Thursday, October 16, 2014

One Percent Thinking

I've been wondering: Are wealth, power and influence so much concentrated in the top 1% of the population, mainly because the rest of us are so obsessed with the 1%?

In this celebrity obsessed time we live in, this seems a plausible theory. As I see it, in almost every realm of human endeavor, we so idolize those at the very top that we undervalue all the rest. I notice this especially in the Arts.

In creative writing, as in music, as in theatre and dance, there are the few who achieve great wealth, but most others fail to even support themselves entirely through their practice. I don't have the numbers to support this, and forgive me for not doing the research, but I wonder how much this is a function of how the rest of us - those who are consumers of the arts - spend our time, attention and money. When a musical act goes from performing in bars to performing in football stadiums, and from living off of Pay-what-you-can to multi-million dollar performance dates, is it because they've gotten that much better, or because we, the audience, listen in an entirely different way once celebrity comes into the equation? And is the performance by the small, local theatre company that can barely fill the seats, so much less than the "straight from Broadway" production that it's members should live in poverty?

Of course, the celebrated acts are very often dazzling in their quality, and the local unknown sometimes sucks. But often enough, it's the big production that is the huge disappointment, while the local creates the magic. But the former is still catapulted into fame and fortune, while the latter goes home with beer money. (Ever notice how stars of really terrible sit-coms of thirty years ago, or singers of one-hit wonders, maintain their celebrity and the rewards of it, forever?)

It's become common knowledge that in the corporate world, the difference between the earnings at the top and bottom of corporations has grown tremendously during the past decades. When I was in elementary school - in the sixties - we were taught that income disparities were shrinking, and what a good thing this was. But the value of a relatively even distribution of wealth seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Our way of consuming must be a major factor in this. And our consumption has a lot to do with going for what is familiar. McDonalds's has grown to be the largest restaurant chain in the world, not because it's food is so good, but because we know what we're getting. Conversely, it must also have to do with our uncertainty about what we'll get if we go to "Joe's Burger Joint" instead. And while I would guess that a famous person's voice mouthing the words of an animated Pixar character probably does little if anything to boost the quality of an animated film, it seems to be the factor that assures financing and a big audience.

So isn't this - the way we think, the way we consume - a huge factor in this world of wildly uneven quality of life experiences? If we actually attended to and acknowledged and paid for products and services according to their quality, their merit, and not so much their familiarity or celebrity, I imagine we'd live in a much less have-or-have-not world.

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