Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right Hardcover – Jan 3 2012
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"No one fools Thomas Frank, who is the sharpest, funniest, most intellectually voracious political commentator on the scene. In Pity the Billionaire he has written a brilliant exposé of the most breath-taking ruse in American political history: how the right turned the biggest capitalist breakdown since 1929 into an opportunity for themselves." —Barbara Ehrenreich
"Tom Frank has the Tea Parties in his sights! Brisk and searing and deeply informed by the lessons of history (shocking notion!), Frank's latest guide for the perplexed is nothing less than a precious gift to us. Read it, and finally—You. Will. Understand." —Rick Perlstein
"Thomas Frank has crossed the Styx and returned to sing of the tortured, tormented souls of the Tea Party and their sufferings in the Socialist America they have conjured from thin air. This he does with grace, style and humor, which not all of his subjects share. Be glad that in this election year you can read Pity the Billionaire instead of turning on the television or the radio or your computer. Pity the Billionaire? Hell. Pity us all." —James K. Galbraith
“Thomas Frank is the thinking person’s Michael Moore. If Moore, the left-wing filmmaker, had Frank’s Ph.D. (in history from the University of Chicago), he might produce books like this one.” –Michael Kinsley, The New York Times Book Review
“A feisty and galvanizing book… This is the kind of analysis - historically astute, irreverent and droll - that makes Frank such an invaluable voice. As he's done in a series of perceptive books, Frank cuts through the partisan blather and explains how money and cynical ideas shape a certain kind of contemporary politics. "Pity the Billionaire" is further evidence that he's as good at this as any writer working today.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“An astonishing story…Frank is one of the best leftwing writers America has produced.”–The Guardian
“Thomas Frank writes English and not the chat of the pundits and mainstream columnists. He has learned things from Twain and Mencken, but the cartooning in this book is if anything restrained…The country is in suspense, from causes of which Pity the Billionaire gives a highly convincing account.” –Guardian Books
“A spirited, acerbic, stylish exploration of the Republican resurrection.” –Boston Globe
“Thomas Frank lays out with biting wit how today's conservatives co-opted that symbol and forged a pseudopopulist front to defend the enablers of market failure… A guide to help real populists elude their saboteurs.” –Mother Jones
“An insightful, bitingly humorous book.” –Kirkus Reviews
“No figure on the American left knows more about the American right than Thomas Frank: columnist, editor, and hawkeyed observer of conservatism high and low.” –Christian Science Monitor
“Frank’s wit is as sharp as ever, and his eye for detail and his ability to capture a scene reminded me of reading zoologist Dian Fossey on a group of strange political primates.” –Washington Post
“A road map for everyone who wonders, while watching the hodgepodge of Republican presidential candidates: How the heck did all this happen?” –Fortune
“Forget “What’s the matter with Kansas?” The question Frank goes on the road to investigate this time is: What the f**k is wrong with America? Short-sighted fiscal policies have tanked the economy Great Depression–style, millions are jobless, foreclosures are at record highs, and pizza has been declared a vegetable. Why aren’t the adorable heads of the conservative-right wingdings behind much of the mess stuffed on pikes outside the White House? Is a good portion of the country suffering from Stockholm syndrome? Did somebody put something in our tea? What, pray tell, are the victims of these catastrophic policies thinking as they stand outside Arby’s banging out “She’s a Grand Old Flag” on their tin cups? Read the book. Tom Frank, as ever, makes some wickedly clever observations and produces some surprising answers.” –Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
About the Author
Thomas Frank is the author of Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter with Kansas?, and One Market Under God. A former opinion columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and a monthly columnist for Harper's. He lives outside Washington, D.C.See all Product Description
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"Pity the Billionaire" covers even more astonishing recent developments. It is one thing to have people prostrate themselves before the "free-market god" prior to 2008. But when it became "the god that failed" to reference Arthur Koestler's book about his eventual disillusionment with communism, and the entire house of cards came tumbling down, then how could Americans be calling for yet a purer version of the "free market," effectively doubling down on their bets? Why didn't they throw the rigid ideology of the supremacy of the "free market" into the dust bin of history, along with communism? Frank does a superlative job illuminating how this most unlikely occurrence unfolded.
