"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Lou Dobbs is pissed off. It seems that American CEOs are busy selling out the American worker. Their rush to outsource and offshore every job that can possibly be moved overseas is threatening the “American way of life.” Their belief that the free market will, in the long run, solve all problems has become an almost “ecclesiastical” act of faith.
To some people, the revelation that American business executives are out to screw workers is not, shall we say, breaking news. But for Lou Dobbs, a financial journalist who anchors his own hour-long television show every weeknight, we are suddenly living in perilous times. In “Exporting America,” a slim but forceful tirade that is a print extension of his TV show’s main hobby horse, Dobbs takes on the legions of free-market apologists who argue that outsourcing is just an example of efficiently working capitalism. He stresses repeatedly that those who are losing their white-collar, high-paying jobs are not getting good new jobs. Instead, while CEOs rake in ever more obscene amounts of cash and corporations get away without paying taxes and politicians of both parties smile benignly, American working men and women who once had decent livelihoods are now waiting in line for part-time jobs at Wal-Mart.
Dobbs’ opponents, aggrieved at the unexpected and unseemly sight of a major cable news show anchorman spouting left-wing, pro-worker propaganda every night between 6 and 7 o’clock, have trashed him in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, calling him a “communist” and a “protectionist.” This annoys Dobbs no end. So what if his rhetoric sounds as if it was lifted from the poster of an anti-globalization activist about to go wilding in the streets of Seattle or Miami? Dobbs takes pains to note that he is no “fire-breathing liberal.” He is, instead, a lifelong Republican, a fervent believer in free-market enterprise and a staunch advocate of capitalism.
This presents a conundrum. There is much to appreciate and take notice of in “Exporting America.” There is no doubt that the American worker is under threat, and the coddling of corporate America by state and federal politicians is unquestionably outrageous. As Dobbs recommends, tax laws need to be rewritten, and the exporting of American jobs to countries with lax environmental regulations, abysmal humans rights records, and an awful treatment of workers is in many ways unconscionable. And, although Dobbs is careful to include Democratic politicians in his comprehensive pillorying, he also makes clear his disgust at a Bush administration that will do nothing to help the American worker. He isn’t optimistic about Kerry, but hey, a slim hope is better than none.
However, one has to wonder where Dobbs has been for the past half century. He would like us to believe that outsourcing is a relatively recent trend, and one could perhaps make that case if one defined the term as meaning merely the transfer of white-collar jobs overseas. But the effort on the part of corporate America to improve the bottom line by exploiting cheap labor all over the world has been going on for decades. The destruction of the American textile industry, to take but one example, was accomplished long before anyone started worrying about high-tech programming jobs moving to Bangalore.
American corporations, large and small, are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing in a capitalist system. And while in some cases this can be attributed to greed (as hinted in the subtitle of Dobbs’ book: “Why Corporate Greed Is Shipping American Jobs Overseas”), that is by no means true in every case. Every businessman or woman is under an imperative to operate as efficiently as possible — that’s just good business.
If American workers end up getting stiffed by the logical extension of free-market ideology — championed most strenuously and energetically by the very political party of which Dobbs claims to be a lifelong member — well, that’s just too bad, isn’t it? Suck it up, Lou! To paraphrase Tom Hanks’ character in “A League of Their Own”: “There’s no crying in capitalism!”
Maybe it just depends on whose ox is getting gored. I’d be interested to know how many hours during his years on CNN Dobbs has devoted to the topic of American-based multinationals exploiting sweatshop labor. My guess is not a whole lot. It’s pretty clear from “Exporting America” that for Dobbs, charity begins at home. America first.
This is a debatable viewpoint. Suppose we attempt a truly global perspective of the world’s problems — which include, not least, terrorism, war, environmental degradation and epidemic disease. Could we not argue that raising up out of abject poverty the billions of people who live in developing nations might go some way toward relieving the tensions that threaten to tear our world apart? Isn’t that a worthwhile goal — even if it means that the relative standard of living in the United States sinks a bit? This is not to suggest that multinational corporations share this goal. But still, might it not be better if we were all in the same boat, rather than 90 percent of the world skittering on flimsy rafts in the wake of a super-yacht?
