Bob Dylan’s Billionaire Solution

Bob Dylan has an idea for solving income inequality in America. In an interview with AARP The Magazine (!) published last week, Dylan suggested that because “the government’s not going to create jobs” in the inner cities, “billionaires” should do it instead.

There are all kinds of things wrong with this, of course. Many billionaires do create jobs. And the government is the country’s biggest employer. It’s kind of a goofy sentiment, but some of the criticisms of it are goofier still.

Whatever you might think of the billionaire Walton family, the fact is that they employ more than a million Americans. The U.S. Postal Service employs more than 600,000. Add in other agencies, and state and local governments, and you’ll see that if the government went out of business tomorrow, inner cities would be a lot worse off. And that’s not even counting the many private-sector jobs that exist because of government spending.

But lets be fair: unless the subject is music (and often when it is), Dylan often speaks in abstractions. And he was responding off the cuff to a question from an interviewer, not speaking before the World Bank. This is what he said, in response to a question about happiness:

How can a person be happy if he has misfortune? Some wealthy billionaire who can buy 30 cars and maybe buy a sports team, is that guy happy? What then would make him happier? Does it make him happy giving his money away to foreign countries? Is there more contentment in that than in giving it here to the inner cities and creating jobs? The government’s not going to create jobs. It doesn’t have to. People have to create jobs, and these big billionaires are the ones who can do it. We don’t see that happening. We see crime and inner cities exploding with people who have nothing to do, turning to drink and drugs. They could all have work created for them by all these hotshot billionaires. For sure that would create lot of happiness. Now, I’m not saying they have to — I’m not talking about communism — but what do they do with their money? Do they use it in virtuous ways?

This is the stuff of metaphysics, or maybe poetry, but not economics. Nevertheless, many observers acted as if Dylan’s musings were some kind of deeply held conviction — a conclusion reached after a close analysis of the macroeconomy, perhaps performed in his hotel room after his dates in Minneapolis last year. The most common, and predictable reaction: Dylan’s rich. Why doesn’t he create those jobs?

But of course, he sort of does. Maybe not so much in the inner cities, but all kinds of people are, have been, or will be employed thanks to his Never Ending tour (not actually a thing anymore, but anyway), his recordings, his publishing, and even the Santa Monica coffee shop he might or might not own.

Further, Bob Dylan is not a billionaire. He’s surely rich (as is his ex-wife), but his wealth is estimated at a mere $180 million, which makes him a pauper compared to America’s super-wealthy. The number of jobs Dylan has created is much larger relative to his wealth than the number of jobs created by the average Wall Street billionaire. Not a lot of productive work is generated by trading credit-default swaps.

A final note: lots of people are shaking their heads and chuckling over Dylan giving an interview to, of all publications, AARP magazine. The most facile answer is that he knows where his audience is. But the real answer might be contained in the interview’s closing passage. Music journalism is dumber and shallower than ever. In order to actually talk about music, Dylan might have felt like he had to go to a magazine for retired people:

Q: You’ve been generous to take up all of these questions this afternoon.

A: I found the questions really interesting. The last time I did an interview, the guy wanted to know about everything except the music. People have been doing that to me since the ’60s — they ask questions like they would ask a medical doctor or a psychiatrist or a professor or a politician. Why? Why are you asking me these things?

Q: What do you ask a musician about?

A: Music! Exactly.

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