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Lost Pleasures

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
“If you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving, you don’t actually live longer; it just seems longer.” –Clement Freud
There was an interesting bit of math tucked into the calorie count regulations released by the FDA late last year. It was a type of calculation called a “lost-pleasure analysis,” and it factored into the overall cost analysis of the regulations the “sense of deprivation people may feel when they give up foods they enjoy.” (Note that one recursive effect of this provision is that the better a regulation is at curbing costly and damaging behavior, the higher the cost charged against it, as more pleasure is “lost.”)
This wasn’t the first time this calculation has been invoked: for example, in last year’s tobacco regulations, the enormous health benefits from reduced smoking were discounted by 70% to offset the pleasure smokers forgo when they smoke less.
Maybe Lost Pleasure can be seen as a (perverse) outgrowth of the trend towards factoring happiness into otherwise purely transactional economic measures. Bhutan, for example, acting on the truism that you get what you measure, has adopted the Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI) to combat the materialism of the Gross National Product as the undisputed measure of a nation’s health. GNHI tracks costs that are usually booted down the road to the next generation, such as pollution; factors that may result in costs at some point, such as attitudes towards the environment; and quality of life issues, such as time spent sleeping.
The GNHI (and the related Happy Museum project) measure happiness as it relates to actions that promote long-term well-being. The Lost Pleasure measure, by contrast, veers towards pure hedonism—valuing the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good. Once we accept pleasure per se as something to be valued, regardless of consequences, where do we stop? Will the cost of the war on drugs factor in the lost pleasure of addicts deprived of heroin or PCP? Will the cost of extending the school year incorporate a figure for the pleasure students would have gained from playing outside or hanging out with friends? Is this anything more than a blatantly cynical ploy on the part of established industries to manipulate economic analysis in a way that rewards them for their skill at addicting people to self-destructive behaviors?
Probably not, but let’s see if we can’t get something good out of it anyway—making lemonade of political lemons, as it were. If we are going weigh the costs of pleasure lost to regulations promoting health, why not measure, and take into account, the costs of pleasures lost when we curb government spending? Over the last 25 years, the amount of support provided by local, state and federal funding dropped from 39% of museum operating costs, on average, to less than 25%, and I suspect that this figure dropped further since the recession of 2008 (though AAM doesn’t have hard numbers for the last six years). As I discussed in TrendsWatch 2012, we now live in an era in which many state and local governments, rather than funding nonprofit museums, seek ways to get money back from them via Payments in Lieu of Taxes and various fees.
It seems to me that that embracing Lost Pleasure is a way of combatting that trend. This approach could round out the arsenal of museums seeking to justify public support either through documenting economic impact (principally travel and tourism dollars flowing into their community due to museum visitation), or via outcomes-based evaluation documenting how their organization changes people’s knowledge, attitudes, skills and behavior. Putting a value on pleasure could bridge the gap between hard dollars and squishy consequences, as well as satisfying those who feel both those approaches miss the intangible benefits of art and culture.
Why not attach an economic number to the pleasure your museum provides to its community? Not just tourist dollars spent in local establishments, or facts drilled into little Susie’s head (in alignment with the Common Core, of course), but the sheer joy of seeing Calatrava’s Brise Soleil stretching out over the lake from the Milwaukee Art Museum, the peace of mind bestowed by walking Peter Santino’s meditation labyrinth All Happy Now at the Humbolt Botanical Gardens, or the happiness sparked by watching baby panda Bao Bao roll around in her first snowfall at the National Zoo.

I know that this is a leap. Lost pleasure wormed its way into the tobacco and calorie count regulations courtesy of a requirement established under President Clinton that every federal regulation with an effect on the economy greater than $100M be accompanied by a cost benefit calculation. I believe that, in turn, was a refinement of a 1981 executive order by Ronald Reagan mandating the use of cost benefit analysis in the federal regulatory process. There is no mandate requiring cities, states or the federal government to assess the impact of budget cuts on our shared culture and heritage. But there’s no reason museums can’t seize control of the dialog and start unilaterally factoring the pleasure we give society into our annual reports and online dashboards. How do we measure the pleasure people get from museums? I don’t know, but if the F.D.A. can quantify the pleasure people get from chowing down on a cheeseburger or puffing on a cigar, I think we can figure out how to put a number on the pleasure that comes from contemplating a Renoir. Let’s start working on it, people.
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