Entertainment is not an economic good

So finds John Derbyshire in his article on
The Folly of Our Age The space shuttle on National Review Online

There is nothing — nothing, no thing, not one darned cotton-picking thing you can name — of either military, or commercial, or scientific, or national importance to be done in space, that could not be done twenty times better and at one thousandth the cost, by machines rather than human beings.

Not so, not so. I can name one darned cotton-pickin (There’s no “g” in cotton-pickin by the way) thing that can only be done by humans. Machines can’t do it cheaper, they can’t do it at all. Entertainment. It would be far less entertaining to have machines doing all those things. The Space Program is Star Wars and Star Trek made real. Think there is no economic value in that, then check this out:

Over the last 28 years, the five “Star Wars” films have earned more than $3.36 billion in worldwide box office — $1.8 billion in the United States alone. The series accounts for more than $9 billion in merchandise sales. A DVD box-set of the original trilogy hit stores in September, and earned sales of more than $100 million — on its first day of release.

Derbyshire disparages the entertainment value of the space program as “the romantic enthusiasms of millions of citizens.” Here’s what enthusiasm for just one romance author means:

* There are more than 280 million copies of Nora Roberts books in print.
* Over the last 23 years, an average of 23 Nora Roberts books were sold every minute.
* There are enough Nora Roberts books in print to fill the seats of Giants Stadium nearly 4 thousand times.

So much for romantic enthusiasm not having real value.

Call it “romantic enthusiasm” or just call it “entertainment”, it’s an economic good worth billions every year when it’s nothing but fiction. Couch it in grander terms of “national pride,” if you feel the need, but dismissing manned space flight as not worth doing because machines could go through most of the motions is ignoring an important economic reality.

I would have missed the article but for this post by Randy Barnett at Volokh Conspiracy.

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