Comparative Advantage, Opera Edition

The American League believes in comparative advantage, and has a designated hitter bat for the pitcher.  I prefer this: I believe in comparative advantage and division of labor (and being a White Sox fan from age 5, I like the American League anyway).  

This afternoon we heard a performance of Pagliacci, before which an announcer informed the audience that the soprano was ill, but would act the role while another—the designated soprano—sang from the side of the stage. The acting was better than usual, and so was the singing—an illustration here of comparative advantage.  The overall effect wasn’t good:  Opera is both acting and singing, and it was absurd and disconcerting to separate them.  The production function for opera requires one person doing both—division of labor makes no sense in this case.  

(HT to FWH)


I suppose it is a matter of opinion, but I think your statement:

The overall effect wasn’t good: Opera is both acting and singing, and it was absurd and disconcerting to separate them

...could just as easily, and perhaps moreso have been about baseball. In one half of the inning a player takes the field, in the other half he takes his turn at bat. It's the essence of the game. It ties in with the way individual and team effort is combined in baseball. Having one person either too privileged, or alternately too inept, to be expected or allowed to participate is really antithetical to the spirit of the game; it is far more absurd than the operatic example, where over-the-top showmanship and a hierarchy of music first, then singing, then sets, then acting is in the grand tradition of the thing.


Or to use Dr. Hamermesh's own terminology, baseball is both hitting and fielding, and it is absurd and disconcerting that the AL separates them.

Joe Snuffy

Would you have rather not had the opera at all? The non-singing soprano on stage is the one that knows the blocking and staging. Throwing someone on stage who doesn't know where to stand or how to move or where the lights will be would mess up everyone else, who have to stand in specific spots for their own lighting, sight lines, and safety. The stage can be a dangerous place. If you don't know how the set pieces will move around, you can easily be seriously hurt. Additionally, the costumes and wigs are designed and fitted specifically for the specific singer. If the replacement singer is a different size, there is probably not a costume for her.

Sometimes these replacement singers fly in the same day, go right to the opera house from the airport, and go right into the singing. For a last minute replacement, an opera will take almost anyone they can get. Considering all the factors, the best thing to do is often to have the singer in the wings while the actor who knows the staging on stage. These late additions might not be there in time for a makeup and costume call, and the costumers and makeup people have a regimented schedule designed to get everyone on stage just when they need it. Depending on the production, the makeup for a particular role can take quite a long time. The ill singer can be there for her makeup call while the replacement might not even be in town yet. Some replacements might show up literally minutes before they need to sing. It's not a great situation, but the show must go on (without literally injuring anyone).

Many more well-off opera companies have covers for many roles, and some featured or comprimario roles might cover principal roles, meaning that one singer moves to a higher role while leaving a hole in the cast. This can cascade throughout the cast to the point where they have to hire someone at almost literally the last hour. Virtually no singer wants to go on stage with an hour's notice, and it's only the singers who've done a particular production many many times who can get away with it.

But, let's consider the economic situation, which I think would be foremost in your mind for this blog. An opera singer doesn't get paid unless they make it through the first act. A sick singer, who may have spent the last six weeks in rehearsal with no pay, may not be able to pay the bills unless they go on stage. After the first act, there's often a payroll person who walks to the dressing rooms to hand the performers their checks. The ill singer needs to go on, even if not to sing, to get paid. The opera company, bound by their contract and union rules, end up paying for the replacement as well, and that fee can be quite steep (supply and demand, after all). The opera would rather pay one person, but if that was the way it worked, many of the singers you see wouldn't be able to to be singers. It's not like they make that much to start with, so the risk of working for weeks with no pay would force them out of the business. Not only that, an opera company that didn't accommodate this situation would find that it had a hard time casting productions. This has nothing to do with comparative advantage.

This only makes no sense to you because you don't seriously consider why they'd do that, making a lame comparison to baseball. There's isn't a designated hitter to stand in for injured players; the baseball team replaces injured players right out with someone already under contract, already on the roster and already traveling with the team. In a pinch, they might have to call up a player from the minors. The designated hitter isn't a replacement.

