"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)
There hasn’t been any organized, explicitly class-based violence in this country for generations, so what, exactly, does “class warfare” really mean? Is it just an empty political catchphrase?
The American right has decided that returning the tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans from what it was during the Bush years (which, incidentally, featured the slowest job growth under any president in our history, at 0.45 percent per year) to what they forked over during the Clinton years (when job growth happened to average 1.6 percent per year) is the epitome of class warfare. Sure, it would leave top earners with a tax rate 10 percentage points below what they were paying after Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, but that’s the conservative definition of “eating the rich” these days.
I recently offered a less Orwellian definition, arguing that real class warfare is when those who have already achieved a good deal of prosperity pull the ladder up behind them by attacking the very things that once allowed working people to move up and join the ranks of the middle class.
But there’s another way of looking at “class war”: habitually vilifying the unfortunate; claiming that their plight is a manifestation of some personal flaw or cultural deficiency. Conservatives wage this form of class warfare virtually every day, consigning millions of people who are down on their luck to some subhuman underclass.
The belief that there exists a large pool of “undeserving poor” who suck the lifeblood out of the rest of society lies at the heart of the right’s demonstrably false “culture of poverty” narrative. It’s a narrative that runs through Ayn Rand’s works. It comes to us in bizarre spin that holds up the rich as “wealth producers” and “job creators.”
And it affects our public policies. In his classic book, “Why Americans Hate Welfare,” Martin Gilens found a striking disconnect: Significant majorities of Americans told pollsters that they wanted public spending to fight poverty to be increased at the same time that similar majorities said they were opposed to welfare. Gilens studied a number of different opinion polls and concluded that the disconnect was driven by a widespread belief that “most welfare recipients don’t really need it,” and by racial animus — “perceptions that welfare recipients are undeserving and blacks are lazy.”
That narrative ignores two simple and indisputable truths. First, contrary to popular belief, we don’t all start out with the same opportunities. The reality is that in the U.S. today, the best predictor of a newborn baby’s economic future is how much money his or her parents make.
It also ignores the fact that living in an individualistic, capitalist society carries inherent risk. You can do everything right — study hard, work diligently, keep your nose clean — but if you fall victim to a random workplace accident, you can nevertheless end up being disabled in the blink of an eye and find yourself in need of public assistance. You can end up bankrupt under a pile of healthcare bills or you could lose your job if you’re forced to take care of an ailing parent. Children — innocents who aren’t even old enough to work for themselves — are among the largest groups receiving various forms of public assistance.
Of course, there are always people who game the system, but they represent a tiny minority of recipients; a Massachusetts study found that fully 93 percent of all cases of “welfare fraud” were committed not by the “undeserving poor,” but by vendors — hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes, etc.
Smearing those who face real structural barriers to achievement or who will inevitably face real and random misfortunes in a “dynamic,” capitalist society — that’s some real class warfare. Here are six excellent examples of the form.
1. Registering the Poor to Vote Is “Un-American”
Matthew Vadum is a very special wingnut. His current preoccupation is attacking Zombie ACORN — an organization that sane people know to have been killed off last year by James O’Keef’s selectively edited videos but which Vadum insists is alive and well and looking to undermine America by organizing poor communities.
Vadum recently wrote a very special column in the American Thinker, in which he railed against efforts to get poor people registered to vote. What made the column noteworthy is that Vadum skipped the usual conservative blather about “voter fraud” — a problem that’s virtually nonexistent — and offered a refreshingly honest take on the subject. The problem, according to Vadum, is that “the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians. Welfare recipients are particularly open to demagoguery and bribery.”
Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country — which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.
Rarely has so much wrongness been packed into so few words. Less than half of those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — the most significant anti-poverty program remaining in our welfare system after the Clinton-era “reforms” — are unemployed. About a quarter work jobs that earn poverty wages, and the rest aren’t in the workforce because they’re disabled, caring for a relative or their children. In fact, almost half (48.1 percent) of all TANF families receive benefits only for the kids, not the adults. It’s true that children are, in strictly economic terms, “nonproductive,” but they will be productive someday, and more so if they receive adequate nutrition, housing, healthcare and the like.
