The Motorcycle Boy Reigns

The words in the title of this post were written on a wall in Coppola’s Rumble Fish, a movie I must have seen 25 times during a largely misspent adolescence. It’s possible that the movie would hold up if I watched it again, but I don’t want to risk it – it is much more likely that for every one instance of cinematographic brilliance there will be ten cringe-worthy examples of thoughtless juvenilia. No worries though, it’s based on a youth novel by S.E. Hinton and I would expect no less. But, there is a line in the movie spoken by Mickey Rourke as former gangleader Motorcycle Boy, that I will remember as long as I live, “If you’re going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go.”

This is looking like a day for favorites so now we move from a unre-watchable movie to a book that has been an absolute delight to revisit over the past few days, Jacques Barzun’s Dawn to Decadence. Barzun entered Columbia as a child prodigy in the early 1920s, spent a life in academia and then wrote Dawn to Decadence at age 93 as a summary of everything he’s learned. The premise of this brilliant, completely readable magnum opus is that the cultural trends that drove Western dominance from the year 1500 on  – Emancipation, Scientism, Abstraction, Primitivism among twelve dominant themes – have dried up as motivating forces.  Barzun believes (a quick Google search implies he is still alive at age 103) that in the past, the western world enjoyed general agreement on societal goals and has argued primarily about the means to achieve them. Now, however, he believes the consensus has evaporated, leaving the culture treading water amongst shrill bickering.

I re-read seven or eight chapters of Barzun’s book immediately after reading Barry Ritholz’s post HERE, which includes:



If Americans from across the spectrum agree, why aren’t these desires being implemented by our politicians?

Because our politicians are bought and paid for … lock, stock and barrel.

And the powers-that-be are good at using the age-old divide and conquer trick to keep us weak, divided and fighting at each others’ throat … instead of for what we actually want.

But ultimately, the main reason that we are impotent is that we don’t realize that the overwhelming majority of Americans want the same things we do.


Ritholz’s post appears to contradict Barzun’s assumption of a lack of consensus but here, for possibly the first time in history, the words of Mickey Rourke provide the unifying bridge.  The agreement Ritholz points to is primary one of opposition. We agree on what we don’t like – bank bailouts, political and financial corruption, fraud and inefficient government spending. What we can’t agree on is what we’d like to see replace the current status quo. We don’t like where we’ve been but don’t have any place to go.

This is not a cultural environment where leadership arises so, as hard as it is to watch, we get to see one presidential candidate who doesn’t think “fancy book learnin’” is a requirement for the job and another who’s desperately trying to hide the fact they actually know things. Barzun, I am sure, is nodding grimly at the debates in recognition that they revolve almost entirely around “antis” – immigration, government, the Fed, Muslims, abortion, etc, etc, etc. As near as I can tell the Republicans are not “for” anything, except possibly the process of capitalism, which they like primarily because it will result in “less” government. (I am not, to be clear, advocating the “more” case where government is concerned. You could argue also that the GOP is “for” military action, but that hardly contradicts my nihilism-based accusations).

I can’t recommend Barzun’s book or Barry Ritholz’s columns highly enough but at the same time I refuse to accept the notion of the inevitable implosion of Western culture. We will, though, have to spend more time fighting for things instead of strapping on the blue or red team jersey and going to war to stop the other side.  In the spirit of the season, I’m asking nicely, and all of us I think have at least a tiny role in this, start talking less about what you hate, and start talking more about “better” because it is entirely likely that we will get the leadership we deserve until we do.

5 thoughts on “The Motorcycle Boy Reigns

  1. Jim MacDonald says:

    That’s not a Ritholtz post, per se. It is a re-posting of a post on Washington’s blog:

    However, I echo your sentiment about the quality of Barry’s blog.

  2. Mario says:

    agreed Int. We need to in favor of something new rather than just upset with what is. However the biggest deterrent to getting new ideas is that everyone (most everyone) believes that debt to gdp ratios actually mean a whole lot more than really do. Everyone is so deathly afraid of the government not getting enough revenue each year and “borrowing” too much from China or whoever that they are totally paralyzed thinking they cannot do anything to advance the nation except austerity measures….we do have our grandkids to think about with all that Chinese debt (as if you and I paid all the outstanding debts we owed to Germany and England and France after world war 1 and wW 2 or some nonsensical thought like that).

    The truth is federal deficits ONLY matter in regards to inflation. That’s it! Operationally the only concern is inflation. Politically and by preference the other issue is the size and scope of government. However federal deficits are created and destroyed by either two ways….taxes or spending. Conservatives can agree with lower taxes across the board and Liberals can agree to increasing spending in various areas and ways. Both are operationally possible RIGHT NOW so long as we monitor and appropriately address demand-pull inflationary concerns (note that cost-push inflation HAS NOTHING to do with federal deficit levels).

    This means that we can do a few key things RIGHT NOW and still be totally cool and make everyone happy:

    #1. Full and Permanent FICA tax holiday for both employees and employers (and still keep SS benefits going as they are today….perhaps even a bit better than today’s rates).

    #2. Destroy the corporate charter of the Fed and make it an official and complete government entity just like the Treasury, Dept. of Defense, etc.

    #3. Get ALL THOSE FREAKING BANKERS out of the Fed.

    #4. Merge the Fed and Treasuries balance sheets so that PRIMARY DEALERS ARE NO LONGER NECESSARY for the government to spend.

    #5. Create a jobs program to always be in place and available at say $10/hr. for anyone willing and able to work all paid for by the federal government plus health benefits. The work would be delegated at both the local community level, various non-profit orgs, as well as the state and federal levels. This creates a floor of support and aggregate demand in the economy and buoy consumer spending along with doing many other supportive and competitive elements for the economy.

    These can all be done within 1-6 months of drafting and discussion and implementation and will greatly help to set things going right. Spread the word and get more people onto MMT and how our economy actually works so that more people can really think about policy ideas and real productive changes to make our nation great again. Cheers

  3. PD says:


    There are a few and appropriate critiques on this blog of today’s broadcast media outlets. Former Smithsonian historian and multi-literary prize winner Daniel Boorstin made similar critiques in the shadows of Kennedy’s 1960 win over Nixon of those media in “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America”.

    In a hyper-information period where minute, sometimes meaningless, details become media fodder, The Image provides a good perspective of how we got to where we were in 1960. From Kodak’s visual innovations to the advent of celebrities to color television, this small book gives a history that by happenstance foretold where we are now. The internet “news” outlets, the so-called 24-hour news cycle and many more phenomena in many ways manifest his points.

    If anyone wants to know how we got here, this is a good place to start. If someone else has suggestions, please offer.

    Enjoy the read, if you do.

  4. brmr says:

    Hi, Int

    Been following this blog since inception on a regular basis and am quite amazed by the quality of the post and the tone. Keep up the good work.

    As a student of history I’ve noticed that what many refer to as decline of empires not in absolute but as a relative term. Most often it’s the stagnation of said region in economic terms or political disintegration one leading to the the other as both are entwined at the hip ( thus the term political economy).
    Most often when a nation/empire is well off the political class talks about the greatness of the that and rest on past laurels, and are more concerned about being one up over the other side than looking forward to the future ( being complacent).
    It seems to me that we are seeing those symptoms in the current political debates ( that USA is great nation on earth and all we need to do is get govt out of capitalism or capitalism and unencumbered corp orates are the root of all evil neither of which is completely true)These symptoms and their causes are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the decline. They may lead to stagnation while other countries or regions power on ahead.

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