The Oscars have come and gone for another year. Winning an Academy Award is very often the basis for either making a fortune or turning an existing one into mega riches. Jack Nicholson has an estimated net worth of over $400m, and stars like Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro are not far behind.
Even winners who lack the instant recognition of these celebrities do not do too badly. Cuba Gooding Jnr has recently starred in the American civil rights film Selma. But after his 1996 Oscar for a supporting role in Jerry Maguire, he became notorious among film buffs for appearing in movies which were panned by critics and which tanked commercially. This has not stopped his wealth rising to an estimated $15m.
The Premier League has provided us with another example of success apparently reinforcing success. Its recent TV deal with Sky and BT Sport is worth over £5bn. Along with investment banking, soccer is one of the few industries that practices socialism, with almost all the income of companies eventually ending up in the hands of what we might call the workers. The year immediately prior to the financial crisis, 2007, still represents a high point in the annual earnings of many people. But the average salary of a Premier League player has risen over this period from some £750,000 to almost £2.5m.
At one level, films and football seem to provide ammunition for the sub-Marxist arguments of people like Thomas Piketty, who claim that capitalism inevitably leads to greater inequality. The rich simply get richer. This conveniently ignores the fact that, over the 50 years between around 1920 and 1970, there was a massive movement towards greater equality in the West, in both income and wealth.
During the second half of the twentieth century, a profound difference in communications technology opened up between the world as it is now and all previous human history. Television by the 1960s had become more or less ubiquitous in the West. Vast numbers of people could access the same visual information at the same time. The internet has of course enormously increased the connectivity of virtually the whole world.
These advances in technology have altered the way in which people respond to information. The importance of social networks in influencing the choices made by individuals has risen sharply. The economic model of choice, in which rational individuals carefully sift through all the available information, is no longer even feasible in many situations. Almost all click-throughs on Google searches, for example, are on the first three sites which come up. It is simply not possible to work through the thousands, or even millions, of sites which are offered.
This means that self-reinforcing processes are set up. Things which become popular become even more popular, simply because they are popular. And because of communications technology, we know what is popular. The result is that, in popular culture, a rapidly growing sector of the economy embracing both films and soccer, high levels of inequality of income are inevitable.