model. I don't think it is.

  15. Arya, "to believe' are strong words. Here is my take: since that paper helps me to understand more about consumer behaviour theory, I use it.

    Since that paper also helps me, in my social life, to be egalitarian regarding one's preference, I use it.