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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: What the Boss did for Aussie politics

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Those thinking of emigrating to Australia to improve their standard of living might want to think again in light of Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan's revelation that one of his main influences and economic heroes is rock star Bruce Springsteen.

Swan, who was named 2011 Finance Minister of the Year by Euromoney magazine (the name itself should raise doubts about its judgment) revealed this week that he's been a Springsteen fan since the singer's 1975 breakthrough album Born to Run.

(Swan was 21 then. You'd have to wonder what sort of 21-year-old listens to a rock album, especially one as thrilling as Born to Run, for its economic insights.)

So what exactly are Professor Springsteen's contributions to the "dismal science"? Well, there's this from the title track of his 1980 album The River: "I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company, but lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy."

Now here he seems to have put his finger on the link between the overall health of the economy, the level of economic activity and the circumstances of working people (between macroeconomics and microeconomics if you will.)

Full marks for conciseness, but it seems unlikely that The Boss was the first person to identify this cause and effect relationship.

If this is his best shot, I don't think he should count on adding the Nobel Prize for economics to his 20 Grammy Awards.

To be fair, Swan did elaborate: "You can hear Springsteen singing about the shifting foundations of the US economy which economists took much longer to detect."

He cites as evidence the 1984 song My Hometown: "They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks. Foreman says, 'These jobs are going, boys, and they ain't coming back."'

It's undeniable that a recurring theme in Springsteen's work is that of ordinary people disoriented and displaced by social and economic forces that benefit a detached, cocooned and indifferent elite.

It's also the case that the narratives he uses to illuminate this theme are often set in the American northeast, the states which became known as the rust belt as the decline in large-scale manufacturing led to abandoned factories, population flight, inner-city decay and high levels of unemployment.

But perhaps Swan was really evoking Springsteen and his empathy with working class battlers to flesh out his own public image and remind those on Struggle Street that the Labor Party remains their best bet.

If that's the case then at least he should be given credit for taking the trouble to work out where Springsteen was coming from.

That's more than can be said for Ronald Reagan who wanted to use Born in the USA as the theme song for his flag-waving, chest-beating 1984 presidential campaign.

Springsteen refused permission. He probably couldn't be bothered pointing out that, far from being a celebration of American exceptionalism, the song is actually a bitter condemnation of its treatment of Vietnam War veterans.

There can be few less rewarding endeavours than trying to explain irony to people who can walk past a dinosaur skeleton in a museum without wavering in their conviction that nothing whatsoever existed on earth until God snapped his fingers 5000-odd years ago.

In 2008 another Republican, John McCain, wanted to use John Mellencamp's Pink Houses in his presidential campaign, presumably because it contains the line, "Ain't that America, home of the free."

In fact, Pink Houses is another heavily ironic statement which, as Springsteen has said of the bulk of his output, "measures the distance between the American dream and the American reality".

In this respect Springsteen is echoing the 19th century American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau who wrote in "Economy," the first chapter of his famous meditation Walden, that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation".

Swan provided one example of Springsteen the economist's relevance to contemporary Australia.

He quoted from Badlands - "Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything" - to warn of the growing influence of mining billionaires Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart who seem increasingly inclined to throw their weight and phenomenal wealth around in the media and political arenas.

If you think Swan's being paranoid, consider this from Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, reflecting this week on the influence of money in US elections now that the Supreme Court has overturned a century of legal precedent and convention to allow unrestricted independent political expenditure by corporations and unions.

There was, he said, a very real possibility that the morning after this November's presidential election, 17 angry old white men will gather for breakfast and tell each other, "Hey, we just bought America".

- NZ Herald

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