"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)
When I was in grade school boys were encourage to read the “Tom Swift Jr.” adventure novels. (On the other side of the gender ghetto, the girls had “Nancy Drew.”) The books told the story of young Tom, teenage inventor and heir to the Swift Enterprises fortune, in tales like “Tom Swift and His Megascope Space Prober” and “Tom Swift and His Triphibian Atomicar.”
Tom Swift Jr. mirrored a nation’s self-image in the 1950s and 1960s. He was rich, educated and destined for great things. Nothing was impossible and there was no problem technology couldn’t solve.
We won’t say economist/writer Tyler Cowen is Tom Swift Jr. That distinction may already belong to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. But Cowen and Friedman have a shared worldview that, like the Swift Jr. books, sees technology as the answer to our ills. But their future comes with a new twist: It will be a great party, but not everybody’s invited.
Cowen’s already been hailed by one reviewer as “the next Tom Friedman.” (To suggest that there’ll be any more Friedmans is to already have posited a dystopian future.) But Cowen, an economist, author and co-proprietor of the Marginal Revolution blog, brings an intellectual heft to his libertarian and pro-technology agenda that is conspicuously absent from Friedman’s.
Cowen and Friedman have already entered into a sort of symbiotic relationship, wherein Cowen provides Friedman with intellectual inspiration and Friedman provides Cowen with zingy (if inapt) catchphrases, including the one that became the title of Cowen’s most recent book: “Average Is Over.”
The Friedman/Cowen crowd sees a nation that is ruled by what Cowen calls a “hyper-meritocracy” of the wealthiest among us. Friedman’s oddly selective senses seem to filter out any information that challenges his opinions (a habit that has led to his much-satirized penchant for quoting taxi drivers who sound oddly like himself).
Cowen, on the other hand, has conducted deep dives into a number of research areas. His eclectic reading habits and perceptions make it much more discordant when he injects libertarian bias into his writing, as he inevitably does.
Consider Cowen’s 2002 book, “Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures.” In many ways Cowen rises to the challenges of his well-chosen and complex subject matter. But he tips his ideological hand in the book’s epigram, a quote from the former chairman of the Australian Film Commission: “A country that makes a film like Star Wars deserves to rule the world.”
Presumably Cowen doesn’t really believe that, but he wants us to know our assumptions are going to be challenged from the right.
Give him points for audacity. Cowen says of himself in “Creative Destruction,” “I ask some fundamental questions about culture in a market economy. This trade and cultural product support the artistic diversity of the world, or destroy it?”
His response won’t surprise you. Cowen makes the questionable claim that “economic growth usually leads to a reallocation of creative activity to the dynamic and growing artistic sectors …”
But Cowen’s own case studies can betray him. Consider African pop music. Cowen claims that “traditional African drumming … is being replaced by a variety of creative African urban music based on acoustic and electric guitars.”
Not so fast. There was a brief period matching Cowen’s description, but it preceded the major waves of globalization in Africa. It was a good time for African pop: American soul music was fused with Latin dance styles, vibrant electric guitars and traditional percussion, giving rise to styles like high life in Ghana, soukous in Zaire, chimurenga in Zimbabwe and mbaqanga in South Africa.
But in recent trips to Africa we’ve seen firsthand how globalization has killed those forms. The large bands used in those musical styles can’t compete economically with hip-hop, which can be performed by one or two people using cheap electronic equipment. Even the rich religious music of Ghana is now often recorded with only one or two musicians.
Percussion, the beating heart of African music, is being outsourced to a digital chip. And it’s taking guitarists, horn players and other musicians with it.
We’re not sure Cowen would be sorry about that, since he’s infatuated with digital technology. A book called “The Age of the Infovore” celebrates information, technology and most of all something Cowen describes as “the idea of the value and creative power of the individual.”
Valuing “the creative power of the individual” is, of itself, an uncontroversial position. But when it’s paired with an inability to see the value of collective power, it becomes the seed corn of the new libertarianism.
One thing individuals can do is work with computers. One of Cowen’s central theses is that, as he says in “Average Is Over,” one of “the key questions (of the future) will be: are you good with working with intelligent machines or not?”
Cowen also associates himself with Asperger’s-like thought patterns (an identification that he doesn’t seem to have verified with any physicians). He says he has “become comfortable with my affiliation with autism.” Cowen describes autistics as people who “impose additional structure on information by the acts of arranging, organizing, classifying, collecting, memorizing, categorizing, and listing.”
If this sounds like what a computer does, that may be no coincidence. It’s eerily close to the description of artificial intelligence (as opposed to genuine intelligence) as it was described by computer scientists in the 1980s and 1990s. “List processing” and related functions were even the basis of programming languages like LISP and FORTH, designed especially to create AI software.
Cowen attempts to merge humanistic ideas with his exploration of autism, but he places too much credibility in the tales of people who, in a phrase he repeats often, “self-describe” with it or other cognitive conditions. And while it’s true that some of these states can enhance certain human abilities, they’re not talent, per se. Previous generations conceived similar ideas about drug addiction, alcoholism, depression and bipolar disorder. It’s laudable that Cowen acknowledges their positive aspects and rejects stigmatizing them as handicaps.
But these conditions bring suffering, as well as potential gifts. “Self-identifying” with them can easily become a kind of clinical tourism. Cowen comes perilously close to romanticizing other people’s pain. And in his exploration of human-machine integration, he also borders on a kind of psycho-engineering view of the mind.
