July 21, 2009 3:03PM

The Play Is Not the Thing

I’ve already started receiving e‐​mails in response to my earlier blog challenge: name a field that has suffered a productivity collapse like education (stagnating or declining performance with massive increase in cost). The leader so far: live theater.

Except it just doesn’t measure up. The NYT reported in 1968 the advent of $15 Broadway tickets. That’s equivalent to $93 today. But you can go see revivals of Chicago for as little as $63 and Hair for as little $35. Mama Mia starts at $60. Those are the three most popular plays on Broadway. You can pay more for the best seats, but you can get a good seat for the same or less money than was the case 40 years ago.

So while there has not been a dramatic improvement in the productivity of live theater, there is also no obvious decline.

What’s more, the analogy is not entirely apt. The market for live theater, such as it exists, is a market for a very specific service: people on stage in front of you acting out some bit of dramatic entertainment. The market for education is not, at least in principle, so closely bound to a particular delivery mechanism. Parents want their children prepared for good, happy and successful lives, but if they had a diverse range of options available to them that would secure those ends (as they would if education weren’t a government monopoly), they would not necessarily insist that it be delivered in exactly the same way that it was 100 years ago — a full day of kids sitting in rooms with their age‐​mates listening to teachers lecture.

Any other candidates for fields suffering calamitous productivity declines like education?