There’s no business like show business. Except death and taxes. If you thought the latter two were the only sure things in life, check out this latest bombshell revelation from yesterday’s Theater page in the New York Times:
The hit musicals, which often charge more during holidays, exploited demand even further last week by requiring more people to buy tickets at premium prices of $300 or higher. (Patrick Healy, New York Times, 12/1/09)
Broadway Musicals requiring (!) people to buy $300.00-plus tickets? Who would have thunk it? How is it constitutional to force the folks to fork over their hard-earned rent and grocery money at the box office? Whatever happened to property rights?
Effective immediately, I shall steer clear of the Theater District, lest I may suddenly find myself surrounded by a gang of brass-knuckled goons jumping out from behind a billboard or rappelling from a marquee and blackjacking me into blowing hundreds of dollars on show tickets.
Now, I’m no economist, but I sometimes do wonder what kind of theory of economics a person subscribes to that impels them to use a certain terminology in their reportage. Last time I checked, the United States was a free market economy. Is such a system God’s gift to mankind? Probably not quite, as evidenced by the current casino-capitalism-induced fiscal Armageddon. Obviously, the system needs a few adjustments, or else a bunch of Wall Street greedheads will drive us all into the ground. But wagging one’s finger at raising the price of non-essential luxury commodities like Broadway tickets in a situation where demand outstrips supply and calling it “exploiting” demand? Give me a $300.00 break, will ya, Patrick?
First of all, theaters boast a limited number of seats, and there are only so many performances per week that can reasonably be scheduled without unduly taxing the cast. This puts a natural ceiling on the number of showtimes and tickets available, and if a particular production is real popular such that the number of potential ticket buyers exceeds the static number of seats, prices go up. Even if theaters kept prices unnaturally level in spite of higher demand or even stopped charging altogether, no greater number of people would get to see the show than if they hike ’em to the max. In fact, higher prices will most likely deter some folks from watching a particular show more than once, so the higher the prices, the more people will actually get to see it. Of course, this applies only to those with pockets deep enough to do so. But so what? Free health care for everybody and universally affordable Broadway tickets to boot?
Second, it seems to me that the overwhelming majority of Broadway shows aren’t doing so well. So if there are a handful of flagship productions that continually sell out even at exorbitant ticket prices, the revenue thus generated may help get a few underdog productions off the ground and keep them on life support for a while. Keeping the cash cows on a leash by holding prices at artificially low levels seems utterly counterproductive in the larger scheme of things. Sure, little Johnny and his four sisters may not get to see the Lion King because their daddy ain’t Bill Gates, but other people will get to see equally worthy albeit less flagshippy productions that never would have come to be were it not for the hefty chunk of change the blockbuster shows pull in by way of squeezing a more affluent audience. Imagine what would happen if all theaters suddenly stopped “exploiting demand.” Millions of dollars would be lost. And then what? A government bailout for Broadway?
Of course, there’s a flip side to the exploitation coin: if demand for a particular show is poor, prices go down. So applying the reasoning of “exploiting demand,” many theatergoers are exploiting the lesser demand for less popular productions by obtaining those tickets a lot more cheaply than they would otherwise. One can call such price fluctuations supply and demand, or one can call them exploitation. But whatever nomenclature one chooses, it ought to be applied consistently in both directions.
" … exploiting demand … requiring more people to buy tickets at premium prices … "
This is a very New York Timesy way putting things. I betcha a Wall Street Journal writer wouldn’t have put it like that. So what kind of world view underlies Mr. Healy’s choice of words? Because obviously (with the possible future exception of health insurance if Obamacare makes it through Congress) there is no such thing as “requiring” anybody to purchase anything, let alone theater tickets. The word “requiring,” in this context, seems utterly nonsensical, but it does rather effectively carry the connotation of the powerful gouging the indigent, and I suspect this was Mr. Healy’s intent. Such accusation is certainly appropriate in many contexts, but to flash the exploitation card every time some people are effectively excluded from enjoying specific goods and services on account of high prices inevitably raises the question of what kind of ideal alternative solution the exploitation-card flashing individual has in mind.
So how to fix the age-old problem of uneven distribution of property, i.e., money? Perhaps they should pass a law that henceforth all employers shall pay all salaries to the government instead of to their employees, and then the government would distribute equal allowances to everybody. And how to modify the system so that every person is guaranteed equal opportunity access to see the Lion King? Hmm. Perhaps, via legislative fiat, cap Broadway tickets at, say, ten bucks, and then, if more people want to see the Lion King than there are seats in the theater, have a ticket lottery. Fair enough?
Sounds plenty compassionate so far, but what about those of us who can’t even afford ten bucks for a ticket? People like myself, for instance: I literally have less than no money, no job, I’m essentially living on canned chick peas and crunchy peanut butter, and I’m struggling to keep my Internet connection turned on. So from my present vantage point, every seller who charges any amount for anything is “exploiting demand,” because no matter what they charge, chances are I can’t afford it.
And I really resent the fact that I’m “required” to plunk down three bucks for a jar of peanut butter. Why don’t they just give it to me? I’ll crack you a smile, and you pass me the goober spread. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Yeah, I’m sure I must have read that somewhere once …