Once again, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is showing us what deep-dive humor-journalism looks like with an 11-minute piece skewering the newest innovation in how journalism is getting funded: advertisements that look and read like real journalistic content, known as “native advertising.” Indeed, the business model of journalism has taken a hit in the past couple of decades, but is the solution more disgusting than the problem?
From his great HBO program Last Week Tonght, here’s John Oliver breaking down income inequality in the U.S. At this point, I’m starting to think John Oliver video=instant V+V blog post.
Go ahead and read these two paragraphs (go ahead, I’ll wait for you):
So there sat Bezos at the breakfast table, faced with a question for which he was apparently unprepared. Many painful seconds passed without an answer. Rutledge let the pause lengthen as long as he could bear it and was just about to tell his host to forget it, when Bezos finally spoke.
He looked down at his plate. Bezos had ordered a dish called Tom’s Big Breakfast, a preparation of Mediterranean octopus that includes potatoes, bacon, green garlic yogurt, and a poached egg. “You’re the octopus that I’m having for breakfast,” Rutledge remembers Bezos saying. “When I look at the menu, you’re the thing I don’t understand, the thing I’ve never had. I must have the breakfast octopus.”
It’s from a fascinating profile of Woot founder Matt Rutledge, and the story of Woot’s founding, its sale to Amazon, and Rutledge’s future endeavors. I’d say it’s worth a read, but I suspect you’re already reading it.
Adjusting for inflation, those tickets ranged in price from $15 to $30. These days $30 will get you in to see St. Vincent at the 9:30 Club but prices to see Kings of Leon at the Verizon Center start at about $60.
There are a number of concomitant reasons why, despite it being the hottest show in the world, it was so much cheaper than any popular concert would be in 2014.
First is the simplest of supply/demand arguments: The population of the U.S. in 1964 was an estimated 191,888,791, compared to 317,511,425 right now. Sure, the local population of D.C. at the time was somewhere between an estimated 756,510-763,956, which is probably around 100,000 more than today, but this wasn’t the first Beatles show in D.C., it was the first show in the United States.
Second, to continue on the demand side: Culturally, in 1964 rock concerts were just not universally acceptable events to attend, especially for young people, therefore the base of potential demand was significantly lower than it would be in 2014. Today, almost nobody bats an eye at the prospect of seeing a concert. Massive arenas can’t contain the demand for teen-focused acts, because nearly every teen is capable and wants to see rock concerts. Almost any parent would have little problem letting their teenagers go to the local arena/venue/high school gymnasium to see live rock and roll music. It’s not the devil’s music anymore, causing teenagers to worship Satan, do drugs, have sex and drop out of school. Rock and roll is so mainstream those thoughts are just laughable.
Additionally, in 2014, there’s several generations of folks older (and much richer) who make up part of the demand for rock concerts. In 1964, that was almost not the case at all, as 1964 was seeing the first ever generation of popular rock music acts. Sure, some less-than-upstanding parents of kids in 1964 would have been amenable to rock and roll music, or were probably familiar and fans of its antecedents, but that was nowhere even hear the norm. Now, go to see any concert, and I guarantee there will be plenty of 30- and 40-year-olds standing in the back, folks who were easily capable of paying the $60 ticket price for Kings of Leon.
Meanwhile, on the supply side: The ideal arena/venue size to see a concert has not grown with demand and population growth. Sure, we have outdoor venues that hold lots more people, and the Verizon center is probably bigger (but not much) than the Washington Colosseum. But, once you get much larger than that, the magic of the show diminishes, so venues are not build to hold the capacity that would match the 1964 population. This creates supply shortages, which creates higher prices. Of course, when prices are controlled, scalping becomes a more popular consequence, driving prices even further.
The economics of musical acts in 2014: On New Years Eve 2014, Billy Joel, a fairly popular musician, but hardly Beatles-in-1964, played a packed house at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. The arena packs in about 18,000, about double the capacity of the Washington Coliseum. Tickets were about $64.50-$199.50.
The good news is that supply has , in another way, exploded. There are far more venues, and lots and lots more bands out there than ever before. Small venues, large arenas, and everything in between. Granted, there’s only so much cultural bandwidth for super-stars with super-high-demand tickets, but there are plenty of real bargains near the bottom—great bands that might cost you $5-10 to see on any given night.
It’s the story of the day. Well, it’s the story of the past, well, ever. It seems the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle gets squeezed. And, truly that’s at least been the case since 1980.
Some see the cure for this malady to be “economic mobility,” which basically means, making it easier for people who were born poor to stop being so poor and start being middle class (or rich even!). Hard work and smarts! The American dream! It’s the obsession of Americans, this idea that there’s a path for people born in the lower rungs of society to the top, and only people who don’t want to (because it’s “hard”) stay poor.
Economic mobility probably was never that high in the U.S. It has probably never been high anywhere. Hell, it’s probably not even possible. The game is rigged: Institutions that are created to be pathways to better economic fortunes seem to always enshrine the economic order. “Let’s use test scores to send poor kids to top colleges” gets turned into a massive industry that makes rich kids get better test scores. As worker productivity opens better jobs up the salary level, other hurdles block all but well connected job applicants from attaining them. Corporations wield massive influence over the same governments that claim to want to raise mobility. So, in the name of “creating jobs,” taxes get cut, teachers get fired, unions get busted and minimum wages stop rising.
Economic mobility is a canard that distracts us from something we can fix: inequality. And the solution is actually not difficult: make poor people less poor. You can do this by giving them money, you can do this by mandating that their employees pay them more money, you can do it by making it harder for bosses to exploit workers, and you can do this by empowering workers and governments so they have a fighting chance against the top.
But don’t expect the free market fairy to wipe it away with magic mobility dust.
D.C. recently passed a law gradually increasing the minimum wage, from $8.25 to $11.50 by 2016. According to a report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, this will affect ninety percent of D.C. fast-food cooks.
I don’t have much more to say about that, except it’s a damned shame we have to have this job-killing minimum wage, because corporations would be paying workers way better without it. Or something. Unleash the free market or whatnot.
Despite all the evidence, Moody’s is still treated as a credible player … and one that’s powerful enough to send a warning shot across the bow of the United States government. It threatened to downgrade the US government’s debt last March if more wasn’t done to reduce the government’s debt.
That’s the kind of rigged game we’re facing: One of the biggest sources of the government’s debt is the economic collapse. That collapse was enabled in large measure by the bad ratings issuing by rating franchises like Moody’s. Now Moody’s wants to hamstring the government’s ability to repair the damage it helped create. And it might. They’re that powerful, and the system is that rigged.