Balderdash, says Dobbs. Such views are held only by elite “one-worlders,” and they are a betrayal of the American way of life.
“I’m neither a free trader nor a protectionist,” writes Dobbs, “but I do admit to being extremely parochial in my view of globalization. My first and principal concern is the well-being of this country, and I’m sure it’s yours as well … Our highest responsibility is to preserve the American Dream for all Americans.”
But if he’s neither a free trader nor a protectionist, then what exactly is Lou Dobbs?
A close reading of “Exporting America” suggests the most likely answer is that Dobbs is a “balanced trader.” Which raises the next question: What is balanced trade (also sometimes referred to as “fair trade”)? Does it mean, for example, requiring Mexican businesses to adhere to the same environmental regulations as those north of the border? Maybe. Or is it about ensuring access to other markets that will allow us to balance out our monstrous and ever-growing national trade deficit?
Interestingly, the one concrete example Dobbs offers, and to which he returns a number of times, dates back to the Reagan administration. When Japanese car companies started to assault the American automotive market, the Reagan administration ended up persuading Japanese carmakers to “voluntarily” limit their exports from Japan, though it allowed them to sell as many cars as they wanted to from American-based subsidiaries. As a result, Japanese carmakers established a large manufacturing capability in the United States. Dobbs appears to be arguing that the United States government should be similarly twisting the arm of its trading partners today, denying them access to the American market unless certain concessions are made that will benefit the American worker.
But there are a couple of problems with using the Japanese dance with Detroit as a model for current trade policy. For one thing, it may be difficult to argue that the Reagan administration’s stance on car imports was based on any consideration of the American worker. Far more likely is the possibility that Reagan buckled to the lobbying of American carmakers, who were having their asses handed to them by the Japanese. One wonders how this wasn’t “protectionist” by any reasonable definition of the word.
But a far more troubling problem is the question of whether the carrot — access to American markets in the future — is going to balance out the pain of the stick — denial of those markets. Right now, the United States is the largest market in the world — but that may not be true forever. And as Dobbs notes, regional trade outside the United States is growing fast, particularly in Asia. China just replaced the United States as Japan’s largest trading partner, for example, and the same is true, or will soon be true, for many other countries that neighbor China.
Dobbs lambastes Microsoft for spending upwards of a billion dollars in research and development operations in China and India — but he does so because he sees the investment solely in terms of the company funding work there that he believes should go to U.S. programmers. That’s short-sighted. In the long run, access to the Chinese and Indian markets will be crucial to Microsoft’s growth. Microsoft isn’t just looking for cheaper programmers; it’s looking to dominate the software industry in those countries as well as its own.
American corporate irresponsibility and greed are a huge problem — and fixing that problem will require a progressively minded presidential administration and a Congress willing to rewrite the tax codes and to reinvigorate regulatory controls. But if “balanced trade” means an attempt by the United States to protect its own privileged standard of living by swinging its big stick at other countries, then Americans may end up suffering even worse, as newly emergent super-economic powers start to throw their own weight around.
Earlier this week, John Kerry attacked George Bush on the topic of outsourcing.
“Because of George Bush’s wrong choices, this country is continuing to ship good jobs overseas,” said Kerry. “Jobs with good wages and good benefits.” Kerry promised to address the problem by revoking tax benefits for companies who moved jobs overseas. Perhaps this will gain him some votes in swing states where unemployment is an issue. But globalization’s overall pressure on the standard of living of American workers will be hard to relieve — particularly since, as Dobbs notes, the Republican Party doesn’t think there is a problem, and the Democratic Party, despite Kerry’s protestations, has all but abandoned working men and women in its rush to grab the political center.
If Americans want to flourish again, they may just have to tighten their belts and start taking pages out of the lesson plan of the developing world.
Twenty years ago, I was teaching English to the children of the aspiring middle class in Taipei, Taiwan. The parents of their children knew that if their kids wanted to thrive in an international economy, they needed to learn English. It’s time now for my children to start studying Chinese or Hindi. They may find that this opens up some employment opportunities.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)