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Class Act

CounterPunch: 2013


I am one of several hundred voters who decide annually who gets inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In some years I’m proud of our work because it shines a light on truly important artists. In other years I’m embarrassed by our collective choices. But at our worst, we have never done anything so out of line with the heart of American culture as the June 12 appearance by Alan B. Krueger at the Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Krueger was there as chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers to make a presentation entitled “Land of Hope and Dreams: Rock and Roll, Economics, and Rebuilding the Middle Class.”


Krueger began by saying “It is essential to have institutions like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that can bring people together and remind us that we are one nation, united by our hopes and dreams.”


Actually, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame reminds us that we are two nations: rich and poor, war makers and peace lovers, violent cops and victims, despoilers of the environment and defenders of the earth.


While Krueger came to praise Caesar  (“We rightly celebrate the achievements of those who have been able to scale new heights of success in our economy”)  there are no members of the Hall of Fame who’ve written songs in praise of America’s power elite or who are even close to being in the 1%.  Instead, the music is likely to be about the whores, gamblers, sinners, and losers who populate “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” the Bruce Springsteen song which Krueger copped for the title of his talk. Nor was Springsteen’s fellow Hall inductee Woody Guthrie singing about “one nation” or praising “new heights of success in our economy” on “This Land is Your Land”:


As I was walkin’—In the shadow of the steeple

Near the relief office—I see my people

And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’

If this land’s still made for you and me


Guthrie and Springsteen are only two of the many Hall members who’ve represented, in song or in action, the hopes and dreams of the world looking from the bottom up. From Leadbelly to Donna Summer; from Billie Holiday to Metallica; from James Brown to Jackson Browne; from Black Sabbath to Stevie Wonder; from  the Clash to Bob Marley to Johnny Cash. The exception who proves the rule is the pro-war, tax-avoiding Bono, who was lauded by Krueger.


Krueger said “I have learned from 25 years of teaching that the best way to explain economics is through the example of the rock & roll industry.” He gave the example that “The price of the average concert ticket increased by nearly 400 per cent from 1981 to 2012, much faster than the 150% rise in overall consumer price inflation.” In forty-six paragraphs on the polarization of wealth in the music industry, Krueger never mentions anyone but artists as the cause of that growing gap. He never mentions a single corporation and utters not a single word about Ticketmaster, even though Ticketmaster’s obscene fees--often for no discernible service at all--are a big part of the escalation of ticket prices. The corporate executives and stockholders who control the music industry and receive not only high salaries and bonuses but pensions and health benefits denied to artists are totally absent from his critique. Krueger says many successful artists are just lucky, yet he ignores the corporate use of payola (bribes to radio stations) which often determines what music gets heard.


Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine--first ballot shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame when they become eligible in 2017—sums up what Krueger refuses to see: “I’ve come to think of the music business as this layer of people—the managers, the attorneys, the record company executives—who are like the landlords of this building that is the music industry. The bands just rent a room for a short time. These landlords all know one another and have business dealings with each other, long before you put your band together and long after your band is dropped from the label. Their interest is more in keeping the building in good shape than in the interest of the people who check in and out.”


It’s primarily the executives and the stockholders (and the few artists like Jay-Z who become executives) who come out on top in what Krueger accurately describes as a “winner take all economy,” admitting that “an astonishing 84 per cent of total income growth from 1979 to 2011 went to the top one per cent of families.” True enough, but why? Krueger’s answer is that “Economic forces have been chipping away at the middle class for decades.”


Blaming economic forces implies that some unseen hand determines economic outcomes. But the polarization of wealth is caused by specific policies implemented by specific people, politicians such as Krueger’s boss Barack Obama and the President’s most immediate Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.


These policies include NAFTA, the bank bailout, a military budget nearing a trillion dollars a year, massive subsidies to fossil fuel corporations, the militarization of the border, Obamacare, the prison industrial complex, school privatization, the student debt industry, and Homeland Security. The trillions of dollars wasted on those programs could instead be spent on creating tens of millions of useful middle class jobs and shifting the focus of our society from corporations and control to people and their passions.