He reminds us that we have seen this 2008 movie before: The Great Depression. The excesses of the "Roaring `20's," including highly leveraged speculation on Wall Street, led to massive unemployment, foreclosures, and a decade of hard times. The answer in the `30's commenced by realizing where the problem lay. Prudent rules and laws were enacted to preserve what is still labeled "capitalism," and to tame the "casino mentality." FDR, the "traitor to his own class," talked directly to the workers and the dispossessed, and put many to work in public works projects. The elites were largely vilified, and FDR "welcomed their hatred."
The essence of Frank's work is explaining why there was no rerun of this movie. Most events unfolded in the open, before our eyes. Many mouths gaped that such brazen and implausible events could be pulled off. There was Rick Santelli, a business report, convincing us the "common working man" was the trader at the Chicago Board of Trade. Don't focus on Wall Street, and the trillions required to save their sorry... no, shift the focus to the neighbor who bought the house with the extra bedroom and couldn't afford it. Should you bail out your neighbor for his/her imprudence? Frank discusses the "genius" of Glenn Beck, at length. (It was a variation of "I watch Glenn Beck so you don't have to") - yet Frank nags us that we really must watch him (hopefully only in small doses.) History is constantly re-written; fears like Wells' "invasion of the Martians" are constantly stoked. The problem was not the bonus culture of Wall Street; no, it was big government, and their promotion of housing for the poor. Beck, a consummate actor, can cry when required ... of course, all the way to the bank. Ayn Rand even experiences a revival. Frank details how the Tea Party's righteous anger resulting from the "free-market" failures were channeled at the wrong targets. In fact, as Frank explains, many of the populist forms of rebellion in the `30's were coopted and adopted by the Right after 2008; history resonating inversely. Of the numerous cases Frank cites, it would be hard to trump the sheer chutzpah of Massey Energy's CEO, Don Blankenship, who sponsored a rally to announce solidarity between coal miners and the coal operators, all directed at "getting government bureaucrats off their backs," with their safety and environmental meddling; eight months afterward, 29 miners were killed in an explosion in one of his mines (p 91.)
As so many now know, Obama is no FDR. Starting right from the beginning, when he selected key Wall Street "players" who were instrumental in causing the catastrophe and expecting them to fix it: Summers and Geithner. In contrast, FDR chose a classic populist of a Texas banker, Jesse Jones to run the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (FRC). This time around, "compromise" instead of "welcoming their hatred" was the dominant outlook. I've marked many passages in this book. One that seemed to capture the essence of the triumph of the conservative revival related to the debate on universal health care. The Democrats were unable, or too intimidated to articulate that essential health care is a fundamental right. As Frank says: "It was as though the old-school liberal catechism had become forbidden language, placed on some index of prohibited thoughts" (p. 169).
Inexplicably, Frank does not cover the recent countervailing rise of the "Occupy" movement. And he does end on a down note, suggesting further targets, such as the national parks, the highways, public schools and Social Security are on the Right's agenda as the "nation clambers down through the sulfurous fumes into the pit called utopia..." Still, the increased hubris generated by successfully avoiding the penalty for an ideological failure should only mean that the fall will be that much the greater, the next time around.
Frank has written a worthy sequel to "Kansas," a 5-star effort.
Oliver Wendell Holmes (a Republican) once famously said: "Taxation is the price we pay for civilization," by which he meant that taxation is how we fund government which is a necessity for civilization. On the basis of the Republican debates I have watched so far I have concluded that all of the Republican candidates seem to have trouble with the concept of "civilization" as we know it in the western world - i.e. a political system providing a safety net for all of its citizens. It's every man for himelf, buddy.
