John Mellencamp is a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Seymour, Indiana. He started his musical career by performing in several local bands while in high school. He became a father by age nineteen, and by twenty-three stopped using drugs and alcohol for life. In 1974, he traveled to New York City to pursue a music career. Bestowed with the stage name “John Cougar”, Mellencamp achieved limited success for several years, before breaking through with American Fool in 1982, featuring the hit songs “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane”. Using his newfound clout, he reinstated his real name on future recordings, and became a consistent hit maker for the next decade. One of the few artists to eschew synthesized instruments in the eighties, Mellencamp’s straightforward beat music about American life from a rural perspective have aged well, and his critical reputation has grown. Once dismissed as a “fluke” and a “phony”, John Mellencamp is a founding father of the annual Farm Aid charity concerts, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2008.
John Mellencamp (b. 1951), singer, songwriter, guitar
Kenny Aronoff (b. 1953), drums
Larry Crane (b. 1956), guitar, vocals
Mike Wanchic, guitar, dulcimer, mandolin, banjo, piano, vocals
Toby Myers (b. 1949), bass, vocals
John Cascella (1947-1992), accordion
Lisa Germano (b. 1958), violin, vocals
I first became aware of John Mellencamp after hearing “Jack And Diane”. I’m not particularly fond of it; I probably heard it too many times when it first appeared. A friend I knew at work liked that one. He was an obsessive and unhappy person. Although he wouldn’t discuss specifics, it was clear he was unable to shake the horrors of participating in the Vietnam War, even as a Coast Guard cadet stationed offshore from the fighting. I don’t think anybody knew how disturbed Jeff was until he hung himself in his garage, unable to cope with his inability to stay sober behind the wheel. He couldn’t face the consequences.
“Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.”
— John Mellencamp
Back in the mid-eighties, most of my music purchases were 7″ single records. I still have my four favorite John Mellencamp songs on 45s: “R.O.C.K. In The USA”, “Cherry Bomb”, “Authority Song”, and especially “Small Town”. I have fond memories of those days, when I visited the record store every month or so.
John Mellencamp’s music and career are similar to John Fogerty and the Creedence Clearwater Revival Band. He tells simple tales about rural American life, and few stories of romantic love. They’ve even shared the same drummer. After sixteen years with Mellencamp, Kenny Aronoff has toured with Fogerty for the past twenty.
Though his star faded, as all rock stars do, Mellencamp remains a prolific writer and performer. I recommend several of his recent songs to give a balanced portrait of the artist.
Historically, my favorite song is “Small Town”. My sister and I moved away from our suburban childhood in Palo Alto, and now we both live in small towns. Although the story doesn’t match my own, except for that part about marrying my L.A. doll, these words resonate with me.
“Educated in a small town,
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town,
Used to daydream in that small town,
Another boring romantic that’s me.
But I’ve seen it all in a small town,
Had myself a ball in a small town,
Married an L.A. doll and brought her to this small town,
Now she’s small town just like me.
No I cannot forget where it is that I come from,
I cannot forget the people who love me,
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town,
And people let me be just what I want to be.”
— John Mellencamp
This Is Our Country
My childhood was happy, and I look back at younger life fondly. Life wasn’t so complicated. I’m proud to be from my hometown, and proud to be an American. I have a romantic view about my past, and a strong belief that the simple things in life are best. John Mellencamp expressed that civic and national pride as well as any modern musician. As a result, Mellencamp’s songs are in great demand for political campaigns, especially for Republican candidates whose constituency tend to be older and from a more rural environment. Unfortunately for those conservatives wishing to use his songs at campaign rallies, Mellencamp is a politically astute liberal, and denies requests to politicians whose values conflict with his own.
“John Mellencamp is not a Republican. He is a self-avowed liberal — but his is a community-based leftism that distrusts bureaucracy and hates paternalism, yet believes in social assistance for the poor, sick, and hungry, the widows and orphans that the Bible identifies. Mellencamp inhabits common ground with libertarians on social issues, and he is a consistent opponent of war and foreign intervention, but he does not believe that an unfettered free market will solve every social problem.”
The media tends to paint progressives and conservatives with a broad brush. It’s a sign of respect that The American Conservative makes no attempt to simplify Mr. Mellencamp’s views. I agree with Mellencamp; I do not believe that an “unfettered free market will solve every social problem”, and blanche at the suggestion that a simple prescription for all commerce will suffice. I will use this profile to summarize my reservations about free market economics, a couple of key changes I’ve observed, and what should be expected in the future.
When Economists Ruled The World
In my lifetime, the most influential economist was Milton Friedman, who advocated for limited government and minimal regulation of commerce. His landmark book, “Capitalism and Freedom”, was written in 1962, but it took a couple of decades before his views on society were implemented in earnest. President Ronald Reagan appointed Friedman as his economic advisor, which serves as a reasonable starting point for sweeping changes in world commerce. Although libertarians always point to onerous, increasing regulation, it is the major acts of deregulation which have had the greatest impact. Systematic deregulation of mass media and the finance industry, the dismantling of regulatory watchdog agencies, and the negotiation of free trade agreements with other countries, changed America dramatically.
