Sunday, October 14, 2012

Revenue (if not NPV) Positive Graffiti

I loathe graffiti. Courts tend to view it as a petty crime, just kids letting off steam.

But I find it aesthetically angering in a way that might make me seem like some crazy zero tolerance fanatic.

Sure, the cost to remove it may not be that high. But the mindset of ruining something beautiful merely for your own enjoyment is barbarism on the most primitive level. It is deadweight loss for the sheer enjoyment of deadweight loss. And I hate, hate, hate deadweight loss. If there is one thing that unites economists, it is that.

To make things more galling, the people who deface property will mark it with their own tag, so that others can know who did it. They may be doing it pseudonymously, but they are proud of their destruction of other people's property. I simply cannot fathom that mindset.

Jason Lee Steorts said much the same thing:
Let me end on a personal note. I hate vandals. My friends ask what makes me a conservative, and sometimes I wonder myself, but there is an answer, and it’s that I hate vandals. The problem with vandals is not that they are wrong about a conceptual matter. The problem is that they smash beautiful things. They couldn’t care less about your rules or your God or your conception of the good. You have to stop them with tools that work.
Recently though, I found something that I didn't think possible - graffiti that didn't strike me as completely value destroying.

I'm not talking about political slogan protests, although that might qualify depending on your view of the NPV of various political causes.

The graffiti that I found interesting was a couple of cases where the spraypaint scrawl gave the URL of either a youtube channel, or a soundcloud link.

This is by far the most entrepreneurial use of graffiti that I've come across. At least the vandal is hoping to get something out of it - ad revenue, and perhaps new audience members. If their stuff is actually interesting, there may well be consumer surplus to the people watching the clips.

Looked at this way, it's far more akin to traditional advertising billboards, except a) they're not paying the property owner, and b) it's not as attractive.

Both of these are genuine problems, to be sure. Because the property rights aren't secure, you can't appeal to the Coase theorem. We can't determine whether the value to the property owner to not have the graffiti is higher than the value to the vandal of having it. Presumably, in fact, it's not, because otherwise the vandal would have negotiated with the city to put up their URL (yeah right). It's at least positive revenue, if not positive NPV. Most graffiti is just loss piled on loss.

Still, it inspired in me a curious grudging respect for the guerrilla marketing skills of whoever came up with it. If the counterfactual is more youtube graffiti, I would be unhappy about it. But if the counterfactual is that existing graffiti artists turn their hand to promoting social media channels instead of inane gang logos, moving from 4th best to 3rd best is still a change for the good.

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