Mr. Frank spends a lot of time exploring the incredible ideology of the Far Right and how they came by it. They inhabit a very separate world - almost a parallel universe. What kind of misapprehension permits the Right to brush off truths that everyone else can see so plainly? That the great crash of 2008 was caused, not by too much regulation over business, but by lack of any effective regulation at all (repeal of the New Deal regulatory laws has been going on for over 30 years!) That critics of the bailouts were responsible for those bailouts.That Ayn Rand is not the hero but the villain of this disaster. Other examples of conservatism's "dalliance with error" abound. The long embarassing story of the evolution debate or the global warming controversy or the Bush administration's various campaigns against government scientists and those who doubted the official rationale for the Iraq War, or their long love affair with "supply side economics" despite that theory's persistent failure to work.
We could put a spotlight on the outright falsehoods that the conservative movement lists among its articles of faith: that FDR's policies either caused or worsened the Great Depression - the incredible popularity of this man who was elected to 4 terms certainly gives lie to this canard; that progressives have been in control of the nation ever since the days of Woodrow Wilson; that George Bush was just "pretending" to be a conservative; that bond traders are "ordinary workers"; that the government (and not the banks) bears the entire responsibility for the mortgage meltdown; and those 3 really wierd and idiotic ideas regarding Obama's place of birth, his "secret army", and who wrote his first book!
Some liberals like to apply the word "liar" to the leaders of the Right, but that's not the whole story. There have been attempts to deceive and even deliberate misrepresentation from time to time. More disturbingly, however, there is a certain remoteness from reality, a kind of "politized groupthink, " that seems to get worse each year as the Right withdraws even further into a fantasy world of its own.
Only late in the book does Frank get to the shortcomings of the Obama adminstration. In a nutshell the great Democratic Party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, no longer exists. It has been corrupted by money. In 2008 Obama received over 3.5 million dollars in contributions from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc., UBS AG, and Morgan Stanley (they gave a little over a million to McCain!) The "economic royalists" are well entrenched in the "party of the people." That is why, in this crisis brought on by Wall Street, Obama responded, not like FDR, but like Herbert Hoover! Where are the criminal prosecutions? Where is Ferdinand Pecora?
Frank concludes his book with a short and frightening chapter entitled: "Trample the Weak." In 1944 the Hungarian historian Karl Polanyi told the story of what he called the utopian idea of the self-regulating market - and of what happened when theorists and dreamers tried to put that utopia into effect. To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings . . . would result in the demolition of society.
"Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized,the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed."
In those days the experience of the depression had just persuaded the world to forswear any further pursuit of that deadly free-market dream. Society periodically and instinctively tried to defend itself against the depredations of the market and the world assumed this pattern was a natural one. Another economic crisis, and you'de get another New Deal. But this time around we saw a new pattern develop. After the market vandalized American society along the lines Polanyi described, society fairly begged to be trashed again . . . Trample the weak instead of coddling them."
Moneyed interests understand that with no second FDR, no incorruptible new cop on the financial beat, no return to the rules that once made the banking business boring but safe, they have nothing to fear from us and may do as they please. But the scenario that should concern us most is what will happen when the new Right gets their hands on the machinery of government. They are the same old wrecking crew as their predecessors but now there is a swaggering, in your face brazenness to their sabotage. We got a taste of their vision when they reconquered the House of Representatives in 2010 and immediately cracked down on the Securities and Exchange Commission, the regulatory agency charged with preventing fraud on Wall Street!
Given the chance to actually run the government of the most complex economy on earth like a small business, they will slam the brakes on spending and level the regulatory state. Dare we even guess at the consequences?
At all other times in American history when there has been an economic bust or crisis middle and working class Americans generally blamed conservative politics, the financial elite, and the capitalist system. They reacted by advocating economic and political reforms in opposition to the policies favoring the rich including increasing unionization, increasing financial regulation, and social policies to weaken the harsher consequences of the capitalist market system.
