Yes, There Are Rich Men North of Richmond


Oliver Anthony’s hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond” raises anew an old question: When are folk songs a good guide to political and economic issues? The song reflects a dissatisfaction with current American life and working conditions, and Anthony yearns for leaders who will fight for America’s workers rather than the wealthy. Who can argue with that? Well, let me try.

Music does a wonderful job conveying emotions, and so it is not surprising that reaction to this song has been so emotional. I am reminded of Bob Dylan’s 1964 folk song “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” which is about the murder of Medgar Evers, a Black civil rights worker who was shot outside his home in 1963. Dylan makes us feel outrage, and indeed outrage is the appropriate emotion, as Evans was not only innocent but also heroic.

Score one for folk singers. If you’d like another example, consider Dylan’s 1975 song “Hurricane,” about the unjust imprisonment of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Carter later was vindicated, in part because of Dylan’s efforts, and his conviction and life sentence were overturned. This was another clear case of outright injustice, and again folk music rose to the occasion.

Matters become more complicated, however, when economic questions come to the fore. Many economic issues are complicated, and resolving them involves tracing complex chains of cause and effect, replete with secondary consequences. Folk songs work best when they identify and plead the case of a sympathetic victim who is clearly in the right, as with Evans and Carter.

When singers turn to economic issues, who plays the role of victim? Very often it is people who have lost their jobs, such as in Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” about a textile mill leaving the singer’s hometown. (Springsteen is not generally considered a folk singer, but many of his songs have folk roots and channel folk vibes.) That sounds terrible, and for many former workers it was.

But in fact the mill was relocated further south, where presumably it helped to create other jobs. Was this development an egalitarian way to help spread prosperity to a poorer part of the country? Did it help spur the transition of New Jersey to a service economy? That seems to have worked out: Average household income today in Freehold, Springsteen’s hometown, is more than $133,000. Or were more sinister forces at work? Was the factory closing a form of regulatory arbitrage against trade unions that protect worker interests? No matter what your view, the song doesn’t clarify the issue very much. Nor should it be expected to.

As a general rule, music and the arts excel at pointing attention toward the seen — that is, identifiable victims or beneficiaries. In contrast, many of the most important insights of economics concern the unseen — that is, people who benefit in non-obvious ways, and sometimes many of them actually are unidentifiable. Automation, for instance, will throw some people out of work, but economics teaches us that in the longer run it usually benefits society, through both lower consumer prices and the creation of jobs in other, less visible sectors of the economy. You don’t hear many songs about that.

Now consider “Rich Men North of Richmond.” The song starts with a variety of complaints about low wages and the labor market. It is not mentioned that labor markets have been relatively tight as of late, and job creation has been strong. There are also complaints about taxes, but it doesn’t point out that low-wage Americans typically do not pay much federal income tax. For instance, Americans with annual incomes below $30,000 filed 65.6 million tax returns in 2020, and they received a net of $78.6 billion from the IRS, once refundable credits are counted.

Anthony lives in the distant rural town of Farmville, Virginia, whose population is below 8,000 and which has a per capita income of roughly $13,000. No one should force him to leave, but if he truly wants a higher real wage I have some words of wisdom from John Mellencamp: A job in a small town “provides little opportunity.” Or, as Ray Charles put it, more imperatively: “Hit the Road, Jack.” Or, economics aside, may I ask for something a bit more positive and agentic? How about Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome”? As it happens, I live about 90 minutes north of Richmond, in Virginia’s Fairfax County. We would certainly welcome a talented performer such as Anthony — though, if he continues to refuse that $8 million recording contract he says he was offered, he won’t be one of those rich men he sings about.