But Alan Krueger wasn’t at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to talk about the different world that’s possible. He was there to shift our gaze from reality to a reality show starring the ghost of the middle class of the 1950s. “To rebuild the economy from the middle out,” he said, “the private sector will have to step up and reinvigorate the norms and institutions that have supported the inclusive growth in the past.”


Krueger went on to make the incredible claim that the most successful companies are the ones who pay their employees well, adding that “a reduction in inequality [of pay] would be good for efficiency, economic growth, and stability.” In fact, in this age of globalization it’s just the opposite—the winners are the ones who get there first paying the least. For example, in early July Walmart threatened to pull out of Washington DC if the city passed legislation requiring corporations to pay more than minimum wage. Walmart is an extremely successful corporation as is Nike and the other U.S. corporations who get their production done in sweatshops. 


The relentless drumbeat about wanting to help the middle class is meant to drown out the truth—corporate profits are at an all-time high, fifty million Americans now live in poverty, and job-eliminating technology has ended the possibility of going back to the American Dream of yesteryear. Yet there was Barack Obama right after the 2012 election saying “I’ve got a mandate to help middle class families.”


A more accurate picture of who Obama actually helps can be found in the career of Richard Parsons, a one per center who is now enjoying retirement as the owner of an Italian winery. From 2000 to 2007 Parsons was the chairman of AOL Time Warner, parent company of Warners and many other record labels, where he was known for using a corporate jet to fly around the world to record company parties. Parsons, although not mentioned by Alan Krueger in his description of “winner takes all” in the music industry, was also known for occupying one of the most expensive corner offices ever built and for firing thousands of employees, forcefully expelling them from the middle class.


Although his previous political experience was as an advisor to Republican Rudy Giuliani and to billionaire Michael Bloomberg, in 2008 Parsons was brought aboard Obama’s economic advisory team.  Obama, almost certainly with the agreement of Parsons, embraced and expanded the bank bailout, which should have alerted the country as to where his priorities lay.


On November 17, 2008, Citigroup fired 52,000 workers.  Four days later the Fed committed $326 billion to Citigroup. Citigroup was charged less than one per cent interest on this “loan” at the same time it was charging up to seventeen per cent interest on sub prime loans. In January 2009, just as Obama took office, Citigroup tapped the Fed for $100 billion. The very next month the other shoe dropped--Richard Parsons became chairman of Citigroup. According to the Government Accounting Office, Citigroup borrowed $2.513 trillion from the Fed between 2007 and 2010. It did not use that money to hire back the 52,000 workers who were fired in 2008. Yet there was Alan Krueger, standing at a podium at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, saying “The government can only set the conditions for the private sector to grow and provide more jobs and opportunities for middle class families.”


In Cleveland, Krueger’s conclusion was that “the President’s agenda makes so much sense for our economy.” Much of the agenda Krueger described was impossibly vague or downright silly but otherwise it went from meaningless (“Non-binding shareholder votes on CEO pay”) to truly scary (“addresses our long-run entitlement problems”) which, when translated, means privatizing Social Security.


An agenda which makes much more sense for the economy can be found in the words of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees:


Carlos Santana: "I envision a world where water, electricity, food, and education would be for free in the next 25 years for everyone on this planet."


Public Enemy:


Corporations owe

Dey gotta give up the dough

To da town

or else

We gotta shut 'em down


John Lennon:


Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world


Alan Krueger isn’t listening, of course, and it’s open to question how much his audience at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was listening to him. Krueger himself said that the most interesting question he got was: Who should be in the Hall of Fame among those artists not yet enshrined? His answer was Annie Lennox.


Annie Lennox? I’d be willing to at least think about voting for her. But voting for either of the two corporate parties is unthinkable. As Public Enemy says: “Neither party is mine / Not the jackass or the elephant.”


I don’t know about you, but from now on I’m only going to vote for candidates or parties whose message I can find in the music.


Lee Ballinger:

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