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Loose agents of change

- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2008

This week's issue of the Economist has a heartrending vignette from one of the world's most ruthlessly capitalist industries:

"In 2006 EMI, the world's fourth-biggest recorded-music company, invited some teenagers into its headquarters in London to talk to its top managers about their listening habits. At the end of the session, the EMI bosses thanked them for their comments and told them to help themselves to a big pile of CDs sitting on a table. But none of the teens took any of the CDs, even though they were free."

"That was the moment we realized the game was completely up," an EMI exec told the magazine.

In the United States, album sales for 2007 were 19 percent down on 2006. Don't blame me. I still buy plenty of CDs. But that's because I like Doris Day, and every time I try to insert one of these newfangled MP3s into my fax machine it doesn't seem to play. But if you're not Mister Squaresville and you dig whatever caterwauling beat combo those London hep cats are digging on their iPods, chances are you find the local record store about as groovy as the Elks Lodge.

Now there are generally two reactions to the above story. If you're like me, you're reminded yet again why you love capitalism. It's dynamic. And the more capitalist your economy, the more dynamic it is. Every great success story is vulnerable to the next great success story — which is why teenagers aren't picking their CDs from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. There's a word for this. Now let me see. What was it again?

Oh, yeah: "change." Innovation drives change, the market drives change. Government "change" just drives things away: You could ask many of the New Hampshire primary voters formerly resident in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, between Iowa and New Hampshire, almost every presidential contender found himself lapsing into boilerplate assertions that he was the "candidate of change" — or even, as both Mr. McCain and Hillary Clinton put it, an "agent of change", which sounds far more exotic, as if they're James Bond and Pussy Galore covertly driving the Aston Martin across some international frontier, pressing the ejector burden and dropping a ton of government regulation on some hapless foreigners.

But it's capitalism that's the real "agent of change". Politicians, on the whole, prefer stasis, at least on everything for which they already have responsibility. That's the lesson King Canute was trying to teach his courtiers when he took them down to the beach and let the tide roll in: Government has its limits.

In most of the Western world, the tide is rolling in on demographically and economically unsustainable entitlements, but that doesn't stop politicians getting out their beach chairs and promising to create even more. That's government "change."

What's the second reaction to that EMI story? Perhaps even now John Edwards is rallying the crowd at the last CD mill in America's declining rap belt, comforting the 9-year-old coatless daughter of a laid-off mill worker who started there in 1904 making wax cylinders of the Columbia Male Quartet singing "Sweet Adeline," and later pressed million of 78s of Ukulele Ike singing "Who Takes Care Of The Caretaker's Daughter While The Caretaker's Busy Taking Care?," and millions of 45s of the Swinging Blue Jeans singing "The Hippy Hippy Shake", and millions of CDs of Three 6 Mafia singing "Hit A Mother... ," only to be cut down in his prime and thrown on the scrap heap because Americans have outsourced their record collection to the computer.

"I will never stop fighting for you," Mr. Edwards will be telling them. "No matter how they try to stop me. I feel the spirit of Al Jolson speaking through me. He's saying climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy, though you're 53, Sonny Boy, I'll never stop condescending to you."

Heigh-ho. "They" can try to stop Mr. Edwards, and if by "they" you mean primary voters in New Hampshire, they're doing a pretty good job of it. But what's going on over on the Republican side?

John McCain demonizes Big Pharma — ie, the private pharmaceutical companies that create, develop and manufacture the drugs that all these socialized health-care systems in every corner of the planet utterly depend on. He voted for Sarbanes-Oxley, a quintessential congressional overreaction (to Enron) that buries American companies in wasteful paperwork and hands huge advantages to stock exchanges in London, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

But why stop there? Mr. McCain is also gung ho for all the most economically disruptive Big Government solutions to "climate change." Apparently, that's the only change these candidates aren't in favor of. When it comes to the climate, Mr. McCain and Hillary are agents of nonchange. John McCain has an almost Edwardsian contempt for capitalism, for the people whose wit and innovation generate the revenues that pay for your average small-state senator's Gulf emir-sized retinue of staffers.

As for Mike Huckabee, last seen comparing his success in Iowa to the miracle of the loaves and fishes (New Hampshire, alas, was loaves-and-fishes in reverse: he took his Iowa catch and turned it into one rotting fishhead in Lake Winnipesaukee), in Thursday night's debate he was attacked for raising taxes in Arkansas. "What I raised," riposted the Huckster, "was hope."

Terrific. In a Huckabee administration, nothing is certain but hope and taxes. Did he poll-test the line? Was it originally "What I didn't raise was tobacco?" Or did he misread the line? Did he mean to say "hogs?" Is there any correlation between taxes and hope? If you cut taxes 20 percent, does hope nosedive off the cliff? Not for those of us who were hoping for a tax cut. And is there any evidence that he "raised hope"? Hope of what? Huck's line is a degradation of Franklin D. Roosevelt: We have nothing to hope for but hope itself.

Barack Obama, of course, called it "the audacity of hope." I'll say. Those London music-biz execs must look at primary season and marvel. In what other industry can you clean up with such insipid bromides?

"So what you selling today?"

"Well, we got two products. Over here, on this bare shelf, we've got 'Hope.' And over here, in this entirely empty display cabinet, we've got 'Change.' Or you could go for one of our two-for-one packages, 'The Hope Of Change,' or 'A Change Of Hope.' "

In the midst of the world's lousiest Presidents' Day sale, let us give thanks to the Democratic voters of New Hampshire who took a cooler look at Sen. Barack Obama and decided that the audacity of hope was perhaps less audacious than shameless.

Mr. Obama seems a perfectly pleasant fellow, if somewhat cravenly in thrall to every cobwebbed Democratic piety. However, his platform is platitude piled upon platitude.

As Barack floats off to the gaseous uplands of soft-focus abstract buzzwords, it would be nice if Republicans could have their feet planted on something firmer than Mr. Huckabee's big-government mush. Like those teenagers surveying the table of EMI CDs, grown-up voters should look at the display of anachronistic freebies peddled by politicians singing the same old songs, and coolly walk on by.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain's Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.