Asian parents and the things they make their kids do: Why pianos lessons aren’t so different from gold bathtubs

This is a follow up to my last post; I want to expand on the topic of Asian parents and the activities they make their kids do. I am talking about activities like piano, tennis, chess, violin, ballet, calligraphy, etc. But, before I get to the meat of my argument I am going to list some characteristics these activities share.

Generally, these are activities that children aren’t naturally drawn to and instead are ones that have to be imposed on them. Tennis as opposed to basketball or piano instead of guitar/drums. These activities “might” be some of the things that benefit the most from repetition or “hard work” as opposed to other activities that might be extremely talent constrained. These activities also might be the ones where the peak age is young and to become a master you must start at a fairly young age. As an aside, the benefits from starting young and repetition seem to make these same activities the ones communist countries focused their energies on.  And finally, these activities/preferences were all at one time a signal of wealth/status and the hobbies mainly of aristocrats or the wealthy.

I am going to focus on this last point and what I have thought a lot about after studying economics. Anecdotally, I think there are times when prices steer people down the “wrong” path. In premodern times it seems that a lot of value/beauty considerations were mainly driven by a price/scarcity function. What I mean to say is that beauty was extremely intertwined with how expensive something was and by default how scarce it was. I also see the causality as running mostly one way in that if something was scarce and expensive then it was considered beautiful and not the converse that something was first declared beautiful and then became expensive. So my thesis is, “Things in the past were beautiful mainly because they were expensive and scarce and not because of individual preferences.” I admit that stated this way the argument might be too strong. Preferences did matter in the past, but relative to modern standards they were a smaller factor.

And what is wrong with price/scarcity determining beauty? The main issue is that most people believe they are unique and that their beliefs and preferences aren’t driven entirely by outside forces. I like grime, basketball, Vietnamese food, and that is what makes me who I am; I tell myself. We denigrate people that are easily affected by others, we call them posers, wanna-be’s, conformists, sheep, gullible, etc. We also have multiple folk stories (The Emperors New Clothes) and sayings that stress this point, “If all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you!?” Don’t do things just because they are popular or because an expert told you to do it; make up your own mind.

What I am saying is that the price system acting as the main determinant of beauty is just a different version of this idea. We should be repulsed by this concept because instead of appreciating something genuinely you are relying on the price system to guide your preferences. I have some real world examples I would like you to think about that might strengthen my case.

The first one is the changing beauty status of gold in most of the world’s cultures. In premodern times it seems almost as if gold was considered universally beautiful. Cultures as diverse as Egypt, China, and the Mayans all considered gold extremely beautiful. Probably not coincidentally, gold was also used in most of these cultures as a commodity currency and as a store of wealth. In modern times although gold is still valuable, its value in terms of beauty has dropped significantly. And contrastingly, an extravagant use of gold today is often a signal of bad taste. I am thinking of things like Donald Trump’s all gold “luxury rooms”, gold rims, gold jewelry, gold chandeliers, gold dining sets, and the like. This video is a good illustration of the idea…

Using a lot of gold today means that you are tacky and is a direct illustration of the point where we judge people negatively who use the price system as their only determinant of beauty. It is also seen as old fashioned and from another time.

Another example I often think of is why for a certain period of time most American homes were entirely carpeted and now we’ve almost gone in the complete opposite direction. These days on the real estate market, hardwood floors are demanded and when a whole house is carpeted it is a real detriment to sales. There must have been a time when carpeting was a new mass market technology and the benefits it offered in terms of heating were very attractive and novel to people. Reinforcing my point is the fact that carpeting was usually an additional cost. I’m just guessing on this point, but my intuition comes from renovation shows when they rip up the carpeting in most homes they usually restore the original floors and this is considered an upgrade. Because this was a new technology and was more expensive people flocked to it and in turn carpeting was considered beautiful for awhile. That previous generations coveted carpeting is reflected in architecture magazines and print media from the 1970s and earlier. But, by the 1990s the era of carpeting was declining and regardless of the heating considerations most buyers now prefer hardwood floors and consider carpeting distasteful.

Perhaps, one of the most extreme examples of this price=beauty phenomenon is the DeBeers monopoly on diamonds. Although, I’m not the most knowledgeable on the subject; I think the gist of it is that DeBeers bought up all the diamond mines in the world, restricted their supply, and launched one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever and convinced women across the world of its beauty and value. I propose that the diamond would not mean what it does as an engagement ring if it was not expensive and it would probably be replaced by another expensive jewel if it’s price were considerably lower. I will admit it is hard to disentangle which came first the beauty or the price, but one can easily do the thought experiment of a world where diamond prices were different and how it would affect our perceptions of its value. A more concrete example of this is the price of cubic zirconia which are considerably cheaper, but nearly identical in looks to the human eye.

There are countless other examples in history of “fads” where for a brief period of time an item was considered extremely beautiful because it was expensive such as Dutch tulips in the 17th century.

And why do I think what Asian parents make their children do is a version of this price/beauty formula? It doesn’t seem to me a mere coincidence that it just so happens that every activity Asian parents choose for their children are activities that rich people of a previous generation took part in. And it is my supposition given the rest of my post that rich people of those generations did those activities because they were expensive and were mainly signals of wealth. Asian parents, I am telling you, “If all of your friends forced their kids to play piano, would you!?” Using price or scarcity as the only determinant in a thing’s cultural or aesthetic value is shallow and shortsighted.