The Road to Ruin:
An Interim Report

By Beppe Colli
June 27, 2012

Right from the start - with a title whose tone is dry and pragmatic, and which aims at its target without losing any time, 'cause we know that time is running out (it goes without saying that the title of the book brings us back to those protest folk songs by friends of the people like Pete Seeger), End This Depression Now! - a user-friendly, though quite rigorous, book by Paul Krugman, a Noble Prize recipient, published at the end of April - speaks very clearly (in a way, this book reminded me of a few recent ones by Italian sociologist Luciano Gallino, for instance the recently published La lotta di classe dopo la lotta di classe - Class Struggle After Class Struggle).

But while Krugman's book beams with a "liberal" spirit and aims at quite a few practical goals, its analytical instruments and means are those of economy as scientific practice, where facts are made intelligible by a theoretical empirical framework where hypothesis are falsifiable.

A recent #1 in the book chart of UK newspaper The Guardian, End This Depression Now! was also advertised on public means of transportation - i.e., buses - in Spain (which, come to think of it, is far from being surprising, given that country's recent troubles when it comes to matters of economy and finance). Quite funny to notice that, media spotlights brightly lighting the stage in the USA and much of Europe, attention in Italy appears to have been less than I expected - just a few pieces to alert readers that the book was already available in a translated version; which is strange, given the fact that Italian readers are quite familiar with Paul Krugman the New York Times columnist and polemist, his pieces being translated quite regularly in their country.

So, this is a brand of pragmatism backed by science. What I recently happened to watch on Italian television was quite the opposite, politicians who are supposed to take us out of the doldrums talking in a light tone about things they obviously didn't understand at all ("Now it's time for phase two", "Now we need a recovery"), calling Krugman's name to give strength to their thoughts ("It's what Krugman says", adding "... and he's a Nobel Prize Recipient", with the same tone of those who say "la Pastiera which my daughter-in-law cooks is really something else... She's from Naples").

There was also somebody who invited us not to think too much about bank recapitalization, now that (property tax) Imu's deadline was approaching ("It's on Monday! And people don't have any money to pay it!). I smiled, having no doubts whatsoever the young lady was "one of them", only to get very pale when informed that the young lady in question was, in fact, "one of us". Well... Wonder what'll become of us.

Talking in general, the tone of the discussion is the same it has always been: "New Trends", this time with an added dose of poor literacy that's really frightening. Old vices appear. And while a blog about business and economy on The Guardian website gives us minute-by-minute information about what's happening in Europe and all over the World, Italian leading newspaper la Repubblica drowns a few items of information in a sea of "narration" ("The background", "News item") and self-referential "analysis". While Krugman's blog on The New York Times website, thanks to those links to his pieces from the past which make it possible for us to see what he previously wrote on said matters, gives us the chance to check if his predictions were, indeed, accurate. (They were.)

It had been my opinion that Italian music magazines couldn't get any worse: my mistake! In a nutshell (the topic being one that doesn't deserve a lot of attention anyway), I think I can say that while in the past music mags still appeared to remember what arguing one's point meant, today, "anything goes", with raw prose making fun of minor things such as logic and facts. What is supremely strange is that nobody seems to notice that "freedom to the nth degree" ("I can say what I want, whether it makes sense or not, without fearing any sanctions") equals "total irrelevancy" ("what I say has no value whatsoever").

It's sad to notice that most of those who take part in public debates about the state of the economy are also bullshitters of the first degree. They go on TV, say what they want, and what they say is irrelevant. Alas!, unfortunately what they say will have very serious consequences... for us! (Cue: The Salt Of The Earth by The Rolling Stones, with the late, great Nicky Hopkins sitting on piano).

I don't know how familiar today's readers are with the name Timothy White, even in the USA. Should I choose just two words to talk about him, I'd say that "professional reporter" will do. Maybe "mainstream" could be appropriate too, but I suppose in a USA framework the meaning could be a bit different.

I got to know Timothy White when his writing started appearing on Musician magazine, in the early eighties. By that time he already had a quite rich and prestigious CV, starting with his contributions to mags such as Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone (then there were also books, radio shows, and so on).

In the early nineties I got the news that Timothy White had been appointed Editor in Chief of (US) Billboard magazine ("the Bible of the music industry"), a weekly I had read for a few years starting in the mid-seventies (the tiny radio station of which I was part having decided to start a - quite expensive, but also very valuable - subscription).

It was at the end of the nineties - I had a Web connection, at last! - that I finally had the chance to read Music To My Ears, the weekly column that White used as a platform for his ideas. Funny thing, his notions of the way things should be didn't necessarily coincide with those favoured by the music industry - which, by the way, was the magazine's main advertiser, and source of income! (I'll give readers a few moments, just to let these facts sink in.)

There were big struggles, such as the "Work for Hire" amendment, about to pass through Congress, which would have greatly tipped the balance in favour of record companies and music publishers - and against artists.

It was only after his death (he was only fifty, and by the way, today's the tenth anniversary of his passing) that the scope of White's work in shaping Billboard's identity became apparent to me ("Quality" and "Honesty", for once, are not empty words). And after his death I really understood how appreciated he was by musicians, be they mega-stars or semi-unknowns. And let's not forget that it was thanks to his determination that a more truthful means of assessing record sales - the system called SoundScan - was put in widespread use (hence, the so-called "boom" of genres such as metal, country, and rap - a boom that maybe pre-dated the introduction of SoundScan, but that only now became visible).

I hate being rhetorical. I'll only add that, while "artists are artists", and so they obey very specific rules (which makes the death of people such as Frank Zappa, Hugh Hopper, and Hans Reichel a tragedy for us all), fine professionals with a strong ethical sense like Timothy White have a lot more in common with "plain folks" like us; and so it could be that, in a very specific way, their example and work is even more valuable for us all.

Beppe Colli 2012 | June 27, 2012