Cowen forgets the words of social critic John Ruskin, who wrote of the Industrial Revolution, “You can either make a tool of the creature, or a man. You cannot do both.”
Cowen promotes his idea of the “hyper-meritocracy” in “Average Is Over.” The brilliant and self-motivated (as he sees them) will become wealthier and more powerful than ever, while the rest of society (which Cowen pegs at 85 percent of the population) becomes a permanent underclass, dwelling in shantytowns and struggling to survive. Cowen argues that “the wealthy class will … be larger over time” and “will have increasing influence. It is their values that will shape public discourse.”
In other words, it will be a pretty good future for Tyler Cowen.
Economist and law professor William K. Black Jr. excoriates Cowen, calling the “hyper-meritocracy” concept “an oxymoron led by morons.” He points out that Cowen ignores fraud as a factor in the growth of a wealthy overclass, and that Cowen “simply assume(s) that whoever can ‘earn millions’ represents the ‘best’ of Americans.”
“Self-motivation,” Cowen’s mantra for tomorrow’s youth, begs the question: motivation to do what? Most worthy human endeavors don’t involve “complementing a computer” or making a lot of money. But in the Cowen/Friedman future, that kind of career path – teacher, doctor, social worker and the like – won’t earn a ticket out of poverty.
Cowen’s infatuated with digital technology, as many of us are. But he lets it get the better of him, as when he says that Wikipedia is “one of the most impressive projects of ordering that human beings have undertaken.” (Periodic Table of Elements, anyone?) Cowen compares apples and oranges, arguing that an iPhone is more valuable than a three-dimensional representation of a Caravaggio painting. But can’t we treasure both gouaches and Google?
Adds Cowen: “And the iPhone is itself a thing of beauty.” But he overlooks something very important in this celebration of “the value and creative power of the individual.” The iPhone is, above all else, the product of collective action. People acted together as an economy and – dare we say it? – a government to produce the technological wonders Cowen celebrates. Their underlying technologies, from digital chips to the World Wide Web, were created with tax money.
Cowen’s “hyper-meritocracy” would never have created the tools that have made it wealthy. And the market alone could never have produced an iPhone.
But almost everything is a potential “market” to Cowen. His blog even uses “markets in everything” as a running theme, addressing the appearance of market forces in unexpected places. That can be a fun and enlightening mental exercise. (I was delighted when Cowen’s blog linked to a piece I’d written that speculated about “a market in green lights” – a phrase used in passing at an economics conference.)
“Many of the limitations of markets are rooted in the imperfections of the human mind,” writes Cowen. (Fraud doesn’t help. That quote is from “Discover Your Inner Economist,” which, like most Cowen books, is engaging and highly readable. But, as with most Cowen books, the rigid ideology is never far from the surface, as when he boasts that: “ I once wrote some economic common sense: I would admit that we cannot take care of everyone and that we faced tough trade-offs.”
That’s not “common sense.” It’s p bias. It’s a statement Cowen cannot convincingly support. For example, Cowen argues that “the data show no correlation, either internationally or domestically, between health care expenditures in life expectancy.”
That’s partially true. But the data show a very clear correlation between life expectancy and the model of healthcare financing a nation uses. Every other advanced developed nation has some form of national health financing, pays less for its healthcare, and does better in overall health outcomes statistics. (See the OECD comparative studies for further information.)
He also says that “Every day about 155,000 people die. They die in Europe too, even in the social democracies.” That kind of argument is beneath him. In effect, he’s saying that we can’t save everyone so we shouldn’t save anyone.
Cowen oversimplifies the issue of rising healthcare costs, exaggerates the threat of U.S. deficit spending, and ignores the impact of economic growth or the “multiplier effect” of government spending in recessionary or Depression-era times.
Cowen, like Friedman, argues that the lessons of postwar America cannot be applied to today’s realities, saying, “We’ll all look back on the immediate postwar era as a very special time.” But what, exactly, was so special about it? Were the laws of economics different? Of course, we didn’t have free trade agreements in those days. But Cowen doesn’t mention that.
Cowen claims this is merely prognostication, but it reads like hype. And in his mind, resistance is futile. Cowen, along with supporters like futurist Robin Hanson, are very clear on that point: This world is coming, whether you like it or not. But when you assume the mantle of inevitability, you’ve moved from futurism to faith.
Words like “hyper-meritocracy” betray the deeply ideological underpinnings of Cowen’s position. So does the suggestion that he sees immutable laws are at work, which is the sign of his dogma: Markets are merit. Wealth is worth. Call it “Tom Swift and His Amazing Digital Darwinism.”
Cowen the Explorer can be a delightful companion, but Cowen the Pontificator is a bit of a blowhard. Cowen can be insightful. But he’s often wrong, about cultural as well as economic issues. (Ninety-nine percent of the world’s Buddhists do not meditate, which renders his reflections on that faith moot. And the Louvin Brothers are not “bluegrass.”)
Cowen is infatuated with technology, as are many of us. But he seems comfortable with the future in which we are “uploaded beings” with a “largely mental existence.” I imagine an eternity being perpetually bombarded with spam.
Cowen concludes “Infovore” by saying, “When I look up at the sky and gaze at the stars, I am joyful. I see a happy ending. I see infovores.”
Good for him. But closer to home, other people see a hell of a lot of misery. I wish Tyler Cowen did too. His future isn’t inevitable, but people like him and Thomas Friedman are working to make their vision of hyper-misery for the many a reality.
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)