Western Swing is dead! Long live Western Swing!

Michael Giberson

Turkey, Texas: Home of Bob Wills
Turkey, Texas: Home of Bob Wills

The Texas Playboys play for the crowd at Bob Wills Day
The Texas Playboys play at Bob Wills Day

Last Saturday my youngest son and I traveled up the road to Turkey, Texas, to catch a part of the annual Bob Wills Day celebration.

Bob Wills is credited along with Milton Brown with pioneering Western Swing in the 1930s. To a degree Wills and Brown and others in the genre were just playing popular dance music in the 1930s – a mix of Swing and big band jazz popular at the time, only doing it in the Southwestern U.S.  Since they were in Texas and Oklahoma and thereabouts, the audiences and the musicians had experience and expectations for music connected to the area’s folk music and cowboy music, so when the bands played popular music it sounded a little different than it did elsewhere.  Sort of a regional accent that grew into a distinct dialect.

Western Swing was a big deal for a while, and not just in the Southwest. Wills spent much of the 1940s living in Hollywood, appearing in and supplying music for popular movies. Nobody really does Western Swing anymore, except as a sort of musical museum piece. Looking around the audience at the afternoon performance of the Texas Playboys, in Turkey, I was younger than most of the crowd by a good twenty years or so. Most of the performers, many of whom had played with Bob Wills in years past, were as old or older than the audience. The demographics don’t look good for the art.

I couldn’t help but feel that Western Swing, if not dead yet, is all but dead. I’m headed to Jazzfest in New Orleans this coming weekend, and some jazz in New Orleans gets performed as museum pieces – dixieland and ragtime the way they did it all those years ago. But jazz is not dead, not dying even. Sure, jazz is no longer the popular music, as it was in the 1930s, but jazz keeps growing and dividing, spawning new music among the dead carcasses of what used to be played.

While Western Swing may be dead as a category of current music, the children of Western Swing are still out there.  No one had played drums on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry until Bob Wills came to town and refused to let his band play without them. Now drums are part of Country music. Honky tonk, Americana, and some forms of country rock can be counted as descendants of Western Swing.

Old English is a dead language, but no doubt many language innovations that came about in Old English are still with us.  Western Swing is like that. The art form is dead, but the innovations of Bob Wills and Milton Brown and their many companions live on.

A problem with market-based approaches to emission reductions

Michael Giberson

Market-based approaches to regulating emissions are the new conventional wisdom, according to Robert Stavins, and it would be hard to disagree. Among proponents of regulating greenhouse gasses in the United States, the big debate is over which of two market-based approaches to regulating emissions should be pursued: emission tax or cap-and-trade. Is anyone proposing “best available control technology”? Market-based approaches have become favored in part because of some high profile successes, notably the cap-and-trade program for SO2, seen as achieving its goal at a considerable cost savings compared to alternative approaches to regulation.

The primary strength of market-based approaches comes from the decentralizing of compliance decision-making, which enables each entity responsible for compliance to pursue the lowest-cost means of meeting the requirement. This strength, though, may also be the biggest problem with market-based approaches, at least when proponents of regulation hope to achieve goals beyond efficiently addressing externalities associated with emissions.

At TNR’s THE VINE, Bradford Plumer asks, “If Carbon Caps Are Coming, Why Mandate Renewables?“, and reports some of the responses he received.  Rich Sweeny asked the same question at Common Tragedies a while back.  In both cases it appears to be the case that proponents of greenhouse gas regulation are worried we might achieve the targeted reductions too easily, i.e. while still burning a lot of coal, not cutting back on consumption, and not garnering enough market share for renewable power. That is to say, some proponents of regulating greenhouse gasses hope to not only to reduce externalities, they have additional preferences about other people’s future energy choices that they want to control through the public policy process.

From Plumer:

Hummel explained that in wholesale electricity markets, the price of carbon would need to get very high—around $60/ton—before pushing dirty coal out onto the margins. So a renewable standard is a good way to manage a steady transition away from coal long before reaching that point.

In the comments responding to Sweeny’s discussion:

Cap and trade purists don’t seem to understand that there is something out here in the real world called an electricity market, and that under any politically viable national cap, coal use is barely touched.

Once we get beyond “internalizing the externality” in economists’ language, or more plainly, once the third party effects of actions are taken care of, the further ambitions of these regulation proponents sound like a bad mix of industrial policy and meddlesome preferences. The problem with market-based approaches, from the point of view of some folks, is that they don’t help enforce these further ambitions for social reform.

Actually, in my view, this “problem” is another great strength of the market-based approach.