child support supports interested adults

The U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement recently funded a brief on child support.  That brief emphasized the critical importance of the child support system that the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement supports.  That’s generally how bureaucracies justify continuing to do whatever they’re doing.

The brief obscured the actual net significance of legally determined and punitively enforced payments from non-custodial persons to custodial parents.  Among the brief’s key findings, bulleted, boxed, and placed at the beginning of the brief, was this: “Without child support {meaning the public program of legally determined and enforced payments from non-custodial persons to custodial parents}, child poverty would increase by 4.4 percent.”  That statement is literally false.  A footnote gives the justification for the falsehood:

This analysis is similar to other analyses that examine family income with and without a specific income source without taking into account other changes that might occur if that income source is not received, such as going onto public assistance.[1]

The justification for this falsehood is thus that it’s similar to other falsehoods.  In case that’s not convincing enough justification, there’s the appended clause referring to “going onto public assistance.”  Without this falsehood, your taxes would go up!

Eliminating the child support program would not eliminate payments from non-custodial parents to custodial parents.  Most parents voluntarily support their children. That’s also likely to be true in normal conditions for non-custodial parents. In contrast to effects such as liberating 50,000 persons imprisoned for child-support arrears, the effect on children of eliminating child support enforcement is not clear.  Nationally representative data show that the level of child-support awards have little empirical relation to the level of impoverished parents’ total income.  For custodial parents receiving welfare payments under the program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, legally determined and enforced child support payments directly offset welfare payments.  Even with the existence of the child support program, about of third of providers of financial support to non-household children provide such support without any formal legal sanction.  Moreover, the yearly amount of such support is 70% of that provided through legally sanctioned agreements.[2]  Removing child support enforcement is much different from removing payments from non-custodial parents to custodial parents.

The child support enforcement system has done little to eliminate child poverty.  In the U.S. about 14 million children live in poverty.  According to the brief, “In 2008, 625,000 children would have been poor if they had not received child support, increasing child poverty by 4.4%.”  Given the above-described grave weakness of those calculations, the important truth that statement should communicate is that legally determined and enforced payments from non-custodial persons to custodial parents have little effect on child poverty.   Child support is mainly important to child support agencies, lawyers, and other adults with financial interests in child-support programs.

*  *  *  *  *

Related posts:


[1] Sorensen (2010).

[2] See child support provider statistics, by existence and type of child support agreement.


Sorensen, Elaine (2010). Child Support Plays an Increasingly Important Role for Poor Custodial Families. Urban Institute Brief. Dec. 2010.

a revolution in formal authority

bronze pot and ceremonial halberd, China, Erlitou culture (ca. 1800-1600 BCE) or early Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-1400 BCE), in Freer Gallery

Systematic decision-making requires supporting information technology.  In sixth-century Byzantium, a judicial bureaucrat complained that the new, leading financial bureaucrat:

did not give the business that was being transacted to the proper overseers of the regions, called tractatores, namely, “regional governors,” or to accountants, to be filled in conformably to the established custom in order that nothing might be done contrary to the law, but he ordered the documents to be filled in through the agency of his own men, gaining himself authority over the expenditure-records which were wont to be handed over to their proper document-completers.

Filling in forms typically is a job for low-ranking bureaucrats.   In a civilized society, an army of document-completers enables authority in practice.

whenever very great difficulties arose for the taxpayers as a result of the fact that the issuance of documents was not undertaken conformably to proper procedure, he himself became vexed and inflicted sentences of death upon those who did not understand the power of the documents that had been carelessly and haphazardly issued.   And a custom prevailed since his time whereby all haphazardly write, fill in, and issue documents that are totally not understood by them, whereas formerly they had been safeguarded in countless ways….[1]

Not filling in forms in accordance with established procedure creates opportunities for new, ad hoc judgments.  If the new span of judgment is wide enough, the result is effectively an authoritative coup.

*  *  *  *  *

[1] This and previous quote are from Lydus, Joannes, trans. from Greek by Anastasius C. Bandy (1983) On powers or The magistracies of the Roman state (Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 149) 3.68 (p. 241).

