Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thomas Frank's "Pity the Billionaire:" Our World Then and Now



It's been awhile since I've read and reviewed an explicitly political work, and not one that has politics as a mere fictional theme or as part of a more encompassing message. My last major political book review was of Michael Wolraich's Blowing Smoke, a humorous look at conservative paranoia. I made my points, generally enjoyed the reading experience, and Mr. Wolraich was kind enough to link and cite my review on his own site. At the time, I made a passing note about the reading being slightly odd, since I knew going in that it would speak to the liberal views that I already held. The way the current political climate has evolved (or regressed, depending on the angle), it seems even more strange that I would expect Thomas Frank's Pity the Billionaire to teach me anything I don't already know. This is my first reading of one of his works, after having seen him interviewed many times on television and in documentaries. My hope was to find a logical and contemporary historical narrative, since the focus of the book is on the rise of the Tea Party and the conservative reaction to the economic crisis. Also, just based on the aforementioned interviews, he struck me as an intelligent commentator on politics, and not just for entertainment's sake. People on the left and the right seem to be far too drawn to memes and soundbites, and I wanted to consume something more detailed, going beyond scrolling through humorous photograph captions and clicking "share."

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right manages to be both entertaining and informative, and presents its critiques in a manner that presents genuine constructive criticism alongside the recent developments that led to the Tea Party coming into being in the first place. In his critiques, he acknowledges the Tea Party as a legitimate (albeit flawed) movement.

"So let us give the rebels their due. Let us acknowledge that the conservative comeback of the last few years is indeed something unique in the history of American social movements: a mass conversion to free-market theory as a response to hard times. Before the present economic slump, I had never heard of a recession's victims developing a wholesale taste for neoclassical economics or a spontaneous hostility to the works of Franklin Roosevelt. Before this recession, people who had been cheated by bankers almost never took that occasion to demand that bankers be freed from 'red tape' and the scrutiny of the law. Before 2009, the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht (Frank 3)."

Frank's main argument is that yes, people should have been outraged and incensed after the government bank bailouts, but this anger morphed into an inexplicable wrath against the government. This reminds me of one of my favorite hypocrisies of conservative opposition to liberalism, in that a group that claims to be anti-government is quick to call people who even question our current state to be anti-American. In another twist, Frank argues, the conservative base quickly adopted the traits that they love to scoff at in liberal terms, namely portraying themselves as victims. Again, while Frank is critical, he doesn't stoop to name-calling, but rather highlights certain forms of hypocrisy. In a recent conversation, a friend of mine explained why she believed that, in a perfect world, people who support the Occupy movements and people who support the Tea Party would join together for a joint cause. Given the intense divergence in ideologies, I didn't know how this would work or make sense, but a key passage by Frank gives a great example as to how that would potentially work. The Occupy movement began as a critique of the bailouts and as a movement against money in politics. No matter what political ideology one subscribes to, the passage below should cause outrage:

"To believe in the fairness of the system was just as naive. The awful but unmistakable message of the bailouts was that the lords of Wall Street owned the government. Once they had got themselves in trouble, they simply whistled up the resources of the public treasury: our tax money. Federal agencies, we now learned, were honeycombed with alumni and future employees of the banks; Washington's officials all bowed before Wall Street's self-serving economic ideology; both parties were in on it (Frank 33-34)."

This is where it all went wrong for the Tea Party, blaming the government instead of the corporate greed that started this mess to begin with, and, despite its supposed abhorrence of social issues, becoming merely an extreme form of regular conservatism. Frank occasionally presents humorous asides to these developments. For example, a section of the book explores the ways in which a "grassroots, people-centered" movement was quick to be exploited for monetary benefits.

"The most famous example was the National Tea Party Convention, held in Nashville in February of 2010, which featured an appearance by Sarah Palin and charged attendees $549 each. What's more, the sponsoring organization turned out to be a for-profit outfit headed by a man who was reportedly trying to set up a kind of Facebook-style web empire for wingers. 'What was celebrated here in Nashville,' wrote the journalist Will Bunch, after cataloging the trinkets for sale there, 'wasn't so much the coming out of the conservative movement as the commoditization of it (Frank 77).'"


A notable aspect of Thomas Frank's writing is that he never hesitates to critique the liberal movement, too. With all of the problems still facing this country, a majority of politicians seem (to use the 'phrase du jour') out of touch. While the bailouts and the recession have hurt everyone, Republicans and Tea Partiers tend to misplace blame and priorities, while Democrats tend to be like most politicians and acknowledge problems without any concrete solutions. As I've mentioned before, both political parties have their share of problems, but in the documentation of crises and new social movements, I have never read a conservative opinion that critiques itself or offers any sort of acknowledgement of the left's concerns. Frank's critiques of Democrats is part of the bigger picture, that the party systems almost never solve anything, and as a people, we're reduced to name calling.

"The effects of a wrenching recession, on the other hand, aren't likely to touch the new, well-to-do Democrats directly. They know bad things are happening, yes; they express concern and promise to help the suffering, of course; but the urgency of the recession is not something they feel personally (Frank 182)."

I did have some critiques of the book. Given its publication date (January of this year), there's only a faint mention of the Occupy movements, a subject I would love for Frank to explore in book form. Also, many pages are devoted to Glenn Beck, and critiques of his former show and bluster have been documented enough to be familiar, not adding any real, new insights into his conservative scaremongering. But the overall message is concise, even with the many asides that pop up from chapter to chapter (for example, there's one of the best critiques and explanations of Ayn Rand's writings and philosophy and how her ideas have become beacons for the right wing). And while it serves to point out the hypocrisies and faults of the Tea Party, its historical examples would be best served to remind Occupiers of the reasons why the Occupy movement started: money in politics and the criminal activities of Wall Street and big banks. As my aforementioned friend also mentioned, the newest incarnations of the Occupy movements have been trying to encompass too many objectives and ideologies, and would be best served returning to its roots. This is another argument and should be the basis of other essays. Frank closes the book with a downright scary hypothesis of conservative ideals going further and further, being just satirical enough to be plausible:

"Before long they will have discovered that certain once-uncontroversial arms of the state must be amputated immediately. One fine day in the near future, it will dawn on them that the FDIC, for example, just delivers bailouts under another name; that the lazy man down the street should no more get his money back when his bank fails than when the housing market fell apart. What are interstate highways and national parks, they will ask, but wasteful subsidies for leeches who ought to be paying their way? What is disaster relief but a power grab by the losers who can't get themselves out of the path of a hurricane? And though public schools have been under assault for decades on charges of rampant secularism, the time is not far off when the freeloading by poor kids will be the factor that galls our leaders the most (Frank 187)."

Some who agree with the examples in this book may argue that Frank, like any political commentator, doesn't offer his own solutions to the problems. While this is true in theory, sometimes exposing said problems is a way to offer solutions, the old adage of "those doomed to repeat history." Where will we be in five or ten years? If the conservative movement has its way, it might not be a pretty picture. Overall, this is a fascinating, informative look at the movement, but again, it's a virtual guarantee that any conservative who reads it will be unmoved. Perhaps I'm adding to the problem myself by reading and promoting works that fit into my worldviews, but again, let's acknowledge that the system is still very flawed. How can this be changed? Conversation starters are great, but they have to grow into something more.

UPDATE 5/8/12: The fine people at Macmillan Books reached out to me to offer an accompanying sample of an audio version of Pity the Billionaire, read by Mr. Frank himself. Click here for a listen.

Work Cited:
Frank, Thomas. Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback Of the Right. Copyright 2012 by Thomas Frank.

No comments: