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the Complete Review
the complete review - economics

Creative Destruction

Tyler Cowen

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To purchase Creative Destruction

Title: Creative Destruction
Author: Tyler Cowen
Genre: Economics
Written: 2002
Length: 152 pages
Availability: Creative Destruction - US
Creative Destruction - UK
Creative Destruction - Canada
  • How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting look at the effects of globalization on culture -- but too little

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 2/2/2003 Benjamin R. Barber
The New Republic . 17/2/2003 Clifford Geertz
Toronto Star . 10/11/2002 Philip Marchand
Wall St. Journal . 12/12/2002 David R. Henderson
The Washington Times . 29/12/2002 David Sands

  From the Reviews:
  • "Cowen's second more economic argument, while not without truth, is less persuasive and ends up revealing the primary defect of his overall position. (...) He ignores the role of power: the relative political and cultural coerciveness the stronger party brings to the table. (...) Cultural exchange may be a form of "creative destruction," but over time dialectic is trumped by power, and destruction merely destroys, leaving the Panglossian Cowens of the world with neither new cultural creation nor genuine diversity but a handful of Disney souvenirs that in their shallow mimicry mock true pluralism." - The Los Angeles Times, Benjamin R. Barber

  • "The same strategy -- raise all the objections in parodic form and then shoot them down with quips and instances -- is pursued throughout Cowen's book. (...) But after a while the same form of argument endlessly repeated with a new factoid plugged in begins to pall, and one starts to wonder whether the restaurant menu is really such a good metaphor for cultural richness after all." - Clifford Geertz, The New Republic

  • "It's a happy picture, by and large, that Cowan presents, but he also admits there are serious problems with globalization aside from the existence of Jerry Springer. Some vulnerable cultures such as the Polynesian have not been stimulated by Western influences but steamrollered by them. More profoundly, globalization ultimately erodes the particular ethos of a culture, its singular religious, philosophical and social perspectives." - Philip Marchand, Toronto Star

  • "Mr. Cowen underscores that cultural globalization is and always has been a dynamic process. Astonishing nodes of cultural genius can flourish and then flare out in the most unlikely places, from Pericles' Athens to Bob Marley's Jamaica. It can be an unsettling, disruptive process, but Mr. Cowen's book argues persuasively that it is a more creative way to go than the misguided cultural nostalgia peddled by the anti-globalization crowd." - David Sands, The Washington Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Tyler Cowen is an economist, and he likes to examine culture and the arts from an economic point of view -- as in previous works where he wondered What Price Fame ? (see our review) or wrote In Praise of Commercial Culture (see our review). Now, in Creative Destruction, he considers How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures, again applying economic ideas and models to the question. It's an interesting and worthwhile approach.
       Cowen focusses "on the trade in cultural products across geographic space", and tries to answer the "age-old question (...) are market exchange and aesthetic quality allies or enemies ?" The answer -- at least here -- comes as no surprise: American economists tend to be (to put it mildly) pro-free trade, and to see it as a cure-all for most of the world's woes. Cowen does consider some of the drawbacks of globalization on cultural products (specifically on their quality and availability), but there's not too much doubt here which side he's on.
       Increased cross-cultural trade almost inevitably brings with it increased cross-cultural exchange of all sorts, including of ideas and the arts. For the most part this is seen as good; the main complaint seems to be that new, different cultural influences can overwhelm the old, causing the old to be lost -- as well as reducing overall variety (heterogeneity replacing homogeneity). So, for example, the French might be concerned that McDonald's will replace the many, varied Parisian bistros -- or Hollywood movies destroy any domestic film industry.
       Cross-cultural exchange usually does enrich cultural production -- often leading to exciting new forms or cultural products. Cowen reminds readers that many much-praised and very local cultural products are themselves the result of globalization: Zaïrean music, Navajo weaving, and Persian rugs among them. He acknowledges that certain cultures can be overwhelmed -- such as that of Polynesia -- but even here notes that, for example, "the Europeans did much of their damage by cutting off cross-cultural contact among Polynesians". And some cultures -- for example late 19th century Hawaii -- have at least a great blossoming of culture before eventually being overwhelmed.
       The most in-depth examination he offers is of the movie industry, where Cowen does a particularly good job of demonstrating why Hollywood has succeeded and, for example, the French film industry has floundered. It's a familiar discussion, but Cowen presents most of the relevant points well (including the role of the television industry, and comparisons with other successful movie industries, such as Bollywood and Hong Kong).
       A major concern societies have regarding outside cultural influences is that they will lead to a general lowering of quality and/or a lowering of "the quality of customer taste". It's a hard problem to discuss, in particular because quality itself is difficult to judge. Cowen offers a reasonable discussion of the topic, but isn't quite as convincing.
       Cowen also correctly points out that many who are opposed to cross-cultural exchange are in fact opposed to diversity:

Many commentators are not, in reality, strongly attached to cultural diversity as a value, whether it be diversity within societies or across societies. Rather they favor designated manifestations of diversity, as determined by their preferences.
       It's hard to argue that change isn't good for the arts. Change led to, say, the golden age of jazz, or impressionism -- but, of course, change also leads beyond the golden age of jazz (the loss of which many mourn) and to post-impressionism (which many don't like quite as much). Change also appears fairly inevitable: it's hard to insulate a society (or an art-form) completely from it. Given that, one imagines: the more different outside influences, the better. It's a pretty good argument for globalization.

       Interestingly, Cowen doesn't bother much with literature. Indian novels (presumably of the English-language variety -- Rushdie, Roy, etc.) and Harlequin novels (Canadian imports accounting, so Cowen, for "40 percent (!) of all mass-market paperback sales in the United States" in 1990) are almost the entire extent of it. One would have thought that creative writing (fiction, poetry) would have made an interesting case-study -- among other reasons because translation adapts the original in a way almost unique among art-forms (music, painting, even sub-titled film remain far truer to the original).
       But Cowen admits early on that his study "samples topics extensively rather than intensively". There are a great number of odds and ends, and little truly in-depth consideration of everything involved. Creative Destruction does provide a very good overview of the issues raised and the various consequences of globalization on culture, but doesn't go nearly as much in depth as one would wish -- almost each bit leaves the reader with additional questions and raises additional issues. Still, as an introductory text to the question of the effects of globalization on culture it offers a great deal.

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Creative Destruction: Reviews: Tyler Cowen: Other books by Tyler Cowen under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tyler Cowen is Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

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© 2003-2009 the complete review

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