[2] Pazdernik describe Lydus as having an “absolute conviction that the fate of the Roman empire hinged upon the scrupulous observance of seemingly mundane and trivial bureaucratic practices.”  While Lydus may have over-estimated the importance of bureaucratic details, a well-functioning bureaucracy is essential to a well-functioning state.   The Byzantine Empire had well-developed bureaucratese, among other indicators of bureaucratic excellence.  The Pazdernik quotation is from Charles F. Pazdernik, “Fortune’s Laughter and a Bureaucrat’s Tears: Sorrow, Supplication and Sovereignty in Justinianic Constantinpole,”  p. 405, in Fögen, Thorsten, ed. (2009) Tears in the Graeco-Roman world ( Berlin: Walter de Gruyter) pp. 397-418.

micro-consituencies support global information sharing

Creating a new, common language for machine-readable information allows information to be shared across organizations with disparate information systems and information formats.  The Global Justice XML Data Model is a successful example of such a language.  Its success prompted the development of a similar, but broader initiative called the National Information Exchange Model.  Both models integrate information systems via very general communication standards (a shared language) and common resources (forms for specific types of communication).   As long as an system includes an interface that speaks the common language, it can communicate with any other system.  Moreover, a repository of forms makes it less costly to implement communication of a specific form.

Creating a new language for machine-readable information sharing has significant costs.   Teaching persons to use well a new language is costly.  Developing a large collection of works in the new language (a library of forms) requires considerable time and resources.   Moreover, these languages typically aren’t easy for humans to read.   Presentation software can be developed to translate the machine-readable language into something that a human can easily parse, but that requires additional investment.

An alternative to creating a new language for machine-readable information sharing is to have information shared via machine-generated, human-readable presentations.   Demand for human-readable information already exists both within organizations and across organizational boundaries.  Considerable resources are already engaged in meeting that demand through machine-generated, human-readable tables and reports.  Machine-readable information sharing via human-readable forms requires technology for tagging and aggregating machine-generated, human-readable information.

Sharing information across information systems via a human-readable layer isn’t as powerful or efficient as sharing via a new, machine-readable language.  But the former better enables the development of human constituencies for information production.   Among small, loosely connected organizations, local public constituencies for information production play an important role in supporting global information sharing.

Academia offers an instructive example.  Academic initiatives to foster data sharing and journal requirements for use of data repositories have had quite limited success in fostering data sharing.   Sharing of human-readable academic papers via personal websites and working-paper repositories, in contrast, has grown enormously.  New publishing tools that easily integrate databases into new forms of electronic publications to create dynamic tables and charts will link much more data into human-readable forms.  Such data can be translated, with some effort, into machine-readable forms.

Related post: industrial organization for government communication

Bell System response to automatic telephony

Early in the year 1900, local authorities in Springfield, Massachusetts, held a hearing on Hampden Automatic Telephone Company’s application to provide automatic telephone service in Springfield.  The Bell System at that time provided operator-switched telephone service in Springfield.   The hearing produced an early battle of experts.  It also displayed general argumentative strategies quite common in modern regulatory proceedings.

Testifying against granting the application for the competing automatic service was Isaiah H. Farnham, “the well-known Bell telephone expert.”  Mr. Farnham’s arguments:

  1. He has studied the 300 relevant patents and has concluded that automatic telephony is not practical.
  2. He personally made 100 telephone calls on an automatic telephone system, and he found that more than half the calls were failures (no response or failure to connect to the right customer).
  3. The automatic telephone system operating in Aiken, South Carolina, had an even higher rate of failure.
  4. The automatic telephone system operating in Augusta, Georgia, had many stations out of order.
  5. A person standing on a damp floor would receive an electrical shock from the dial of an automatic telephone.
  6. The automatic telephone had no protection against electrical currents from lightning or from telephone wires crossing electric light wires.
  7. He found that the automatic telephone system took 11 seconds to make a connection, while the Bell system in Springfield made connections in about 4 seconds.
  8. An ordinary person would have difficulty using an automatic telephone in the dark.
  9. Because the apparatus is more complicated, a subscriber is more likely to make mistakes with an automatic telephone.
  10. It takes longer to correct a mistake with an automatic telephone.
  11. The automatic telephone system provides a greater opportunity for central office personnel to eavesdrop on telephone conversations, because, with an automatic system, central office personnel have less work to do.
  12. An automatic telephone system costs more to construct, requires more expert knowledge, and has higher depreciation costs, and hence has a greater total cost than an operator-switched telephone service.
  13. The “central office of a modern telephone company” (meaning here one that employs operators) serves as a bureau of information.   Automatic telephone service cannot provide information services.
  14. Automatic telephones have created public harms: “The fire department have been called out on false alarms over the automatic telephone.  The police have been sent on fruitless errands, and newspapers misled by people, who maliciously used the automatic telephone, knowing that there was no way in which to trace out their identity.  In one place, he said, the fire department has a standing rule not to answer any calls which come over the automatic telephone.”