The other problem with this argument is the idea that the poor vote for “redistributionist politicians.” First, because all politicians are “redistributionist” — it’s what government does — and second, because, as Martin Gilens discovered, while Americans hate the word “welfare,” large majorities — 71 percent of Americans; not just the poor — believe that spending on anti-poverty programs should be increased (as long as you don’t call it welfare).
Contrary to Vadum’s beliefs, there is only a small number of true reactionaries who desire to live in a society that doesn’t care for the poor and disabled, and it is in fact they who are “profoundly antisocial.”
2. Unemployment Benefits Have Created a “Nation of Slackers”
Media Matters says, “It’s taken three years, but America has finally graduated from being
“a nation of whiners” in 2008 to “a nation of slackers” in 2011 — at least, that’s what Rep. Steve King (R-IA) believes we’ve accomplished.” King, a right-winger’s right-winger, took to the floor of the House to deliver this word-salad:
The former speaker of the House, Speaker Pelosi, has consistently said that unemployment checks are one of those reliable and immediate forms of economy recovery, that you get a lot of bang for your buck when you pay people not to work, and they will go out and spend that money immediately, therefore we should pass out unemployment checks and stimulate the economy. That statement is ridiculous where I come from, Mr. Speaker. To pay people not to work, and somehow in that formula it stimulates the economy….
The 80 million Americans that are of working age but are simply not in the workforce need to be put to work. We can’t have a nation of slackers … We’ve gotta get this country back to work and get those people out of the slacker rolls and onto the employed rolls.
Here, too, we have a shining gem of wrongness. And a common one — the belief that unemployment benefits discourage people from working is widespread on the right.
Here’s a simple reality-check: There are no jobs! According to the Economic Policy Institute, “there are 6.9 million fewer jobs today than there were in December 2007.” Of course, the working-age population has grown by over 4 million in that same time. Do the math. As Mike Thornton noted on AlterNet, when you add people who are working a part-time gig but want a full-time job to the unemployed, you get 25.4 million workers vying for 3.2 million full-time job openings, “or 8 unemployed or underemployed workers per job.”
This is more of the same: King’s painting a picture of the undeserving poor living the good life on the tab of hardworking Americans. So it’s worth noting that among developed countries, the U.S. offers some of the stingiest unemployment benefits around — only two countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) replaced a smaller share of a worker’s earnings than the U.S. in 2004, and only the Czech Republic offered unemployment coverage for a shorter time.
In 2008, those unemployed Americans who qualified for benefits got $293 per week, or about 35 percent of their lost income, and that’s why conservative spin that the jobless are living it up on their unemployment checks instead of trying to find work is so ludicrous. (There is, however, some evidence that this is actually true in places like Scandinavia, where people who lose their jobs still take in 70 percent or more of their income, and in some cases can do so for an unlimited amount of time.)
King drives his point home using a classic tactic: take big numbers out of context to distort reality. There are in fact 85 million “Americans that are of working age but are simply not in the workforce,” and he would have you believe they’re all “slackers.” But that figure includes stay-at-home spouses, people who live off of investment income rather than a job, entrepreneurs, and of course the disabled and ill — people who can’t work. Back in January 2001, when the unemployment rate was just 4.2 percent, there were 69 million working-age adults who weren’t in the labor force. And the working-age population has grown by about 22 million since then.
And, of course, Nancy Pelosi was right that unemployment benefits have a huge amount of stimulus bang-for-the-buck — King is not only a brazen class warrior, he’s also economically illiterate.
