A free artistic economy- sidewalk performers and 250,000 spectators


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What would happen if there was a place where any artist had an audience of hundreds of thousands of people, could learn his craft and eat? What if there was a place where you could go and see thousands of performers learning their craft and all it cost was a small tip; a truly open and free market for art?

The Chinese Communist Party is celebrating the 90th anniversary of its founding, at a time when, if they choose the surviving members of the Russian Communist Party, could celebrate the 21st anniversary of its demise.  The core philosophy of each was an economy managed by the workers for the benefit of the workers – the philosophy was the same, but the result is proving to be very different.  Russia and the communist governments of eastern Europe adapted very little to the changing world economy and failed for the most part to “keep up” with western countries standard of living; as much as the political oppression the standard of living was a primary force in decline of communism in Europe.

The Chinese have been every bit as oppressive as the Russians were at times, but China has demonstrated a willing to change and adapt economically in ways they were not willing to do politically.  Although one might argue, that as the economy has become more open the general intellectual atmosphere of China has also become more open; not the strictly political climate, the election of officials and the governing of the country, but other aspects in the life of the average citizen – something that never happened in East Germany for example. China’s economy is still managed, but  China seems to be managing for results and not managing the details and China does want its population to have a “good life.”

The idea of a managed economy is not unique to communism, it exists here as well, only we pretend as if it did not.  How so, you might ask?  Regulation and taxation, would be my answer; energy, gaming, air travel, tobacco and automobile manufacture would be some examples.  In all of the those cases regulations alter the products available to consumers as much or more than customer preference – of course we would like to believe the customer drives the economy, but between regulation and taxation the government exercises a great deal of control.  Without any regulation, what do you think cars would be like today and what might they cost?  Seat belts, airbags and gas mileage are all driven by regulation, and each adds significantly to the price of cars.  What might our energy delivery systems be like without government control and government granted monopolies?  In gaming, Atlantic City is a prime example of a controlled economy – compare Atlantic City with Las Vegas.  Las Vegas has become much larger than Atlantic City and its casinos very different from those in Atlantic City.

The reason is not what you would always expect; 40 years ago the potential market for Atlantic City was larger than it was for Las Vegas. But instead of allowing casinos to develop in response to the market, New Jersey regulations dictated all of the details of size, product and management.  New Jersey got exactly what it required, but not one bit more.  Nevada does not allow its casinos to cheat the customers, but it does not tell casinos much more than that about managing.  So in Vegas you will find a very large variety in size, product, management style almost everything; there casinos with no hotel rooms and casinos with 5000 hotel rooms, casinos with million dollar star-filled shows and casinos with no entertainment, restaurants or table games. Las Vegas would seem to be a truly free economy, driven by consumer desires only.

But there is one factor that does act as a control in Las Vegas – cost.  It cost a great deal to build or produce anything there and that means it is difficult to experiment.  The last two casinos to open on the Strip spent over $10 billion on developing a unique property; and now both are struggling to meet the debt payments.  Entertainment is a major part of operating a casino in Las Vegas; building an entertainment venue costs upwards of $30 million, casinos need a success.   Casinos want to draw gamblers to the casino floor with entertainment;  but they have to draw enough customers to pay for the cost of the entertainment itself and then hope to get additional gaming revenues.  So casinos tend to be very conservative in their choice of entertainment – they need proven successes.  That is very limiting for the development of new talent that might once have played in a lounge waiting for their “big break.”  The recession may change the dynamics.

The media is reporting on a new phenomenon in Las Vegas, unemployed entertainers performing on the streets for tips. On any given weekend when the rooms in Las Vegas are full there are 250,000 people wandering up and down the Strip, looking for excitement.  What a perfect world for performers to develop an act; that is providing of course those tourists are willing to tip.  Budding comedians normally have to look for an open mic; suddenly here is the world’s largest open mic.  If the trend continues, would-be performers might come from all over the world – and then without anyone owning it or controlling the Las Vegas Strip would become the greatest stage the world ever saw.  Or the city and the gaming industry get together and drive them away.  Of course it will never really become anything, but isn’t it exciting to think about – a world’s stage?  Artistic and economic freedom writ large.  The Chinese economy might some day control the world, but the Las Vegas Strip could be the center of performing arts.  Okay, it is a stretch, but fun to think about.

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