"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)
Now is a good time to be Paul Krugman. This is not to say that there was ever a bad time to be a brilliant economist reborn as a successful New York Times Op-Ed columnist. But the three decades since the Reagan revolution, capped off by the imperial Bush presidency, have been discouraging for all liberals. For those who go the extra step of publicly making their living inveighing against conservative triumphalism, the reward has been ridicule and scorn. In “The Conscience of a Liberal,” Krugman recounts how after the 2004 election, some colleagues told him that it was time to ease up on his constant hectoring of George W. Bush. “The election settled some things.”
Not so. The 2006 midterm elections proved nothing is settled, and handed Krugman a golden opportunity to turn his columns into a book-length “I told you so.” “The Conscience of a Liberal” is a history of the political economy of the United States from the beginning of the 20th century to the present, but its most important message is that, after years of Republican ascendancy accompanied by rapidly growing economic inequality in the United States, the point at which the pendulum finally starts swinging in the other direction has arrived. The year 2006 was no blip, argues Krugman, but the turning of the tide.
Provided, however, that liberals and progressives seize the day and do something with it, such as, for example, coming up with a national healthcare plan that brings the U.S. into line with the other rich, advanced nations of the world. The time might be right, but the moment could easily be lost.
If one sentence could sum up “Conscience” it might be: “Republicans increase economic inequality, Democrats decrease it, and so, politics matter.”
That seemingly obvious conclusion is actually controversial among some of the company Krugman keeps. Krugman made his bones as an economist, and his Op-Ed declarations attract more than their fair share of econoblogosphere chatter. And despite the respect that his academic contributions to economics command, almost every single one of his politically inflected economic points is hotly disputed. Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, for instance, dismissed Krugman’s assertion that unions were the most important factor in increasing blue-collar incomes between the ’20s and ’50s as “simply wrong.” Others have disputed whether inequality is rising as fast as Krugman says it is, or if so, whether rising inequality is even a problem. A long-running battle is still raging over whether, for goodness’ sake, the New Deal fixed the Great Depression or made it worse. As long as there are economists of differing political persuasions, these wars will rage. There will be no closure.
But the most meta-level of all political economy arguments is the one that says that transient shifts in political direction don’t really make that much of a difference to fundamental long-range changes in things like inequality. To this school, the rise and fall of inequality in the United States is like plate tectonics — you can observe it, and try to understand it, but you can’t actually do much about it.
To which Krugman convincingly says: Hogwash. The gross inequality of the Gilded Age that led up to the Great Depression morphed into a stunningly middle-class economy because of concrete initiatives forced through via Roosevelt’s New Deal. The growing inequality of the past 30 years is directly attributable to policies enacted by the conservatives who first broke through with Ronald Reagan and reached their apogee with George W. Bush.
Middle-class societies don’t emerge automatically as an economy matures, they have to be created through political action.
The corollary is that they can also be destroyed.
This is by no means a new argument. “The Conscience of a Liberal” is no breakthrough work, meant to dazzle with insights profound and unexpected. Although Krugman bolsters his analysis with lots of recent work in economic history, politically and historically engaged liberals will not encounter much that they are unfamiliar with. (If they are regular readers of Krugman’s New York Times columns they will find even less.) Instead, they will hear a familiar tune, albeit one played skillfully, in front of a newly receptive audience. Published right after the 2004 election, “Conscience” would have been painful to read. Today, it’s icing on the cake.
For some it will stick in the craw. If they can bring themselves to skim through its pages, conservatives, naturally, will not find much to like in “The Conscience of a Liberal.” Perhaps one of the best things you can say about it is that Krugman will drive them mad with rage (kind of like Al Gore winning a Nobel Peace Prize). “Conscience” is a cogent, economically grounded, generally calm analysis of the way things are that can’t be dismissed out of hand.
But it is without question a partisan work of art. Republicans, or at least those Republicans who took over the GOP in the latter third of the 20th century, are the bad guys.
Not least because of how they have exploited racial anxieties in the United States.
The legacy of slavery, America’s original sin, is the reason we’re the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee health care to our citizens. White backlash against the civil rights movement is the reason America is the only advanced country where a major political party wants to roll back the welfare state. Ronald Reagan began his 1980 campaign with a state’s rights speech outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers were murdered; Newt Gingrich was able to take over Congress entirely because of the great Southern flip, the switch of Southern whites from overwhelming support for Democrats to overwhelming support for Republicans.
The transformation of the party of Lincoln to the party of Willie Horton is one of the abiding tragedies of American political history. Harry Truman’s efforts to complete the New Deal by putting into place a national healthcare plan were sabotaged by Southern Democratic senators who were afraid that guaranteed healthcare would mean desegregated hospitals. At the time, Democrats owned the South, largely as fallout from the Civil War. But the passage of the Voting Rights Act drove Southern Democrats into the welcoming arms of the Republican Party, and that fact alone, says Krugman, explains the majority of Republican electoral success since Ronald Reagan.
Again, nothing new to see here, folks. But then Krugman delivers a devastating follow-up, which, if true, suggests that the course of the 21st century may cut a different channel. The U.S., he declares, is becoming a less racist society.
Beyond the blunt, crude fact that America is getting less white, there’s a more uplifting reason to believe that the political exploitation of race may be losing its force: As a nation we’ve become much less racist. The most dramatic evidence of diminishing racism is the way people respond to questions about a subject that once struck terror into white hearts: miscegenation. In 1978, as the ascent of movement conservatism to power was just beginning, only 36 percent of Americans polled by Gallup approved of marriages between whites and blacks, while 54 percent disapproved. As late as 1991 only a plurality of 48 percent approved. By 2002, however, 65 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriages; by June 2007, that was up to 77 percent.
The results of a public opinion poll on mixed marriages might seem like a slender thread upon which to hang the political future of the United States. But if true, it is extraordinarily important: a clear sign of social progress that ratifies the achievements of the civil rights struggle, and proves that passage of the Voting Rights Act, even if, as Lyndon Johnson knew immediately, it effectively handed national political power to Republicans for a generation, was still the right thing to do.
Which is why it’s a good time not just to be Paul Krugman, but to be a liberal.
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)