Now, despite the outrageous financial shenanigans of Wall Street and its conservative friends in business and government, the reaction has been in support of even more free-market behavior, less regulation, less government involvement in the economy, and less consumer protection.
At a minimum, this is a strange phenomenon.
In 189 pages covering 12 (total)chapters, Mr. Frank explains quite clearly how this reaction is irrational in so many ways in regard to the objective interests of these supporters. He explains how these people are favoring the same or even more extreme policies and behaviors which already have cost them their jobs, pensions, 401(k) balances, medical insurance, homes, and which have contributed mightily to the depletion of the U.S. Treasury on top of all that.
Here are some of his hypotheses of why this has happened:
-These people are merely lashing out, as they traditionally do, against the party in power at the time of the economic crisis (the Democrats) and associates its platform with the crisis
-There is some modest evidence of a white racist reaction against our first black president and a party made up of much diversity
-The reaction is merely an extension of the culture wars now focused on economics and finance instead of social issues like abortion, sexual orientation, and the like
-These people are being emotionally manipulated by the financial elite through fear mongering and other tactics designed to obtain support for policies favoring the financial elite class
-Some portion of this group is made up of paranoid types which want to see conspiracies and dangers everywhere and they have been inflamed by the media, especially Glenn Beck and other bombastic sorts.
-This is a values-based reaction to targets which may or not be responsible for what they see as the declining character of American society
Mr. Frank digs broadly and fairly deeply into the specifics of each of these hypotheses. He examines in great details the influence of the bombastic media types, the behind-the-scenes financial support and stirrings up by big conservative ideologues, the deeply rooted fears and anxieties of these classes of people becoming more and more marginalized in the economy, the resentment of the less educated against what they see as the "intellectual elite," and some people's disposition for conspiracy theory.
The conservative financial elite seems to have created or merely shaped an idealistic "story" of populist rebellion against what the author sees as the absolutely wrong targets. But those targets-the Democratic Party, progressives, intellectuals, etc.-have not fought back, or have been reacting only passively and ineffectively. President Obama is described as emotionally aloof and prone to compromise, even as the opposition holds firm to uncompromising principles.
Despite offering a bunch of possible explanations, Mr. Frank doesn't find definite or satisfactory reasons for this anomalous behavior by so many. He is befuddled and has no suggestions how other like-minded people to him should respond. He sees a severe downside to the country if the conservative Republican Party wins the Presidency and Congress in 2012 when the government is likely to be even more downsized, less able to restrain the financial elite, and will dismantle even more of the safety net which supports middle and working classes.
One can't fault Mr. Frank for failing to come up with answers; he deserves credit for his good reporting, his attention to journalistic details, and his sense of logic and absurdity.
(FTC disclosure (16 CFR Part 255)): The reviewer has accepted a reviewer's copy of this book which is his to keep. He intends to provide an honest, independent, and fair evaluation of the book in all circumstances.)
I picked the book up because I liked the title and the synopsis, and because I'm a Democrat. At least, I was. I think. I was both confused and hurt by my party's refusal or inability to present a united liberal front, and protect us from Wall Street and insurance providers and Republicans who looked at the debt ceiling and thought of Samson and the temple of the Philistines.
But I voted for Obama. I support a social safety net and government regulation of business. I think Glenn Beck is a bad, bad man. So I'm a Democrat, right? Then I should read this book to find out about the comeback of the Right.
And I was right, I should have read this book. This book is marvelous: it slams the Right, and the 1%, and the Tea Party, and the American people who embraced a conservative ideology just after a financial crisis showed why there is a need for strong regulation and a useful social safety net. Thomas Frank gives a dozen reasons, a hundred, why America should have swerved to the left following the Great Recession, which was brought on by Republican-driven deregulation of the financial industry; and he points in amazement, and no little disgust, at the evidence that this country did no such thing, that, in fact, we slammed that wheel hard right and made John Boehner Speaker of our House.