You should realize that just because things don't make sense to you doesn't mean they don't make sense. The glory of the opera isn't really the singing: it's that so many things that can go wrong don't, and a cast and crew of well over a hundred people pull it all together to put on a show that Wagner called "the unified art". When everything works out, hardly anyone notices. The singers, conductor, and director may take bows, but there are many other hard working people making all that possible.


Steve Nations

I like the DH. It takes away some coaching options, but I'd rather see a good hitter hit than watch a good manager manage.

For what it's worth, I don't like opera because having everybody around me speak in a language I can't understand is very unnerving. My paranoid side thinks they're all plotting against me.


This is not meant to be a challenge or a joke, but rather a kind of point to ponder:

If the DH is good, why stop with the pitcher? Why not have an offensive team and a defensive team? Watch the best hitters hit and the best fielders play defense. Pinch runners already exist, but why not go further, have designated runners who run for the hitters once they hit the ball. That way you could have *really* big strong guys who can *really* hit without having to worry about them being quick on the bases at all, and the runners can be world class sprinters.

The answer from my point of view is that somewhere it stops being baseball and starts being something else. To my mind the DH is already one step too far, but American League is still baseball. Somewhere down that path though you cross a line.

Steve Nations

You're right, that somewhere down the line it becomes too much. But I think that one problem with societal groupthink is the all-or-nothing mentality; everything becomes a slippery slope argument. It's possible to have a little bit of a good thing, and not let it turn into too much. I think that's what the DH is: enough of a good thing that won't grow into some multi-substitution monster.

For what it's worth, I often wonder if football would be more fun if it returned to its single-platoon roots, with very limited substitution. And I think the answer is yes.


I understand the comparative advantage analogy in the opera situation, but does it apply to the DH rule? If I remember correctly, comparative advantage works by expanding production possibilities for at least one side without decreasing possibilities for the other. If you only consider run production, then this applies to the DH rule. However, the goods being exchanged would seem to be "Runs" and "Not Runs", i.e., it is a zero-sum game. You may be making both sides better at offense, but not without making them simultaneously worse at defense. Or is the argument that the end results are the same, but you get higher "quality" in the form of pitcher/hitter duels, with the good produced being "entertainment for fans"? Hey, I think I talked myself into liking the DH... (As a Red Sox fan, I am a default DH fan, but not usually if I think too hard about it.)


As ridiculous an art form as opera is (especially one about clowns), it's difficult to complain about something that makes it even sillier. Do you seriously expect a guy to sing while he takes down those punks in Central Park with karate kicks? Of course a pinch singer sounded better.


What a neat analysis though! Majorly love Freakanomicss.


I'm not clear on how either of these examples demonstrates the concept of comparative advantage. Both examples illustrate the benefits of specialization of labor, a related but not identical concept. Bob is said to have a comparative advantage over Jim at producing X when Bob's opportunity cost of producing X is lower than Jim's opportunity cost of producing X. Counter-intuitively, this means that both parties are better off having Bob produce X even if Jim is way better (in absolute terms) at producing X than Bob.

A baseball analogy that might work: It's 1925, you manage the Yankees, and Babe Ruth is both your best pitcher and your best hitter. It's game 1 of the World Series and you have to decide who to put on the mound. Typically, you'd put your Ace pitcher on the mound for game 1 of a championship series. But if you put Ruth out there, the resulting fatigue from pitching a full game could well damage his hitting potential in the next several games. So you put your 2nd best pitcher on the mound instead. Since that guy is a terrible hitter, he has a comparative advantage at pitching relative to Ruth. Even though Ruth is a better pitcher overall, Ruth's opportunity cost (a less potent bat over several games) is much higher than the other pitcher's opportunity cost.

I think so, anyway. I don't really know what I'm talking about. Not an economist!