S.L. Powers, an attorney for the New England (Bell) Telephone & Telegraph Company, added other arguments against granting the application:

  1. Only 20 companies have installed automatic switching equipment, and the largest automatically switched exchange has only 500 subscribers.
  2. New England Telephone pays $3.63 per year per telephone royalties, while the Automatic Company pays $5 per year in royalties.
  3. New England Telephone’s Springfield service has in the past reduced rates $4 per telephone, and the company has pledged to reduce rates as fast as possible.

E.A. Keith, an “electrical expert” from Chicago, offered testimony on behalf of the Automatic Company.  According to a news report, “Mr. Keith’s testimony differed materially from that offered by Mr. Farnham, and in certain points appeared to be exactly contradictory.”  Mr. Keith declared:

  1. An automatic telephone required, from an experienced user, one second per number dialed.  Hence only three seconds were required to call anyone in an exchange of 999 lines or less.
  2. An automatic systems was being implemented in Chicago.
  3. All the automatic exchanges in operation have been installed within the past three years and have better equipment than the automatic telephone system patented in 1891.
  4. Automatic telephone switches can serve party lines, but the company does not plan to implement party lines because they provide inferior service.
  5. The Bell System has experts in the central offices.  Their opportunity to overhear telephone conversations is as great as that of any automatic company personnel.
  6. Secret service is practically assured with an automatic system where metallic circuits are used.
  7. There’s little chance of wires getting crossed.
  8. Both the Bell System and the automatic system can be abusively used.[1]

The Bell System implemented automatic switching slowly compared to other telephone companies.  By 1920, two decades after this hearing, only 2% of telephones in the Bell System were automatically switched.[2]  Public hearings in which Bell System leaders argued against potential automatic-switching competitors probably helped to convince Bell System leaders’ of the inferiority of automatic switching long past when that inferiority was otherwise plausible.[3]

Just as liars risk becoming confused about true and false, those battling with arguments before regulators may lose the capacity to discern their real interests.

*  *  *  *  *


[1] The quotations and the argument points are from “Arguments For and Against Automatic Telephony,” Electrical World and Engineer (New York), v. 35, n. 10 (Mar. 10, 1900).

[2] In 1929, 26% of Bell System telephones were automatically switched,  while the automatic shares in Austria, Netherlands, and Germany were 71%, 52%, and 40%, respectively.  Sweden, a early leader in teledensity, also lagged in implementing automatic switching.  Sweden’s share of automatically switched telephones was only 6% at the end of the 1920s.  For the non-U.S. figures (and mis-statement of the U.S. figure), see Lipartito, Kenneth (1994) “Component Innovation: The Case of Automatic Telephone Switching, 1891–1920,” Industrial and Corporate Change, v. 3, n. 2, pp. 327, 351.

[3] Id., p. 328, states that in 1910 in large U.S. cities, automatic switching would have cut Bell System costs $5 to $8 per line out of a total cost per line of $22.  On other reasons for the Bell System’s slow adoption of automatic switching, see id.  Here are statistics on U.S. telephone network technology from 1915 to 1987.

eternal bureaucratese

Common characteristics of bureaucratic texts:

  1. Abstract — Job titles indicating organizational position (major, manager) replace job titles associated with doing a specific job (scribe, librarian).
  2. Vague —  Contributions, superstatutory food-money, and “the usual” are used as names for taxes and bribes.
  3. Repetitive — Virtually identical documents newly appear over time.
  4. Prolix — A decree denouncing tomb desecration begins: “It was my duty, after considering with myself, to restore the ancient custom [about funerals]…. For when they considered the matter, the men of old, who made wise laws, believed that there was the greatest possible difference between life and death….the sun is the cause of day and night … by his departure and arrival.”
  5. Passive — Nouns replace verbs (“our thinking is” replaces “we think”).  Passive verbs replace active verbs (“it was determined” replaces “the Council ruled”).
  6. Assuring — Colonial levies are called “happy shipments”; the army is called “our ever-victorious soldiers”.
  7. Obsequious — “by his mere passing-by, by the mere efficacity of his high dignity, recalled our city…to splendor.”

