Peter, Paul and Money


Last weekend, I visited Club Passim, the historic folk music venue that sits right in Harvard Square. On the whole, a most enjoyable evening — the music was great, the atmosphere was relaxed, the pizza was tasty. But such delectable cuisine came only after a very long wait — the result of a bit of folksy social engineering that was explained on the menu. According to the management, the service would be much slower than we would like, because the club hired fewer staff than it needed in order to pay the staff that they did hire a more substantial wage. Huh? Not since I judged a political theorist in the Ames Q-Round have I witnessed such an inability to think functionally.

To those who have spent 10 minutes in a class with any of the Kaplow/Shavell crowd, my apologies for the following policy primer (which hopefully has been vetted by someone who, unlike me, doesn’t have a shrine to Paul Wellstone on his door). In its effort to artificially boost wages, Club Passim must reduce the number of people that they hire. In so doing, they make it harder for aspiring workers to find jobs. To those lucky enough to land one of the few positions at the Club, they enjoy the benefit of a higher than market wage. For those not so lucky, their employment prospects dip, which on the margins will actually reduce the amount of money they can command. And because it intentionally understaffs itself, the Club can’t sell as much food as it ordinarily would be able to, which likely forces them to charge more for the food that they do sell — and thereby makes its tasty cuisine less accessible to those with lower incomes.

I suppose I should have expected nothing less from a folk music joint. After all, folk music is so appealing because of its from-the-gut social awareness — be it protesting the plight of industrial laborers or that of conscripted troops. True, Peter Paul & Mary have voices like the Sirens — but those voices flourish the most when used in do-gooding songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have all the Flowers Gone.” The listener is serenaded not only with aesthetic pleasure but an inspiring message of hope, peace and equality. And all is well — until the cognitive dissonance starts to creep up as you try to rationalize your use of Woody Guthrie as background music while reading The Economist. And then you realize that these people who are bringing a social message into your homes are entertainers, who usually know as much about social policy as Paul Krugman does about vocal harmony. The result — whether or not you agree with the positions that they take — is that their stances are the product not of rational deliberation but rather of gut instincts.

Lest you think that impulsive policymaking is confined to aging hippies still feeling the side effects of too much marination, knee-jerkism is the mantra of large numbers of the highly educated, the wealthy, and the influential — even (gasp!) the student body at Harvard Law School. On our own campus, we have seen quite a healthy number of protests — people taking aim at the cruelty of “non-living” wages, the evils of world trade and the peril of war in Iraq. Unsurprising really, for nothing erases the guilt of privileged upbringings and never-ending opportunity than an old fashioned protest. And yet notwithstanding the number of fancy degrees that populate these demonstrations — the “reasoning” behind these protests usually amounts to little more than: It would be better if everyone could make more money; it would be better if there were less poor people in the world; people die in war.

And that’s where folk-music activism goes badly awry. Because arguments exist — and are even made by liberals in the fields of economics and foreign policy — that artificially inflating wages drives low-wage workers into the unemployment lines; that restraining world trade drives absurdly poor children into prostitution; that blanket opposition to any and all war condemns innocent civilians to life under monstrous dictators.

Not as appealing a reality — certainly not the stuff of the next “We Shall Overcome.” Not a foregone conclusion, either. But something that should be considered and fleshed out before instinctively reaching for the banjo.