I recently read something that made me sit up and say "Oh, I never thought of it like that". It's about striking gold.
The story of gold prospectors is that all these grim and grizzly men (it's always men, in this story) go out into the hills, and some of them - the lucky ones - strike gold and get rich, and no one much cares what happens to the others. And this would be an accurate reflection of the economics of the situation - if it was just a case of one man going and looking and finding or not.
But gold is rare. And because it's rare, it's expensive. It's expensive because it takes a lot of effort to find it; that expense reflects the total cost of the labour that goes into finding the gold which includes all the effort that's put in by people who go looking for gold and don't find any. Looking for gold and not finding it is part of the process of elimination by which the gold is found; no one expects come home with a nugget as big as a hen's egg the first time they go out.
If, by the end of the gold rush, every square kilometre of mountain has been claimed and prospected, and all the gold has been found, then the value of the gold is clear - it's what's refined and been weighed. But the cost of the gold is the time everyone, collectively, spent looking for it - finding it and not. After all, if an evil multinational mining corporation buys the rights to prospect the whole mountain range, and then hires people to do it, they pay all their employees a salary. You get paid to go out looking for gold, because that's then your job, and whilst you might get a bonus if you find some, you don't get nothing if you don't.
Anyway, this kind of unpaid, unrewarded labour - looking where the gold isn't - stuck in the back of my head, working away, until last night at dinner it popped out as a thought.
"Oh. This is Grantium".
Thousands of people spend thousands of hours filling in horrible forms, and a lucky few of them get grants, and the majority don't, and just view all that time as wasted.
We fund and structure the rewards and remuneration in the arts like a gold rush- the winners get everything, everyone else gets nothing, and we regard people who don't find their gold as being somehow lacking in dedication or talent, rather than an essential part of the process by which the rare and sought-after gold is found.
And the only ones who make a decent living are the ones selling the shovels.