'If I Were a Rich Man?' Economic Lessons from Fiddler On the Roof

'If I Were a Rich Man?' Economic Lessons from Fiddler On the Roof
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“I'd fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks … As if to say "Here lives a wealthy man."

With summer in full swing, many families are planning a trip to New York, and with it, a trip to a Broadway musical.  (Or, if you are like my family – several!) While musicals can be a great way to relax, they can also be educational.  In fact, there are hundreds of show tunes that can help us learn economic concepts.  For an example, let’s look to one of the most beloved musicals of all time, Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler on the Roof’s original run set a Broadway record by going for 3242 shows.  After it closed in 1972, it was later revived five times on Broadway.  It has played in dozens of countries and thousands of U.S. high schools.  It also has one of the most popular songs from any musical, “If I Were a Rich Man”, which is a great song for thinking about economic growth.

In “If I Were a Rich Man”, Tevye dreams of what it would be like to be rich.  He sings that he wants three staircases – one going up, one for walking down, and one that is “just for show." A poor person dreaming of becoming rich is a common pastime.  But the lyrics of the song provide a powerful lesson on the importance of economic growth to society. 

Fiddler on the Roof is set in the year 1905. It is instructive to think about what it meant to be rich in 1905, as many people today would find Tevye’s view on being prosperous staggering. In this song, Tevye sings about wanting chickens and other small farm animals in his yard, a well-fed wife, and some free time.  This would not sound rich to the average American today. 

However, the song presents a realistic view of what dreams of being well-to-do would have seemed like in 1905.  The average poor person today in America and most first-world countries today has an income that is considerably higher than Tevye’s, and may even be wealthier than the lifestyle Tevye dreams about.  In this way, “If I Were a Rich Man” is incredibly valuable for showing us the genius of economic advance.  We’ve made so much progress that the average poor person in first-world countries today is incredibly rich by 1905 standards.  Economic growth has caused the standards of living to improve by a factor of twenty or more in many countries.

While the U.S. and many other countries have experienced significant wage advance, this unfortunately isn’t true for all countries – especially countries that have shunned free markets in favor of communism.  The former Soviet Union experienced declines in average incomes annually for many years.  A look at North Korea vs. South Korea also shows us that not all countries have prospered.  Both countries were in about the same economic position at the end of the Korean War in 1953, when North Korea became communist as South Korea embraced a mixed economy with a heavy dose of economic freedom in the mix. The GDP per capita today in South Korea (in U.S. dollars) is about $34,500, while in North Korea it is $1,800. North Koreans are starving and without electricity at night. South Koreans are thriving. 

Why has this happened?  Why are average incomes in the United States, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, so much higher than they were in the early 20th century while other countries have seen little to no economic growth? We don’t know all the reasons yet, but it is clear that having embracing markets has moved millions of people out of poverty.

The ability of economic growth to move millions from poverty to prosperity helped lead Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Lucas to state “Once you start thinking about growth, it is hard to think about anything else”.  “If I Were a Rich Man” gives us a great illustration of what things would be like today without what Lucas struggles to not think about. 

Matthew Rousu is Dean and Professor of Economics in the Sigmund Weis School of Business at Susquehanna University.  His book Broadway and Economics: Economic Lessons from Show Tunes is available from Routledge.

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