All the examples above are from fourth-century Roman bureaucratese.[*]  Bureaucratic language is as universal and enduring as humans’ social nature.   Enjoy the Carnival of Bureaucrats!

[*] See MacMullen, Ramsay. 1962. “Fourth-Century Bureaucratese,” Traditio 18: 364-78.

revenue diversification: the example of movie theaters

Movie (motion picture) theaters are not just in the business of showing movies.   In the U.S. in 2007, 29% of movie theater revenue came from food and beverage sales (concession sales).  Another 6% of revenue came from advertising services, rental of retail space, revenue from coin-operated games and rides, and other revenue.[1]

Shares of concession sales in total movie theater revenue are similarly large in other high-income countries.  In Spain from 2003 to 2005, concession sales amounted to about 25% of movie theater revenue.  In the U.K. in 2005, concessions sales also amounted to 25% of movie theater revenue.  Soda and popcorn made up nearly two-thirds of U.K. theaters’ concession revenue.[2]

At least in the U.S., the movie theater business was relatively slow to recognize and exploit concession sales.   In the 1930s, concession sales amounted to only 2% of theaters’ total revenues.   A factor contributing to theaters’ focus on movie admissions revenue was probably the Hollywood studio system.  Vertically integrating production, distribution, and exhibition, five studios controlled about 50% of theater seats.[3]  Integrated studios managed the vertical value chain for movies.  Concession sales meant looking in an orthogonal direction at a geographically dispersed, retail business more complicated to control and monitor than the film exhibition business.

Competition from drive-in movie theaters may have promoted conventional movie theaters to expand concession sales.  Drive-in theaters numbered about 60 in 1945, but expanded rapidly to about 1,500 in 1949 and 3,611 in 1954.[4]   In an article published in 1951, a business professor noted:

drive-in theaters have experimented and pioneered in providing either restaurant facilities or almost complete snack bars, serving in the latter a wide range of hot and cold sandwiches, pastries, and ice cream specialties, as well as candy, popcorn, and soft drinks.  In some cases, these are served at booths or tables facing the theater screen so that the picture may be watched at the same time.  In other cases many of the commissary items are served directly to car patrons from small commissary wagons.  In all cases, the patrons are urged to utilize these services to the fullest extent, and most drive-in theaters prolong intermission periods for just this purpose.[5]

The professor reported estimates that drive-ins have concession sales “30 or 40 per cent (and sometimes as high as 75 per cent) of total admissions receipts”,  “four times as much as the average conventional theater.”[6]   Census data for 1954 show concessions sales as 28% of admissions receipts for drive-ins  and 12% of admissions for conventional theaters (both figures excluding admissions taxes).   While the professor may have somewhat exaggerated the contrast, drive-ins unquestionably did lead conventional theaters in expanding non-admissions revenue.

The movie industry changed significantly in post-war decades.  The share of U.S. households owning television sets rose from 9% in 1950 to 87% in 1960.   Along with the spread of television, average weekly movie attendance fell from 60 million per week in 1950 to 40 million per week in 1960. [7]  In addition, in 1948 the Paramount Decrees required the Big-Five studios to divest ownership in theaters.   From 1948 to 1972, the number of conventional movie theaters fell by half.

Despite these changes, concession sales as a share of movie theaters’ total revenue remained about 12% from 1954 to 1972.    Because movie distributors take roughly 50% of admissions revenue, but movie theater owners keep 100% of concession sales, the Big-Five’s divestiture of movie theaters increased newly independent theaters’ incentive to pursue concession revenue.[8]  Perhaps movie theaters sought to differentiate themselves from television with high-value productions exhibited in a more formal, controlled setting.  Such a setting might disfavor the noise and disorder of food and beverage consumption.  Organizational inertia may also have been a factor.  In 1972, 44% of conventional theaters had been established prior to 1942.[9]   For whatever reasons, with major changes occurring about them, theater owners did not change their revenue structure.

