An exchange I had with a friend recently seems especially relevant in light of my recent preoccupation with inequality, social mobility, and meritocracy. A Jay-Z song had just come on and I began to mindlessly extol the virtues of Shawn Carter; specifically, that he makes mad cash every second and that he is the best person ever. I do not normally engage in this type of uncritical praise for celebrities (Mark Carney and Paul Krugman aren’t celebrities, per se…), but on this occasion I was oddly adamant about Jay-Z’s unquestionable awesomeness. I was about to move on to a discussion of Beyonce when my friend interjected that it was disgusting that such rich people could be so wasteful and turn their backs on the very places they had come from.
At first, I was deeply indignant and shocked that anyone would dare cast aspersions on Jay-Z’s integrity–and then she got Beyonce involved! But soon after that, I wondered why in the world I was so approving of people who allegedly rented out an entire floor of a hospital at the cost of 1.3M for the birth of their daughter. (Though to be fair, the Canadian in me is ignorant of the going rates of hospital rooms.) It is likely that not all of the outlandish stories about the couple’s legendary extravagance are true; however, the very culture of popular hip-hop normally requires that stars do some irreverent boasting about one’s net worth:
Beyonce: Got diamonds on my neck, got diamonds on my records.
Jay-Z: “What’s 50 grand to a m************* like me, could you please remind me?”
Though both give back to the community in various ways, many question whether they could be doing more. With all my concern about income disparity, it really did not occur to me that Jay-Z is helping to perpetuate the very situation that I have been lamenting.
Consider that in 2011, the median income for Americans was $50,502. Many US states’ median income was below $45,000–and this is for entire households. Meanwhile, Jay-Z and Beyonce earned a combined $72M from May 2010-May 2011–and that was a slow year. So while 50 grand may be a pittance to Jay-Z, it is more than many Americans earn in one year.
Now I realize that both worked very hard to get to where they are, and that they can be seen to represent an America that occasionally allows for astronomical upward mobility. In other words, they are the embodiment of the American dream.
However, their repeated displays of extravagance and their glorification of money for its own sake underline what I have previously observed: namely, that income disparity is a byproduct of deeply ingrained values that place disproportionate value on certain professions, while forcing others to toil in obscurity and poverty. Harold Pollack sums it up beautifully here, questioning why what a professor does should be valued more than what a tow truck driver does. When we replace “tow truck driver” with “nurse”, and “professor” with “pop star”, we can begin to grasp the absurdity of a compensation paradigm that we ourselves have devised, at least implicitly.
It is easy for me to sit here and say we should change the way we think. Much more difficult is to change a valuation of wealth for its own sake that is almost visceral: I reacted to Jay-Z’s wealth almost instinctively, not conscious of my reasons for idolizing him until I thought it through for a good five minutes. All I would ask is that others do the same, including Mr. Knowles-Carter himself. He speaks eloquently of his humble origins, but maybe that island money would be better spent on effecting positive change in underprivileged communities. Of course, in telling Jay-Z how he should spend his legally earned money I am treading dicey territory, and this is precisely where my inner capitalist begins to argue with my inner class warrior. However, I think it is possible to be both of these things, and I have thought a lot about what that would look like. No clear picture yet, just a fuzzy vision of a less unequal world. And in the meantime, maybe Jay-Z should go into politics–there’s no sense in wasting all that rhetorical fire and unbridled charisma!