Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jewish Superstars

A guest post by AvromBronstein

Today’s Times ran an article taken from Eduardo Porter’s forthcoming “The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do” about The Economics of Superstars, which he applied to executive pay:
In 1982, the top 1 percent of pop stars, in terms of pay, raked in 26 percent of concert ticket revenue. In 2003, that top percentage of stars — names like Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera or 50 Cent — was taking 56 percent of the concert pie…  Nearly 30 years ago, Sherwin Rosen, an economist from the University of Chicago, proposed an elegant theory to explain the general pattern. In an article entitled “The Economics of Superstars,” he argued that technological changes would allow the best performers in a given field to serve a bigger market and thus reap a greater share of its revenue. But this would also reduce the spoils available to the less gifted in the business.
The Jewish community has its Rabbinic superstars as well, on several levels.  First, think of the national ubiquity of a Shmuley Boteach or a Daniel Lapin.  How many aspiring rabbinic opinion-makers are being squeezed out of the marketplace by the books, radio programs, and op-eds of the few?  Better, think of the number of blogs, podcasts, and columns devoted to responding to, or promoting, the ideas of a small number of idea generators.  We don’t need more than one Daniel Gordis, nor more than one Peter Beinart, if their articles and books have an international audience.
In terms of the always amorphous “communal leadership,” technology also means that fewer people emerge as credible spokespeople for the Jewish community.  The few that have established power bases and media savvy naturally speak with more and more authority.
I also thought of Dr. Erica Brown’s fascinating study of the synagogue scholar-in-residence phenomenon.  She focused on the educational component, along the lines of, “The SIR weekend as a stand alone experience, risks turning scholarship into edutainment.”  In fact, another consequence is the solidification of a few names as recognized public intellectual elite.  As technology (ease of travel, name recognition) expands the pool of potential speakers to include anyone as a potential guest scholar, we will likely see (if we haven’t already) that the premier venues are all inviting the same elite speakers.
Porter notes:
Apple allowed fans to buy single songs and take them with them. [This] allowed the very top acts to reach a larger fan base, and thus command a larger audience and a bigger share of concert revenue.
I’m sure this holds true for, say, YUTorah.org as well.  If I want to listen to a halakha presentation, I will listen to a Rosh Yeshiva.  Even as more and more speakers add their audio archives to the site, a greater percentage of downloads will remain with the elite, who gain more authority and exposure as a result.
Porter goes on to warn:
Inequality spurs economic growth by providing incentives for people to accumulate human capital and become more productive…Yet the increasingly outsize rewards accruing to the nation’s elite clutch of superstars threaten to gum up this incentive mechanism. If only a very lucky few can aspire to a big reward, most workers are likely to conclude that it is not worth the effort to try. The odds aren’t on their side…The United States is the rich country with the most skewed income distribution…Not coincidentally, Americans are less economically mobile than people in other developed countries.
..the piling of rewards on our superstars is encouraging a race to the top that, if left unabated, could leave very little to strive for in its wake.
In other words, is the future going to continue to trend towards a centralization of Jewish intellectual and communal leadership?  If the analogy holds, it predicts an “intellectual stagnation” where fewer people will enter (or try to advance within) the public marketplace of ideas, discouraged by the disproportionate influence held by an ever-decreasing leadership.  I find that frightening.

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