Movie theaters’ non-admissions revenue share began to rise about 1972.   From 12% in 1972, the non-admissions share rose continually to 28% in 1992 and 34% in 2007.  Judging by the Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, located in a historic art deco theater built in 1940, I expect non-admissions revenue to continue to rise in the future.

Movie theaters’ revenue diversification  is an example that doesn’t bode well for newspapers and television broadcasters.  Both newspapers and television broadcasters are well-established businesses.  They now need to diversify their revenue streams in order to survive in the new media environment.   Most importantly, they must do so much faster than movie theaters increased their revenue by selling soda, popcorn, and other refreshments.


[1] Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 Services Annual Survey.  I’ve compiled Census data on movie theater revenue sources from 1935 to 2007.  Subsequent cited figures, unless otherwise noted, are from that compilation.

[2] Gil and Hartmann (2007), p. 335, gives the Spanish figure, which is based on a dataset described in detail in that paper.  Id., p. 330, cites the U.K. figure, which comes from Screen Digest.  Across Europe, 78% to 87% of movie patrons purchase soft drinks in theaters, and 59% to 78% purchase popcorn.  Id. p. 327, citing Research Business International, Food and beverage usage in cinema, report prepared for Coca Cola (London: 2000).

[3] The Wikipedia entry on the Paramount case cites an authoritative figure: “By 1945, the studios owned either partially or outright 17% of the theaters in the country, accounting for 45% of the film-rental revenue.”  United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc., 334 U.S. 141, 167.  Various other, undoubtedly not independent, secondary sources on the Internet suggest the theater-seat figure cited above.  These sources also indicate that the Big Five controlled 80% of first-run theaters in major cities.  If you have good data pertaining to this issue, please let me know.

[4]  The figures for 1945 (“at the end of the war”) and 1949 (“late 1949”) are from Luther (1950) p. 42.   Id. notes that drive-ins began operating in 1933 and increased in number initially about 8 a year.  The 1954 figure is from the compilation of Census data on movie theaters.

[5] Luther (1951) p. 407.

[6] Id. p. 408, 401.

[7] Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Social Statistics, p. 400, Series H873.

[8] Gil and Hartmann (2007) pp. 329-330, describe the different incentives of a movie distributor and the independently owned theater.

[9] 1972 Census of Selected Service Industries, Vol. 1, Summary and Subject Statistics, p. 3-17, Table 4.


Gil, Ricard and Wesley R. Hartmann (2007), “The Role and Determinants of Concessions Sales in Movie Theaters: Evidence from the Spanish Exhibition Industry,” Review of Industrial Organization, v. 30, pp. 325-347, DOI 10.1007/s11151-007-9139-7.

Luther, Rodney (1950), “Marketing Aspects of Drive-In Theaters,” Journal of Marketing, v. 15, n. 1 (July) pp. 41-7.

Luther, Rodney (1951), “Drive-in Theaters: Rags to Riches in Five Years,” Hollywood Quarterly, v. 5, n. 4 (Summer) pp. 401-411.

industrial organization for government communication

Concern about too much government control over technologically limited and costly communication channels has been enormously significant historically. With the Internet revolution, governments can own and control communication channels without significantly lessening the opportunities for non-governmental bodies to do so. Governments that broadly disseminate government-created content do not preclude others from broadly disseminating other content. Vertically integrated government communication now carries much less political risk for the over-all communications industry. This fundamental change, it seems to me, favors more vertical integration in government communication with the public.

A draft of a new scholarly article makes the opposite argument. It declares:

If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. … Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens….[1]

The idea essentially is to have more vertical disintegration in government communication. Government would focus on providing a large amount of detailed, machine-interpretable data that other organizations’ technologies would search, aggregate, re-organize, and re-use. The anticipated benefit is more rapid innovation in the provision of information services to citizens.

Some efforts to promote vertical integration clearly are silly. The Yale Journal of Law and Technology (YJOLT) will publish the draft article quoted above in Fall 2008. The draft is freely and publicly available from the websites of SSRN and YJOLT. Yet on the top of every page of the article appears the bolded imperative “Do NOT cite.” That literally implies that everyone can read the draft article but no one can discuss it. Many blogs have simply ignored the draft’s pagely imperative (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). One sheepishly declared: “it kindly asks us not to cite the draft, but – since it’s out there for everyone to read – I assume a little quoting in a blog post like this is in order.”

