Bruce Springsteen’s Flawed Wrecking Ball Economics

Springsteen's vivid image or robber barons destroying factories and laying waste to hometowns is not all that useful anymore. 

By SHARE

On his new album Wrecking Ball, my New Jerseyite brother Bruce Springsteen is out with a snarling attack on latter-day "robber barons," "fat cats," and "vultures." Read obviously: investment bankers, hedge-fund operators, and other various and sundry Wall Street types.

For Springsteen, "turnaround" artists like former Gov. Mitt Romney sell a bill of goods. They wreak destruction little different than armed invaders or "marauders" on a midnight ride.

Take the Celtic-inflected "Death to My Hometown":

No shells ripped the evening sky


No cities burning down
No armies stormed the shores for which we'd die
No dictators were crowned
High off on a quiet night
I never heard a sound
The marauders raided in the dark and brought death to my hometown, boys
Death to my hometown [See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Springsteen has hit on this theme—unfettered capitalism as an insidious invasion from within—before.

Like on 1995's powerful "Youngstown":

Well, my daddy come on the Ohio works


When he come home from World War Two
Now the yard's just scrap and rubble
He said, "Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do" Circa the late 2000s, the Big Boys have clearly gone and done it again. Except I'm not sure if, or why, Bruce thinks we should be surprised. He already told us as much. "Death to My Hometown" is surely a nod to Springsteen's ballad of postindustrial decline, 1984's "My Hometown." There, the scene is eerily similar:

Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores 


Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back to your hometown [See a slide show of Mort Zuckerman's 5 Ways to Create More Jobs.]

In short: "Hometown" has been dead for decades.

Which is true enough.

I'm from a place similar to Bruce's Freehold, N.J.neck of the woods, but quite a bit farther from New York City, more of a small brackish back-bay type of town. Near Atlantic City, as in Asbury Park, the local economy is utterly dependent on tourism and the various amusement industries. But now that you can legally gamble all over the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, the casino industry in Atlantic City is in desperate straits. I'm not sure whose "fault" this is. The city has been "dead" for longer than I've been alive. This was the reason gambling was legalized in the first place: to revitalize the place. The neon lights and slot machines functioned like artificial life support.

Daniel Wolff observed in his critical social history 4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land:

Atlantic City proved what Asbury Park had been proving. That the trickle-down theory didn't work. That the money tended to stay in a few hands. That this top-down vision of the promised land had corruption built right in.

This isn't entirely true; through efforts like the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, city officials have tried to, well, spread the wealth around. They've tried to diversify the city's entertainment infrastructure and introduce options that don't involve gambling. But, since the Great Recession, the bottom has fallen out.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Do the Rich Pay Their Fair Share in Taxes? ]

I'm with Springsteen at least in this respect: The concept of economic "creative destruction" is interesting and important, but for too many conservatives it's the end of the conversation. Still, I wish Springsteen wasn't so given to assigning white hats and black hats. Springsteen's vision of the "promised land" has always been shot through the prism of the Rust Belt. This is a skewed vision. On the first single off Wrecking Ball, "We Take Care Of Our Own," he asks: "Where's the work that sets my hands, my soul free?"

Such "work" exists—but it doesn't require the use of one's hands.

This—the concentration of success in a narrow band of increasingly cosmopolitan brain workers—should be of serious concern for everyone who worries about social cohesion and mobility.

But I'm not sure Springsteen's vivid image or robber barons destroying factories and laying waste to hometowns is all that useful anymore. 

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