I had great fun reading about this colossal folly. But through most of the book, I was wishing I could hear something else: why? I wanted to know why the people of this country have done exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Why have we embraced the free market ideology when that's precisely what devastated our economy? Why have we elected, and continued to support, politicians who are so clearly in the pockets of big business? That was my only complaint about this well-written, hard-hitting, meticulously researched, engaging, informative book. It told me a lot, but it didn't tell me why.
Then I got to the end, and found out why. The reason the Right's extreme and fanatically orthodox ideology has been effective despite the lessons of history and all conventional political wisdom is because the ideology of the Left has simply and entirely vanished. It's our fault, those of us who call ourselves Democrats, who call ourselves liberals; because we should have been calling ourselves populists, and we have not. And so our inspiring and visionary president let all of our ideals go in compromises with zealots. And our candidates proved incapable of dealing with misinformed blowhards at Town Hall meetings, incapable even of defeating Scott Brown for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. And the greatest populist uprising of our time, the Occupy Wall St. movement, was allowed simply to fade into the dust, when nobody on the Left rose to take up that torch, and lead the people of this country, who are crying out for help, for protection from the union-busting free-market capitalists destroying us.
It's our fault. We lost our ideology, we lost our way, we lost our zeal and our passion -- and so, at least for the moment, we've lost our country. The last chapter of this book was the most frightening thing I've read in years -- and I read Stephen King.
Read this book, please. All the way to the end.
Then somebody find me a new political party. One where the grass roots have not been trampled into the mud.
In the Introduction, "A Time of Signs and Wonders," Frank presents the book as "a chronicle of a confused time, a period when Americans rose up against imaginary threats and rallied to economic theories they understood only in the gauziest terms. It is about a country where fears of a radical takeover became epidemic even though radicals themselves had long since ceased to play any role in the national life; a land where ideological nightmares conjured by TV entertainers seemed more vivid and compelling than the contents of the news pages. Seen from another perspective, this is a chronicle of a miraculous time, of another 'Great Awakening'..." (p. 1)*, which Frank proceeds to explore in the rest of the book. Without partisan rancor, and with no small amount of irony and humor, he puts his finger on why it feels so crazy in the U.S. now. It's all a deliberate sleight of hand, Frank tells us, a game of three-card monte perpetrated on the American people that none of us will win.
In these pages, Frank gives us a lot to think about, but I want to highlight one thing that struck me as quite profound and important. I remember listening to then-president George W. Bush talking about the opposing political party and thinking, "Am I nuts, or is he talking about himself and his own party?" At the time, I told myself it had to be psychological projection (google it); but after reading Frank's book, I'm beginning to wonder. Chapter 7, entitled "Mimesis," begins with this striking clue as to why today's conservative movement has managed to hang on despite its jaw-dropping destructiveness:
"Mimicry is a familiar phenomenon in the animal kingdom, where certain moths have developed spots on their wings that look like the eyes of an owl, inoffensive bugs fly about in black and yellow stripes, and harmless snakes have learned, over the millennia, to frighten predators by shaking their tails in dead leaves.... And in human affairs, we have a conservative movement that has learned, over the decades, to mimic many of the characteristics of its enemies" (p. 113)!
In what Frank refers to as the "I'm-rubber-you're-glue school of disputation," the purpose is to "sow confusion." (I don't know about you, but I've been confused as all get-out by the happenings of 21st century America, where what we seem to be seeing is "a deliberate cognitive withdrawal from the shared world" [p. 155].) Why anyone would do this is fascinating to consider. Frank explores the motivation in a way that makes it all make sense. Now I think maybe George W. Bush and the leaders of his party are a whole lot smarter than liberals and progressives have given them credit for.
I hope to see some good bipartisan discussions of "Pity the Billionaire" on Google+. No matter which party you affiliate with, you dismiss this one at your peril.
*Note: Citations are taken from an advanced readers copy/proof and should be checked against the final published book.