Wanting to respect the authors’ wishes, I emailed them to ask if they would mind if I were to discuss their paper, cite it as a draft, and link to it. One of the author’s responded graciously. He thanked me for my note, explained that YJOLT required the header, and welcomed me to discuss the draft and link to it. That’s a good response. Allowing persons to discuss what they read increases the value of the time they spend reading. Moreover, the value of publishing an article in YJOLT isn’t reduced by allowing discussion of the draft. Attempting to deny readers the freedom to cite a publicly available draft is an absurd product of an organizational silo-mentality. Fortunately, the specific issue is relatively easy to deal with in practice.[2]

The more general and important issue concerns supply incentives. With respect to government data, more important than the allocation of resources between government data infrastructure and government provision of data to individual end-users is the extent of investment in producing, cleaning, organizing, maintaining, and studying data. Government data collection typically is initiated to serve a narrow political purpose. Concern about specific statistics and the use of the data to produce specific reports drives investment in ensuring accurate reporting, finding and resolving data inconsistencies, and maintaining the data over time. A data collection effort that expands over time to serve diverse political interests within government has a better chance of enduring. To the extent that government data collection mainly serves non-governmental information intermediaries, governments will invest less in collecting data and ensuring high data quality.

Governments have significant advantages as suppliers of web content and services to end-users. Most adults know the names of the governments to which they are subject, have experience with those governments’ services, and are concerned to make those services better. Governments typically spend little on user acquisition (many even aggressively discourage immigration) and relatively little on advertising and promoting themselves and their services. For example, U.S. federal government expenditure amounts to about 20% of GDP, but U.S. government advertising spending probably amounts to less than 1% of total U.S. advertising spending. Governments have a highly differentiated position within the space of user trust, and governments generate distinctive information flows. Eliminating governments from the ecology of end-user web content and services would waste their special institutional advantages.[3]

Stimulating end-user demand for government information is likely to make more government data available through information intermediaries. In academia, scholars who generate and share large amounts of data typically get relatively little academic credit, prestige, and status. Not surprisingly, only a small number of heroic academics pursue this unpropitious path. Even initiatives to require scholars to share data and algorithms necessary to replicate their published results have not been widely successful. However, the small share of scholars whose results attract considerable attention naturally generate demand for the data that they used. Moreover, these scholars then have some interest in ensuring that the data they used are widely available. The same dynamic is likely to be operative for governments. But the information flow is likely to be larger, because governments have a greater responsibility to supply demands for data and are less capable of controlling access to it.

Useful government data will get out one way or another. More important is to ensure that governments have an incentive to generate it.


[1] From abstract of Robinson, David, Yu, Harlan, Zeller, William P. and Felten, Edward W., “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” . Yale Journal of Law & Technology, Vol. 11, 2008 Available at SSRN:

[2] I didn’t try to contact YJLOT and get permission from YJLOT to cite the paper. When I’m not wearing my bureaucratic hat, I’m more concerned to respect the desires of human persons than those of corporate persons. That’s particularly true when those desires seem to me silly or not in the public interest.

[3] As bright discussion of id. has highlighted, the distinctive characteristics of government also include distinctive forms of end-user political accountability.

Applying Newton’s Third Law to human behavior: institutions have mass

Digital forms and ubiquitous networks are greatly increasing opportunities to circulate authored symbolic works. Digitization projects are creating huge online libraries of digitized books that persons around the world can access at zero incremental cost. Storage prices are dropping so rapidly that one small device will soon be able to store all the music that most persons listen to throughout their lives. Video sharing sites are collecting and distributing large amounts of video across the Internet. Many persons can now easily create a huge library of digital works. How persons respond to vastly expanding access to works will significantly shape the communications industry.

To understand better the circulation of works, consider U.S. public-library users’ book-borrowing behavior since the mid-nineteenth century. Measured relative to the unskilled wage, the dime novels that Irwin Beadle began selling in 1860 were almost five times more expensive than the twenty-five cent paperbacks being sold in 1950. A lower real purchase price for books increased the incentive to purchase rather than borrow. Average time spent reading, according to the best available estimates, fell 50% from 1925 to 1995. Less time spent reading implies less demand for borrowing books.

