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Ain’t We Got Fun?

Flappers in 1920sMaybe you’ve heard the old song, “Ain’t We Got Fun?”   (This is really a post about economics and we want to talk about the lyrics to “Ain’t We Got Fun?”  We promise to play the song at the end of this post, if that’s what you’re here for.  So stay with us, please.)

The lyrics were written by Raymond Egan and Gus Kahn back in 1921.  The words tell us about the newly married couple in the cottage next door who are pursued by bill collectors from the grocer, the butcher and the landlord. Despite their poverty, the couple sings these lines:

Ev’ry morning, ev’ry evening,
Ain’t we got fun?
Not much money, Oh, but honey,
Ain’t we got fun?

As the song goes on we hear its most famous lines:

There’s nothing surer,
The rich get rich
And the poor get children.
In the meantime, in between time,
Ain’t we got fun?

Or, as it says further along:

There’s  nothing surer,
The rich get rich
And the poor get laid off.

Of course, “There’s nothing surer,” leads us to the rhyming word “poorer,” for which the lyrics substitute “children” or “laid off.” But what’s unsung is what we already know: The rich get rich while the poor get poorer. That’s capitalism in a nutshell. You probably know that, too.

Foreign Affairs magazine recently published a lead article called “Capitalism and Inequality” by Jerry Muller. Muller believes that “Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalist activity, and expanding equality of opportunity only increases it — because some individuals and communities are simply better able than others to exploit the opportunities for development and advancement that capitalism affords.”

You might pause here to reread and relish Jerry Muller’s use of polysyllables — half a dozen five-syllable words in a single sentence. Anyone can say that capitalism produces inequality, but not many can say it like that. And saying it that way almost makes you forget what it means.

Maybe you’ve seen the 1987 movie Wall Street. (No, we’re not going to play you the movie.) It starred Michael Douglas in an Oscar-winning performance as Gordon Gekko, a corrupt Wall Street insider whose most famous line is “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” What might be overlooked is Gekko’s declaring, at another point in the movie, that the upper one percent own 50 percent of the country’s wealth. That was back in 1987. But the rich keep getting richer and today the upper one percent own 80 percent of the country’s wealth. That’s what Jerry Muller’s polysyllables mean.

The subtitle of Muller’s Foreign Affairs article is “What the Right and the Left Get Wrong.” In his view, those on the right who want to weaken Social Security and other safety-net programs, need to know that “major government social welfare spending is a proper response to some inherently problematic features of capitalism.” And, of course, those on the left should learn that “to redistribute income from the top of the economy to the bottom” has serious drawbacks, that “preferential treatment to under performers, may be worse than the disease,” and “even continued innovation and revived economic growth will not eliminate or even significantly reduce socioeconomic inequality and insecurity.” All of which makes a fine 21-page defense of the status quo.

There’s great sense of even-handedness in the article. After all, the author points out that both left and right get it wrong when they try to change the way things are arranged just now. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and there’s nothing to be done about that except to keep a safety net out there to catch the poorer acrobats – about 40 percent of the population today – as they come crashing down. And nothing can be done about it because capitalism is a fact of nature, like the furnace of the sun or the rotation of galaxies. But capitalism isn’t part of the natural order of things.

Capitalism is a creation of humankind and it can be changed for the better. That may be obvious to you, but it’s not clear to most of the people in Congress. One of the inevitable features of capitalism is the emergence of monopolies. At least is used to be. Nowadays, we have laws against monopolistic behavior, and when a company is judged to be a monopoly it can be told to break itself up and sell away parts of itself. Anti-monopoly laws don’t injure capitalism, they improve it by helping to create competition and spur innovation.

There’s a legend that Henry Ford — a very rich auto maker, not a bomb-throwing radical — improved his worker’s wages so that they could afford to buy a Ford motor car. Of course, no one is compelled to follow Henry Ford’s  apocryphal  example. Indeed, it’s still possible to allow a capitalist economy to go freely on it’s inevitable path — the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the richest of the rich ascend to unimaginable wealth, the middle class descends to abject poverty and the entire society collapses along with the economy. Ain’t we got fun? No, not when that happens.

OK, we promised you a song, and you’ve been patient,  so here it is. Click the arrowhead in the middle and enjoy the old song:

More Notes

The World Happiness Report, released by the United Nations, ranks countries on six key variables that support well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. This year, Finland is first, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, followed by Netherlands, Canada,New Zealand, Sweden, Australia. The United States, which has never been in the top ten, silpped down four places from last year and is now 18th. President Trump may make American Great Again, but apparently not happier.