“There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
— Milton Friedman, New York Times Magazine, September 1970
Older readers of this blog are well aware of the changes. The country is still very prosperous, but wealth disparity between the have and the have nots has grown dramatically. The deregulation of broadcasted news (The Fairness Doctrine), combined with the proliferation of the unregulated Internet, have produced a tidal wave of misinformation, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction. The manufacturing sector of the American economy is smaller; physical production of many goods has been moved offshore to reduce costs. The elimination of high paying blue collar jobs, especially in central and eastern America, has decimated whole cities that struggle to replace the lost income; many have fallen into poverty and disrepair. Most importantly, fewer opportunities are available for the motivated and able-bodied man well suited for this physically demanding work.
The cozy relationship between government legislators and moneyed interests is perhaps the greatest unintended consequence of free market doctrine. Big business establish dominance, and then use their position to propose anti-competitive regulation, while coercing cooperation from politicians, who risk the loss of valuable campaign contributions. Regional and local banks are a casualty of crony capitalism, struggling to satisfy every burdensome requirement and regulation. Meanwhile, the big banks have divested themselves from the original functions of banking, and concentrate on the most profitable endeavors, regardless of their value to society. The FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) industries have grown dramatically in the last three decades, and along with the medical “business”, comprise an ever greater percentage of the gross domestic product.
“When the United States was formed in 1776, it took 19 people on the farm to produce enough food for 20 people. So most of the people had to spend their time and efforts on growing food. Today, it’s down to 1% or 2% to produce that food. Now just consider the vast amount of supposed unemployment that was produced by that. But there wasn’t really any unemployment produced. What happened was that people who had formerly been tied up working in agriculture were freed by technological developments and improvements to do something else. That enabled us to have a better standard of living and a more extensive range of products.”
— Milton Friedman
Many intelligent people in modern society develop and sell products and services of dubious value. The world is inundated with snake oil salesmen; much of the American economy revolves around selling people stuff they don’t need. The world is complicated, and many people have neither the time nor the education to know which products and services are valuable. The list of high-paying industries that add zero or negative value to society is long, and they are a parasite. Mr. Friedman asserts the free market will eventually push out inferior or corrupt businesses. That is little help today for desperate people with few options. Thirty-five years into this experiment, we are nowhere near a market utopia. The government practices a futile effort to regulate and stifle unscrupulous businessmen.
“Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defense of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government– in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost come in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.”
― Milton Friedman
Friedman’s argument breaks down with the health care “industry”. The price system cannot be applied to well being, for which the value is infinite. Anybody my age has seen a profound increase in the complexity and cost of all aspects of care. No one can convince me that health care providers actually compete with one another to reduce costs. The added complexity is clearly intentional, and government regulation to maintain the status quo is encouraged with generous contributions to political campaigns.
Oil and gas power modern society; the pricing of these commodities may not behave in expected fashion. When total oil production begins to fall, the price may stay low due to demand destruction, the consumers’ inability to pay in an unbalanced economy where so many live on subsistence wages.
The Big Swindle
These are but a few facets of a complicated subject. I predict the Friedman era of economic philosophy will be remembered as a profoundly lost opportunity. Bloated, inefficient or unnecessary private industries take a lion’s share of wealth and privilege at a key point in history. Fossil fuels and other key raw materials are dwindling, and the end of the Industrial Age is imminent. The baby boomers, my generation, will be remembered for their greedy, careless use of these resources, and will offer shallow apologies for their neglect. In this spirit, the most popular presidents during this era of mass consumption, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, will be viewed unfavorably in coming centuries.
Economists are dangerous; they fail to account for a world with finite resources. They offer rigid, ideological solutions to a population with a wide spectrum of beliefs and lifestyles. The current ideology condones the behavior of the most selfish and aggressive. Over my lifetime, the ascent of economists has subjugated the role of scientists in shaping public policy. The current strategy now appears to be keeping the patient warmer while it slowly dies, while the powers that be fight a fierce economic war for the remaining resources. Small towns, like the one John Mellencamp sings about, will return to greater glory, as large cities become unsustainable and people resume an agrarian existence.
John Mellencamp Song Notes:
1. “Wild Night (Alt)” can be found on Dance Naked (Remastered).
2. “Small Town (Acoustic)” can be found on Scarecrow.
John Mellencamp Songs:
Small Town, John Mellencamp ✭✭✭✭
Cherry Bomb, John Mellencamp ✭✭✭✭
R.O.C.K. In The USA, John Mellencamp ✭✭✭
Authority Song, John Mellencamp ✭✭✭
Dance Naked, John Mellencamp ✭✭✭
Small Town (Acoustic), John Mellencamp ✭✭✭
Jack And Diane, John Mellencamp ✭✭
Jackie Brown, John Mellencamp ✭✭
Human Wheels, John Mellencamp ✭✭
Longest Days, John Mellencamp ✭✭
Pink Houses, John Mellencamp ✭✭
Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out), John Mellencamp ✭✭
Crumblin’ Down, John Mellencamp ✭✭
Save Some Time To Dream, John Mellencamp ✭✭
My Sweet Love, John Mellencamp ✭
No Better Than This, John Mellencamp ✭
Rural Route, John Mellencamp ✭
Lonely Ol’ Night, John Mellencamp ✭
I Need A Lover, John Mellencamp ✭
Troubled Man, John Mellencamp ✭
Tears In Vain, John Mellencamp ✭
Wild Night (Alt), John Mellencamp & Meshell Ndegeocello ✭
Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out), The Hombres ✭✭✭
Wild Night, Van Morrison ✭✭✭
Wild Night (Alt), Van Morrison ✭✭
Wild Night (Live), Van Morrison ✭✭