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Monday, February 09, 2009

What's "Good?"

The post about Guinness below has provoked some philosophical consideration. No one doubts Guinness's place in history, but as to whether their signature pint of plain is a good pint--well, that depends on the meaning of "good," doesn't it?

I was amused to see our resident economist's take. File this under the "you can take the boy out of his discipline of economics, but you can't take the econ out of the boy."
Is Bud a 'good' beer, is Wonderbread 'good' bread, is Velveeta 'good' cheese. Most would say no but the market appears to say yes.

Do crowds have wisdom or collective stupidity?

Does quality mean only appealing to the few enlightened consumers or does it mean appealing to as many as possible.
We've discussed this before, on this blog and others, but it does bear periodic reconsideration. Patrick applies a market test to the question--can't "good" be whatever's most popular? It's a framework that works for business and politics, and is clean and easily measured. The best beer is Bud, the best candidate is president, and so on.

Well. I studied the arts and humanities, so my framework is aesthetic. In this mental framework, we identify quality based on subjective judgments. It's not as clean as Patrick's but it has other virtues. (For example, what happens when a product is no longer the best-seller; do we rethink its status? Are we prepared to consider that the nature of something is not fixed? It wasn't very good two years ago, but strong sales made it good last year, but now it's weak sales make it bad again. And what about politicians? Truman was despised when he left office, but we look back and say, "Our bad, you were actually doing the right thing." Are we prepared to leave the judgment to others?)

Aesthetic judgments require tolerance of ambiguity, but they may more ably probe a thing's true nature. Aesthetics have two major components--the superficial and the contextual. The superficial is obvious: in the case of beer, for example, we have ready access to the appearance, scent, and flavor. The contextual is the more important, though, because it lays out the rules for judgment. You sample the appearance, scent, and flavor of a beer, but before you can answer the question "is it good?", you need to ask: compared to what?

Some beers are supposed to be sour; in others it's a fatal flaw. Of those that are sour, some are sweet-sour, some tart-sour, some dry-sour. The more we know about the entire pantheon of sour beers, the more we are able to judge how well a given candidate balances its aesthetic elements. Everyone will not agree about a given beer, but the exercise of trying to understand the beer's nature--how it tastes in context, what the brewer was aiming for and how well he accomplished it--can't be answered any other way.

Patrick wonders if the masses have collective wisdom or stupidity. But clearly, their insight is not correlated to quality. If you look at Oregon's ten best-selling craft beers, no doubt you'll find some exceptional examples of craft among them. But you'll also find uninspiring beers. The reasons for this are probably many and in some cases contradictory. To judge "good," though, you have to rely on more finely-tuned palates (starting with your own!).


  1. "When things go wrong and will not come right,
    Though you do the best you can,
    When life looks black as the hour of night -
    A pint of plain is your only man.

    When money's tight and hard to get
    And your horse has also ran,
    When all you have is a heap of debt -
    A pint of plain is your only man.

    When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
    And your face is pale and wan,
    When doctors say you need a change,
    A pint of plain is your only man.

    When food is scarce and your larder bare
    And no rashers grease your pan,
    When hunger grows as your meals are rare -
    A pint of plain is your only man.

    In time of trouble and lousey strife,
    You have still got a darlint plan
    You still can turn to a brighter life -
    A pint of plain is your only man."

    -- Flann O'Brien

  2. "Is Bud a 'good' beer, is Wonderbread 'good' bread, is Velveeta 'good' cheese. Most would say no but the market appears to say yes."

    No, the market is saying they're relatively inexpensive. If Tillamook cheese and Velveeta were perfect price substitutes Velveeta wouldn't exists.

    The interesting thing about Guinness is that it is both relatively expensive and popular.

  3. Can I still go with "Collective Stupidity?"

  4. I'm with the good doctor. Then again, I tend to take a dim view of the collective mind and popular culture in general (can we add "American Idol is the best show on television" to the list?).

  5. About a week or so ago, KATU News closed the broadcast with a story referencing Draft magazine's top (10/25?) beers of 2008, and how many Oregon beers made the list - even naming a few of them. Their meteoroligist, Rod Hill (who happens to be from St. Louis, though he's been here for at least a decade) - clearly oblivious to any of the named beers - responded, "Where I'm from, we drink Budweiser!", the emphasis being his.

    At some point in the mass collective, what is "good" ceases to be the primary concern; what everyone else consumes (for whatever reason, though the local influence in this case is obvious) becomes the deciding factor - which is similarly why only Ford, GM and Chrysler cars can be rented in Detroit, why all [soda/pop] in and around Atlanta is "Coke," and (not so similarly) why McDonalds has served over 100 billion of the shittiest burgers known to man…

    To wit, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals…" - Tommy Lee Jones, Men In Black