3. You Can’t Really Be Poor if You Have a Color TV!
Is it not the height of class war to make a conscious effort to erase the poor from the public’s view? That has been a long-term project on the right, and one of the classic, if shopworn arguments goes like this: Back in the 1930s (or 1950s, or 1970s, depending on the speaker), most poor people didn’t own color TVs, but now 97 percent of them do! So the poor really should stop bitching — they’re living the high life!
Now, as of this writing, Craigslist offers the following items for free in the San Francisco Bay area: several TVs, multiple armchairs, a set of swivel bar stools, a stainless steel refrigerator, a Nordictrak elliptical trainer, a bunch of sofas and bed-sets — including a “like new” leather couch — a countertop grill, a “beautiful pine armoir” and some “Hydro Massage Soaking Tub and Sinks.” Those are just the listings posted in one morning. We create a lot of goods and people want the shiniest, newest things, so there are a ton of obsolete but still functional items like TVs and washer-dryers out there that one can get for nothing or next to nothing.
Perhaps my favorite example of the genre is the claim, accurate but divorced from context, that our poor have it good because they don’t necessarily live in shoe-boxes. As the Wall Street Journal was happy to point out, “The average living space for poor American households is 1,200 square feet. In Europe, the average space for all households, not just the poor, is 1,000 square feet.” Case closed! American-style capitalism for the win!
Well, not really. This is a simple matter of population density: In the EU-15, there are 120 people per square kilometer; in the United States, we only have 29 people per kilometer. And that average obviously includes people living in sparsely populated rural expanses. I live in a tightly packed U.S. city, and given that most middle-class people here can’t even dream of affording 1,200 square feet, I don’t think our poor folks can either.
4. Food-Stamps: “A Fossil That Repeats All the Errors of the War on Poverty”
Sometimes what passes for an “argument” is just stating a simple reality in an ominous tone. Consider this string of English words, offered by the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector:
“Some people like to camouflage this by calling it a nutrition program, but it’s really not different from cash welfare,” said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, whose views have a following among conservatives on Capitol Hill. “Food stamps is quasi money.”
There are strict limits on what can be purchased with food stamps, which isn’t true of money, but, yes, they do contribute to a household’s financial health in the same way that cash does. That doesn’t negate the fact that it is, indeed, a nutrition program. But Rector wasn’t done — it gets better:
Arguing that aid discourages work and marriage, Mr. Rector said food stamps should contain work requirements as strict as those placed on cash assistance. “The food stamp program is a fossil that repeats all the errors of the war on poverty,” he said.
Perhaps this works in the same magical way that gay marriage “discourages marriage” — I don’t know. But what is clear is that, in the words of one anti-hunger activist, “Without food stamps, we’d have starvation.” According to the USDA, “14.5 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during” the past year, and “5.4 percent of households experienced food insecurity in the more severe range, described as very low food security.” It’s also the case that about a third of those who are eligible to receive nutritional assistance don’t, in part because of the stigma that people like Robert Rector has worked so hard to encourage.
These are real people experiencing very real problems making ends meet, yet Rector and his ilk would make it more difficult to get assistance because they’ve embraced the fact-free idea that the poor are plagued with a “culture of dependency.” That’s some serious class warfare.
5. “The Main Causes of Child Poverty Are Low Levels of Parental Work and the Absence of Fathers”
On Wednesday, the New York Yankees clinched the American League East title. On Thursday, it rained in New York. There is a correlation here, but only a fool would suggest that the Yanks’ victory caused it to rain the following day.
Yet, the Heritage Foundation (it happens to be Robert Rector again) sees a lot of poor, single-parent households, and would have you believe that “the main causes of child poverty are low levels of parental work and the absence of fathers.”
This gets the causal relationship wrong. The number of single-parent households exploded between the 1970s and the 1990s — more than doubling — yet the poverty rate remained relatively constant. In fact, before the crash of 2008, the poverty rate was lower than it had been in the 1970s. So, as the rate of single-parent households skyrocketed, poverty declined a little bit. Saying single-parent homes create poverty is therefore like claiming that the Yankees victory caused the sun to shine the next day.
