The Undercover Economist

Who’s the Greatest Artist of the 20th Century?

This economist has figured out the answer.

Puppeteer Jerry Nelson, the man behind Sesame Street’s Count

My second-favorite character from Sesame Street was always the Count. Avid viewers will recall that the Count loves to count, punctuating his counting with a throaty Transylvanian chuckle.

Laughing aside, I’ve noticed a similar tendency in economists. We spent decades perfecting the theoretical tools and the software to gather and analyze noisy data in a messy world. Most of the data were produced by laborious counting of the most obvious things: goods sold, prices, people out of work. Now the tools are so good and so simple to use, and data so easy to gather and disseminate, it’s hard to resist the temptation not to count, well, something different.

A nice exponent of this is Chicago-based economist David Galenson, who recently demonstrated that Picasso was by far the greatest artist of the 20th century. Galenson’s method is simplicity itself: round up every art history textbook of the past 15 years and see whose art is reproduced most frequently. Picasso, with 395 illustrations in 33 textbooks, scores nearly as many as his three closest rivals (Matisse, Duchamp, and Mondrian) put together.

Galenson is out on a limb with this particular piece of counting, but his work highlights the features of more mainstream counting projects.

First, it’s infuriating. An economist pronounces Picasso the greatest artist of the 20th century on the basis of leafing through picture books: What could be more irritating?

Second, it’s also annoyingly reasonable. Galenson is not counting something stupid, like the number of colors Picasso used. He’s counting something meaningful, which is how frequently experts felt inclined—or compelled—to exhibit Picasso’s art in canonical textbooks. The process of counting is reductive, but not foolishly so. It is a simple and transparent quantification of other people’s qualitative judgments.

Third, the counting is the start, not the end. What really interests Galenson is when artists reach their peak. His method allows him to show, for example, that the artists who made conceptual leaps (Johns, Picasso, Duchamp, Warhol) peaked far earlier than so-called “experimental” artists for whom practice made perfect (Kandinsky, Rothko, Mondrian). Johns was 25 when he produced his most-reproduced pieces. Mondrian was 71.

Galenson’s counting isn’t going to change the world, but other projects may. Google’s search technology is, at its heart, based on counting: Google counts inbound links to a Web page as votes for that page. Pages that get a lot of votes tend to appear high on search results, and their own votes count for more, too. An individual link may not convey much useful information, but count them all up and you have something very powerful indeed.

My former colleagues at the World Bank have also been counting away: How many official signatures does a farmer in the Central African Republic need to obtain before he’s able to get his bananas on a ship bound for America or Europe? 38. How many official procedures must a businessman in Lagos go through in order to legally buy a warehouse? 21.

This kind of counting—done with the help of local lawyers and public officials—shares common ground with Galenson’s work. It transforms a qualitative impression (“Nigerian bureaucracy is painful”) into a quantitative fact; it does so through the intermediation of experts, and uses a perfectly transparent process.

It’s also rather more useful. While Galenson won’t tell you how to be the next Picasso, the World Bank report Doing Business in 2006 can show Central African Republic officials which 37 of the 38 signatures aren’t required in a well-functioning economy such as Germany.

Perhaps you shouldn’t take my word for it. I was, after all, an adviser to the report team. You might instead see if anyone else thinks it is useful. It turns out that Doing Business in 2006 is, by far, the World Bank publication most mentioned in press reports. By the Google or Galenson methodologies, that presumably means it counts for something.

The Undercover Economist appears on Saturdays in the Financial Times Magazine.