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Must the Rich Rock On Forever?

Economists tend to add more to the aggravations of everyday life than explain them. Not this economist.

By Sam Pizzigati

Moshe Adler, Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science that Makes Life Dismal. New York: The New Press, 2010, 217 pp.

Economics for the Rest of UsDo you, like Chuck Berry, “go for that rock and roll music”? Do you yearn to take your “loved one over cross the tracks,” or anywhere else, to hear some up close and personal?

Then maybe you’ve been wondering, over recent years, why the bands you adore seem to be touring less these days — and charging more for the concerts they do give.

Or maybe you worry more about Social Security checks than concert tickets. And maybe you wonder why the average Social Security check today doesn’t reach what an elderly person needs to pass the poverty line.   Or maybe you wonder why the CEO at the company where you work makes more in a morning than you make in a year.

You have questions. In his new Economics for the Rest of Us, Moshe Adler has answers. Good ones. And his answers all revolve, sooner or later, around our world’s increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth — and power.

Adler teaches economics at Columbia University. The vast majority of his colleagues in faculties of economics don’t just oppose any moves to make that distribution more equal. They tout, Adler notes, “a theory that justifies the process that creates inequality to begin with.”

Economics for the Rest of Us blasts away against that theory — and all the other contortions economists go through to make the case that “what’s good for the economy” must always be what’s “good for the rich.”

In fact, as Adler explains with entertaining examples, growing concentrations of income and wealth at society’s summit make our lives far more “dismal” than they would be if we distributed resources and power more equitably.

Take those rock concerts, for instance. Back in 1980, in a considerably more equal United States than we have now, 73 percent of rock concerts in large venues charged the same ticket price for all seats. To get a good seat, a dedicated fan only needed to show up early.

Fast forward a generation. By 2003, only 26 percent of concerts charged the same price for all seats. And the best seats had increased the most in price.

Nothing strange, notes Adler, in any of this. In a relatively equal society, with little difference in income between the rich and everyone else, monopolistic vendors have “little to gain from selling only to the rich.” But that all changes when the rich go mega. Vendors can charge more for their wares — and not worry if their less affluent customers can’t afford the freight.

The end result of this rising inequality: Average-income rock fans, observes Adler, “must now content themselves with fewer live concerts because rock stars can now make more money charging higher prices and performing less.”

To add insult to injury, a growing number of the gigs rock stars do perform come before audiences open to rich people only. Elton John charges $1.5 million for a 90-minute performance at a private party. The Rolling Stones: up to $10 million.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, our world can survive the shenanigans of ungrateful and greedy rock-and-rollers. But the same dynamics of inequality that aggravate rock fans help explain why so many people can’t afford AIDS drugs or stay in college or buy a home.

So what do we do? We need to ditch the “pseudoscience” that mainstream economics so often propagates, Economics for the Rest of Us advises, and press for new economic rules and regulations that can “check the unfair distribution of the fruits of our labor.”

signup [1]One such rule, suggests author Adler, could “set a maximum ratio at any given company between the highest executive compensation and the lowest worker’s wage.”

Most economists won’t like that notion at all. After spending some time with this invigorating new read from Moshe Adler, you most likely will.

Sam Pizzigati, an associate fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, edits Too Much [2], the online weekly on excess and inequality.