Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thomas Frank, _Pity the Billionaire:The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right_

THERE IS NO American writer on contemporary society and politics that I read with more relish than I do Thomas Frank. Katha Pollitt I read with, I would say, just as much relish--ironically, she seems to hold his theories in a certain disesteem--and perhaps Jill Lepore, but no one else comes close. Well-shaped sentences, historical depth, originality, a born satirist's instinct for the jugular--that is Mr. Frank.

His books map different parts of the same terrain. A Midwesterner by origin, he has a plains-populist-progressive's instinct that the business elite's main objective is to make as much profit as possible, and that its secondary objective is to create and sustain the political conditions that will enable it to keep making as much profit as possible.  Hence his previous book, The Wrecking Crew, described how lobbyists for various corporate and financial interests have undermined the foundations of federal regulatory oversight, using campaign contributions as leverage.

But, in a representative democracy, how get the voters to elect representatives who will so willingly lend an ear to lobbyists whose interests are inimical to those of the large majority of voters? That was the topic of What's the Matter with Kansas, which argued that the Republican party uses family values/social stability issues (abortion, gay marriage, whip-cracking school reform) to attract the votes of middle America, then uses the legislative power thus gained to advance the corporate agenda.

His latest, Pity the Billionaire, asks why, in the wake of the finance industry's spectacular 2008 demonstration of its proclivity to shit in its own and everybody else's nest, when circumstances seemed at their ripest to re-tooth the SEC and revive Glass-Steagall, did the Republicans run the table in 2010, filling Congress with Tea Partiers who made Goldwater look like a New Dealer?

Well...they moved very quickly and very astutely, it seems.  The real problem, they claimed, was the opportunistic people down the street who borrowed on the (inflated) value of their home to add a too-fancy bathroom. So a pox on them, those awful people down the street who should have known better, but for God's sake, let's not punish the entrepreneurs, the visionaries, the hard-working small-businessmen or geniuses like Steve Jobs, no, no, let's keep the top tax rate low, keep dismantling regulations, keep reducing government spending...and so on.

Is the Right that quick, that smart, that intuitive in reading the minds of the largest swathe of American voters?  Well, maybe.  Frank makes an awfully persuasive case. He's particularly good, for instance, on the cult of Ayn Rand and the push to promote Atlas Shrugged as a prophecy. Pity the Billionaire connects back to his (I think) first book, The Conquest of Cool (and to a film with a comparable point, Tim Robbins's Bob Roberts) and its argument that resentment against the Man can be quickly transmuted into resentment at the government; that resentment at the government, he shows here, can be quickly transmuted into a massively pro-corporate legislative agenda.

Frank is always, to me, persuasive on the mess we're in, and I sometimes wonder if he ever envisions a way out.  This book came out just as the Occupy movement was making news--did he see any grounds for optimism there?

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