Breakingviews - Cox: Betonomics would have certain punk-rock edge

PARIS (Reuters Breakingviews) - Beto O’Rourke is a vessel into which many Democrats are pouring their hopes for the next American president. They are attracted by the vibe of integrity, youthful energy, courage and intellect the Texas congressman emits. He has not, however, offered much in the way of detailed policy: No white papers, no prescriptive manifestoes. He is even elusive on some basic questions, like where he stands on healthcare reform. As for the economy, who knows?

Supporters of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke cheer as they await his arrival at his midterm election night party in El Paso, Texas, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Even so, it is possible to sketch out some semblance of what Betonomics might entail by examining the work of one of his idols. Look beyond the lodestar of the far-left, Karl Marx; John Maynard Keynes, a conventional source of centrist guidance; and Ayn Rand, the darling of conservatives like former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

Instead, consider Ian MacKaye.

He may be from inside the Beltway, but MacKaye is a Washington, D.C. native more familiar to Generation X college students than America’s political class. In the hagiographic profile of O’Rourke that Vanity Fair published to coincide with the candidate’s announcement of a 2020 White House run, he said of MacKaye: “I have so much reverence for him and he means so much to me in my life.” Your humble columnist can relate.

MacKaye fronted two seminal bands categorised as independent, or underground, rock during the last two decades of the 20th Century: Minor Threat and Fugazi. As influential as the music he produced was, it was more the ethos MacKaye and his bandmates adopted toward their craft that resonated. Fugazi was effectively a startup from which valuable lessons in governance, business and sustainability might be inferred about the way an O’Rourke administration will approach the American economy.

Fugazi capitalism would be inclusive, consumer-friendly and ethical. It would favor the interests of small businesses over corporations. It would reject cronyism. As O’Rourke described MacKaye, he “really did represent this super-ethical way, not just of being in a band, or running a label, or putting on shows, but of just living.”

MacKaye co-founded Minor Threat in the nation’s capital at the start of Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution in 1980. Though the band was inspired by the fast-paced thrash of the city’s own Brad Brains and California hardcore punk outfits like Circle Jerks and Black Flag, MacKaye added a different, quasi-political, dimension, known as “straight edge.”

Though it was essentially MacKaye’s personal philosophy of not drinking alcohol or taking drugs – inspired, ironically enough, by right-wing rocker Ted Nugent’s own abstentions – straight edge became something of a subculture among young punk rockers in the early 1980s. “I saw so many adults who were just such a mess as a kid. And I remember just thinking ‘I don’t want to be a part of that at all. Period,’” MacKaye told a radio interviewer five years ago.

That ideology also extended to decrying violence, even among the pogoing and slam-dancing fans who turned out to Minor Threat and, later, Fugazi concerts, as well as racism and sexism. “We don’t play shows that discriminate against people,” he told Michael Azerrad, whose 2001 book “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” surely commands a spot in O’Rourke’s library.

Years before companies talked of social responsibility or brandished acronyms like ESG and CSR to signal their virtue, MacKaye had incorporated doing good into Fugazi’s business model. The band donated to local charities and nonprofit organisations championing prison reform, health and AIDS clinics, and shelters for the homeless. “Fugazi’s particularly dogmatic slant emphasized pragmatism, modesty, and fair play – not the first concepts that come to mind when discussing the indisputably punk rock Sex Pistols, for example,” Azerrad wrote.

Fugazi also insisted on playing all-ages shows, keeping ticket prices to no more than $5 and selling records for $10 max. In this way, the band created a supportive community, something like the so-called third pillar that University of Chicago economist Raghuram Rajan argues in his new book is needed to sustain capitalism alongside markets and the state. The band didn’t hire roadies and slept on the couches and in the spare bedrooms of friends and fans.

This do-it-yourself approach started in 1980, when MacKaye cofounded Dischord Records to release his band’s first disc. Dischord is still in business today. Even when Fugazi touched the charts and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” took punk mainstream, Fugazi declined to sign with a major label, which would have insisted on raising ticket and album prices. Their 1989 release “13 Songs” has since gone triple platinum.

Given all this, a Betonomics platform would likely champion policies that favor small businesses and startups. More robust antitrust laws and enforcement could be one consequence, and is already a key plank for many of the Democrats aiming to oust Donald Trump. Another idea might be to make corporate taxes more progressive, so that massive companies pay more to Uncle Sam, and thus foster entrepreneurial competitors. More inclusive workplace policies also might warrant some financial breaks in an O’Rourke plan. And anyone left on the right worrying about spending might like a MacKaye-like, bare-bones approach to big government, too.

O’Rourke’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, are well ahead of him with detailed prescriptions on how to make American capitalism more equitable. Preaching some version of Fugazi free enterprise would be one way to set himself apart from the pack. Whether that would work in must-win states like Iowa is hard to say. The last time Fugazi played Des Moines was in November 1998. It was an all-ages show. The ticket cost $5. Not a penny more.


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