Two years ago, I was the soul of generosity. I had culled through my sizeable collection of CDs and found 30 discs that I was happy to give away. My social circle went nuts, praising me as the great giver. They were so happy to have such fabulous music for free.
This week, I tried the same thing, with an even more generous offering. No takers. I’m sitting here with a pile of CDs containing what was considered great two years ago, yet I can’t find a home for the discs today. There has been no physical change to the stuff. The music is as high-quality as ever.
What changed? The valuation and, therefore, the price. I once held treasure. Now it seems destined to be trash. The only thing that changed is the passage of time — and it so happens that the slice of time in question has seen the most-spectacular innovations in music reproduction ever.
Think about it. The same amount of work went into making the CDs (so much for the “labor theory of value”). The CDs have not depreciated in any physical sense. The music they contain is no less valuable now than it was then (it is mostly Baroque and before, anyway, so we aren’t talking last year’s Top 40). All that changed was the hands on the clock. Yet the value went from high to zero.
What does that tell us about economics of the price system? It tells us that prices are fundamentally a reflection of human values of the moment. They provide no insight into anything intrinsic to the good itself. They tell us nothing about what it took to make the good. They provide no reliable basis for forecasting.
Prices are a point of agreement in an instant of time, and nothing more. Yet no institution is as essential in conveying to us the signals and giving us the tools that enable us to manage our lives. The world never stops changing. In a free economy, prices change as a reflection of those changes in the world. We respond to the prices in more ways than we are often conscious of. They provide a means for all of us to interface with — and navigate the shifts and movements in — the reality that takes place outside our own minds.
I’ve known for some time that most of my CD collection would eventually be obsolete. People have been buying digital copies ever more. They have been plugging in their devices to micro speaker systems or using earbuds to listen to music. The old ritual of changing the shiny discs was starting to seem like a thing of the past, like starting your car with an engine crank.
My problem is that I waited too long to finally detach myself from the old technology. I waited until the price fell to less than zero. I took too long to adapt to new realities and act on that information I had acquired and knew in my heart. The reality moved faster than my brain could process data and act on it.
How well I remember the day when I bought my first CD. It must have been 1986 or so. I put it in my player and the sound came out and it played and played for a full hour. It was Bach, I think. I didn’t change it. Days and days went by, but it was all Bach all the time. My long-playing vinyl records sat in the corner untouched. After a week or so, I had come to terms with reality: I would never listen to those things again. It was not that they were bad; it was that I had found something more convenient.
Yet I couldn’t let go. The LPs just sat there. A year went by, and then I moved out of my apartment. It would have taken more room in my car than I had to move 200 vinyl records. I gritted my teeth and did something I never thought I would do. I hurled them all in the dumpster, armload by armload. It was painful. It seemed crazy. But it was the reality. I never looked back.
Yet here we are 26 years later and I’ve made the same mistake all over again.
Now, one reaction might be: Slow this world down so that I can take a breather! The problem with that solution is that it means slowing down the pace at which humanity is permitted to seek a better life through innovation and enterprise. The only reason why some technologies prevail over others is their merit in serving people what they desire.
We sometimes imagine that we are on a ride that we can’t control. The truth is that people are, in fact, controlling the pace of development. CDs outcompeted LPs for a reason. And digital music downloads are outcompeting CDs for a reason, too. If people did not like the new thing, it would have no traction and no future. But people demand ever better ways to achieve their ends, and the purpose of a free economy is to help people in the most-efficient (and least-wasteful) way.
The most-remarkable development in our times as regards music distribution is the subscription service. Let me illustrate. In the early days of the CD, I had one disc with music by Palestrina. It took me many months, or even up to a year, to discover that he wasn’t the only composer of Renaissance music. I had to check out books, spend hours in the CD shops, talk to friends, act on information overheard at parties and the like.
Eventually, I came to discover Victoria, Josquin, Tallis, Byrd, Ockeghem, Sweelinck, Morales, Guerrero and others. This process took me many years of searching and hunting. It was painful.
Today, you get a free account to Pandora or Spotify and make your own channel. One word is enough: Palestrina. What follows are all kinds of music that fit within that genre. You say what you like and don’t like and buy the full album or not, and the software does the magic of putting together a playlist for you based on your tastes. There are no search costs. The knowledge of others becomes your own knowledge in an instant.
And yes, I said that it is free. There is not soul alive who 10 years ago could have predicted that such a technology would exist, much less that the producers of it would be begging us to take it and use it for free, charging us later only if we want fewer commercials. This is genius. This is progress. This is civilization brought to us by the market economy and the entrepreneurs that give it a forward direction, all in ways that are completely unpredictable.
Even with all this seeming upheaval, we aren’t really throwing out the past. It still lives in our hearts, and increasingly, it is documented and digitized in the annals of history available at our fingertips. What we are doing is embracing ever better ways of living and overcoming the limits of scarcity. Society must move forward, and the market-price system is there to coordinate things and help us achieve our goals.
No government regulatory planning apparatus can substitute for the market’s approach to innovation. In fact, if government were in charge, we’d be lucky if technology had advanced beyond the presidential fireside chat. We certainly wouldn’t have the ability — each one of us — to reach the world right now with media blogs, YouTube, video phones, live streaming of anything to anyone and all the other wonders of the world brought to us by the free interaction of thinking, creating, cooperating human beings.