Economics & Culture Making
“Culture is what we make of the world.”- Andy Crouch in Culture Making
One of the many delights of Summer 2017 has been diving into Andy Crouch’s 2008 book “Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling”. In this highly ambitious and superbly written book, Crouch seeks to unpack what “culture” is, how culture changes, and lays out the rationale for why culture-making is deeply intrinsic to what it means to be human.
So, what is culture? Crouch, the former editor of Christianity Today, whose work and writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and many other publications, unpacks this rather vast concept from the following starting point:
“We make sense of the world by making something of the world…Meaning and making go together- culture, you could say, is the activity of making meaning.”- Andy Crouch in Culture Making
In other words, there is a double meaning to the word make in this context. Culture is what humans make of the world (“make” in terms of how humans perceive and understand the world we live in) and is also what humans make of the world (“make” in the physical construction of goods/services as cultural artifacts and innovations). Yeah, it’s a pretty simple read….
Admittedly, I am not finished with the book yet, as my reading speed and efficiency is similar to that of the wagon seeking to ford the river on the Oregon Trail game we all loved growing up. With that being said, this is the type of book that even the most efficient of readers need to examine with a pen or highlighter in hand to even begin to fully grasp.
As an economic thinker and teacher, I am always on the prowl for powerful examples that help crystallize deep economics concepts for my students in tangible ways. This occured for me in the first few chapters of Culture Making, as Crouch provides a framework for readers to examine how various cultural goods & artifacts (innovations, ideas, foods, music, institutions, etc.) emerge in history. This framework takes the form of five questions that he has found to be helpful when trying to analyze how a particular cultural artificact fits into its broader cultural context. The questions are as follows:
- What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
- What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
- What does this cultural artifact make possible?
- What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)?
- What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?
As a rapper, this is a moment when I would drop the mic. As a teacher, this is when I would allow for some silence in the classroom to allow something so deep and important to martinate in the minds of students. As a thinker, this is when my mouth is hung wide open, potentially with drool coming out the side.
Upon reading and thinking through this framework, it becomes a fascinating intellectual exercise to ask these five questions of various cultural artifacts throughout human history, whether world-changing innovations or seemingly trivial banalities. For example, when applying this framework to thinking about the omelet (yes, the egg omelet which you order from your local diner), Crouch writes the following:
“What do omelets assume about the way the world should be? The world should be multicolored, with green peppers and pink ham and white cheese contrasting pleasingly with the pale yellow eggs; the world should have many textures, both crunchy and smooth. The world should hold together… Even a simple breakfast dish encodes a whole set of assumptions and hopes about the world, which we could summarize in this way: the world has eggs, but it should have omelets too.”- Andy Crouch in Culture Making
Who knew that eating omelets could be so philosophically pleasing in addition to being so delicious? Even in the simplest and seemingly insignifcant cultural artifacts (I intend to think through this framework in relation to the Snuggie someday…), there are deep assumptions and ramifications for the world going forward.
With no disrespect to omelets, omelet makers, and the omelet industrial complex, the more significant analysis using this framework came when Crouch examined the development of the interstate highway system. Leaving aside the age-old question of “Who should build the roads!?” (which is indeed an interesting question worth considering), I will take the quotations that jumped off the pages at me from this section:
- What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is? Crouch writes, “It assumes the political unification of relatively distant places, the modern nation-state that stretches from ‘sea to shining sea’… It assumes millennia of accumulated experience in road building… It assumes significant national wealth…”
- What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be? “The world should be smoother and faster…Rivers and mountains should be scenery, not obstacles… the mile should seem like a short distance rather than a long one…Goods from far away should become more economically competitive with goods from nearby.”
- What does this cultural artifact make possible? “…Your clothes, the chair, the coffee you’re sipping or the food you’re eating — traveled at some point by interstate, more cheapely and more quickly than it would have otherwise…The interstates also spawned entirely new forms fo commerce — from fast food restaurants to Cracker Barrel… without the interstates we wouldn’t have the abandoned-lot “inner cities…”
- What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)? “It has become more difficult for many Americans to work without commuting… In many small towns that were bypassed by interstates, vibrant commercial life has become impossible.”
- What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact? Writing of PhillyCarShare, a Philadelphia-based car sharing firm, Crouch writes “City planners estimate that each shared car makes it possible for up to twenty-five people to forego buying a private car of their own — so there are perhaps ten thousand fewer vehicles crammed onto Philadelphia’s streets and highways in 2007 than when the organization was founded in 2002.”
Simply fantastic. These passages ooze of economic analysis in a remarkably human, deep, and relatable way. As an economics educator, one of my deepest (and most challenging) aspirations is to convey how truly wonderous and complex the world of human interaction is. As Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek famously put it, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
Indeed, various world-changing innovations (as well as more simple ones) are the design and plans of risk-taking individuals engaged in (as renowned economist Israel Kirzner would put it) the dyanmic process of entrepreneurial discovery. But culture itself (what we make of the world, in both senses of the word “make”), along with the assumptions about the world that were responsible for the birth of various cultural artifacts and the new possibilities/impossibilities they bring about, comes about in an emergent manner.
What does this mean? Economist Russ Roberts has done a lot of thinking and writing on this idea of emergent order, and I find this quotation of his particularly striking:
“We humans create emergent order as well — order that is the product of human action but not human design. It looks like someone is in charge yet no one and no group intends these outcomes we observe and experience. These parts of our lives are incredibly orderly and reliable. They look as if someone or a group of people have convened to take action together. It looks like someone is steering the system to achieve certain goals. But no single human being is in charge or intending what actually occurs.”- Russ Roberts in It’s a Wonderful Loaf: An Introduction to Emergent Order in our daily lives
Of course, the implications of this idea are too numerous (Role of Gov’t in a free society, limits on freedom, etc.) to be fleshed out in this brief post (Read Russ Roberts’ wonderful article on Emergent Order for further analysis), but at least this much seems clear; a high degree of freedom for human beings to dream and push the horizons of “possibility and impossiblity” is a prerequisite in society if we desire to see dynamic cultural change over time, with it the blessings of higher living standards (particularly for those worst off in the world), and new ladders of opportunity that come into existence based off of new innovations and ideas.
It is my desire that my students and generations to come after them have more opportunities than I could possibly dream of, including occupations that no mind in 2017 could possibly conceive of. In this way, culture advances on in a dynamic and positive manner. This is not to ignore the short-term pain that results in the lives of some whose jobs/skills become obsolete due to economic dynamism and globalization, but we simply cannot “have our cake and eat it too” in this way. If we desire a thriving economy, we must be open to cultural change and the ways it pushes the horizons of possibility and impossibility.
“…And these two functions — making things possible that were impossible, and perhaps even more importantly making things impossible that were once possible — when put together add up to “world-building”… Culture, even more than nature, defines for us the horizons of possibility and impossiblity. We live in the world that culture has made.”- Andy Crouch in Culture Making