Other factors probably pushed toward more borrowing. The number of books in print, and the number of books in libraries, increased immensely from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. Perhaps such a change encouraged persons to read a larger number of books less thoroughly, and hence favored borrowing books relative to purchasing books. Library users’ travel costs, in time and money, probably fell with improvements in transportation technology since the mid-nineteenth century. Lower travel costs reduce the total cost of borrowing books from a library.

Library book circulation per user has no strong, long-run trend. From 1856 to 1978, library users borrowed from U.S. public libraries about 15 books per user per year. From 1978 to 2004, book circulation per user declined approximately 50%. The growth of audiovisuals circulation, estimated at 25% of total circulation in 2004, accounts for about half of this decline. These figures depend on estimates and disparate samples of libraries with varying circulation and user accounting methods. Nonetheless, these figures are of sufficient quality to suggest that historically established institutions significantly stabilize borrowing behavior.

circulation trends for U.S. public libraries

Users borrowing items from public libraries has plausible connections to a variety of institutions and values. Much of the pleasure from reading comes from discussing a book with friends who have also read the book. The desire to discuss books among friends may constrain the rate at which individuals will read books. At the same time, persons may value going to the library as an activity in itself. Borrowing library items may be in part a by-product of interest in those visits. On the supply side, libraries can counterbalance changing demand for books by shifting the distribution of book collections between popular and less popular works, by changing investments in promoting book borrowing, and by shifting collections from books to audiovisuals.

Media use that is connected to wider scope of behaviors and interests is likely to change more slowly. The shifts in music from vinyl records, to CDs, and then to digital downloads were format changes that required relatively small changes in behavior. Persons who read the same newspaper every morning while using the bathroom, or who watch a half-hour television news program every evening before dinner, have their media use connected to relatively stable patterns of life. Generational changes in patterns of life, rather than changes in relative prices, quality, or features, are more important for such media use. Established institutions, meaning both routine patterns of personal activity and indefinitely chartered organizations, can give media use considerable stability despite major changes in activity incentives and technological possibilities.

Note: Post edited and updated. For sources and data, see Book Circulation Per U.S. Public Library User Since 1856 (also on SSRN).

the Internet brain

There is no Chief Executive Officer neuron in a brain. In brains, the most general decision-making processes (top of the executive hierarchy) and the broadest and most abstract representations (top of the perceptual hierarchy) are physically instantiated in the broadest networks of neurons. That’s rather different from the structure of a company in which the Chief Executive Officer is considered to be the highest decision-maker and the best representative of the company.

Joaquín Fuster, a leading neuroscientist, described this contrast:

The cortical structure and dynamics of the executive hierarchy, like those of the perceptual hierarchy, differ radically from the structure of social hierarchies. In social hierarchies, such as those of industrial and military organizations, representation — like power — is concentrated at the top; in cortical hierarchies, it is distributed at the top. Because both perceptual and executive hierarchies are formed largely by divergent connections, representations at the top are much more broadly based, in neural terms, than those at the bottom….[1]

The Neurocritic provides conceptual and anatomical diagrams from one of Fuster’s earlier papers.

Note that this difference involves neither an absence of hierarchy nor a contrast between bottom-up and top-down control. The brain’s executive and perceptual hierarchies are built upon anatomical gradients of memory formation:

Because the three gradients of memory formation — phylogeny, ontogeny, and connectivity — largely coincide temporally and spatially, we can trace them by focusing on any one of them, such as the ontogenetic gradient, as portrayed by the myelogenetic map of the cortex. The numeration of the map refers to the order of myelination of the various cortical areas in perinatal periods.[2]

Moreover, both top-down and bottom-up control are important aspects of brain functioning, each with somewhat different communications technologies.

The Internet is like a global brain. That global brain, like the one in your head, includes hierarchies and forms of top-down control. At the same time, the most general decisions about the goals of the Internet are a product of the relations of many active participants. Relations among persons, not one corporate person, represents what the Internet is.


[1] Joaquín Fuster (2006), “The cognit: A network model of cortical representation,” International Journal of Psychophysiology 60, p. 130.

[2] Id. p. 127, reference to figure omitted.