As I noted recently, this is an essential piece of the “culture of poverty” narrative, and it is nonsense. Jean Hardisty, the author of “Marriage as a Cure for Poverty: A Bogus Formula for Women,” cited a number of studies showing that poor women have the same dreams as everyone else: They “often aspire to a romantic notion of marriage and family that features a white picket fence in the suburbs.” But low economic status leads to fewer marriages, not the other way around.
In 1998, the Fragile Families Study looked at 3,700 low-income unmarried couples in 20 U.S. cities. The authors found that 90 percent of the couples living together wanted to tie the knot, but only 15 percent had actually done so by the end of the one-year study period. And here’s the key finding: for every dollar that a man’s hourly wages increased, the odds that he’d get hitched by the end of the year rose by 5 percent. Men earning more than $25,000 during the year had twice the marriage rates of those making less than $25,000.
Writing up the findings for the Nation, Sharon Lerner noted that poverty itself “seems to make people feel less entitled to marry.” As one father in the survey put it, marriage means “not living from check to check.”
6. Taxing Working People Less Than the Rich Is “Perverse”
That half of Americans “pay no taxes” is a simple lie that will never die, regardless of how frequently it is debunked. It’s pure class war, feeding into the narrative of the parasitic poor feeding off the blood of the industrious. And it is totally divorced from reality — in the real world, the working poor and the wealthy have virtually the same tax rates.
Yet the belief that only a minority pay taxes is ubiquitous among conservatives. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said last month, “I don’t want to tax the truly poor, those who would help themselves if they could, but you can’t tell me that 51 percent of all households are the truly poor.” And here’s where the lie was created: “No matter what these Democrats tell you,” he said, “the wealthy and middle class are already shouldering around 100 percent of the nation’s tax burden and 51 percent pay absolutely nothing in income taxes.”
Note the sleight-of-hand. Federal income taxes make up only 18 percent of the taxes collected in this country. It also happens to be among the more progressive taxes, and with median wages stagnating for years, many people today don’t earn enough to have to pay them.
Hatch takes this fact, which again pertains to less than a fifth of the country’s total tax burden, and transforms it into “the wealthy and middle class are already shouldering around 100 percent of the nation’s tax burden” — completely and totally untrue. If we looked only at the regressive payroll tax, and dishonestly pretended that no other taxes exist, we could make a similarly twisted argument that the wealthy pay virtually nothing in taxes — billionaire investor Warren Buffett doesn’t pay a penny in payroll taxes.
When you include all taxes — not just those that erase working people’s contributions — you see that we really have something close to a flat tax. That’s the conclusion of a 2007 study by Boston University economists Laurence J. Kotlikoff and David Rapson, who found that when you add it all up — state and local taxes, federal taxes and excise fees — “The average marginal tax rate on incomes between $20,000 and $500,000 is 40.3 percent, the median tax rate is 41.8 percent, and the standard deviation of all of those rates is 5.3 percentage points. Basically, most of us pay about 40 percent, plus or minus 5.3 percentage points.”
All of these narratives are designed to protect a status quo that’s serving the interests of a rarefied elite, but is obviously not working well for the working majority in this country. All are intended to distract from the structural causes of poverty and inequality, or to ignore the fact that some people will always experience genuine misfortune — the myriad surprises in life that can happen to anyone — because they’d choose low taxes over caring for them.
But it’s also a narrative that denies the very existence of class differences in this country. As noted earlier, the United States is anything but a true meritocracy. What millions of white working-class Americans understand — intuitively, even if they can’t articulate it — is that class still matters. And by erasing the very idea of class, of structural barriers to getting ahead in this economy, they are left with a nagging sense of grievance against those they perceive to be bringing them down: foreign powers, immigrants, people of color and liberals, with their “job-killing” regulations and the like.
Ultimately, to deny the very existence of an entire class of citizens is to wage some very real warfare against them.
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)
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