Pity the Billionaire

By Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank just doesn’t get it. He asks all the right questions, but the answers don’t add up. In Pity the Billionaire he essentially tackles the same conundrum he placed before us in What’s the Matter with Kansas?: why do the poor and most vulnerable in society support a political and economic agenda that is dedicated to their own undoing? Where is the class consciousness? Why do people not act in their own self interest?

To these same questions comes the same answer: the masses are gulled through a right-wing “swindle,” bait-and-switch, or “false flag” operation. Such analysis is not new – Frank traces the basic idea back to a 1951 essay by C. Wright Mills – but here it is applied to what happened in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008, when populist fury was mobilized by the American Right by way of “a gigantic game of three-card monte, in which the deck is shuffled and one card takes the place of another. Before our eyes, imaginary terrors have been substituted for real ones.” Chief among these imaginary terrors is that of socialism, or the fed scare. Meanwhile, the real terror is that of dystopian capitalism, the American nightmare of a rapacious, oligarchic one percent.

Bad enough that this would happen at the best of times, but in the wake of “the greatest economic catastrophe in memory”? As a polemicist Frank repeats himself quite a bit, and the following expression of disbelief may be taken as representative:

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.

The references to the history of American social movements and FDR are key. Throughout Pity the Billionaire (and, for that matter, What’s the Matter with Kansas?) a parallel is developed between the public response to hard times now and what happened in the Great Depression. In a nutshell, then there was public clamour and the political will to reform the nation’s financial system; now the response appears to be quite the opposite: strident denunciations of big government and demands for it to not interfere with the operation of free market capitalism.

I say “appears to be” because it’s hard to say just how popular such views really are and to what extent they are a media construct. Because Glenn Beck was once a popular entertainment figure, does that mean he spoke for America? Furthermore, it’s unclear as to whether it was the same people who were cheated by bankers in 2008 who defended the bankers after the fall. Did the recession’s victims become its apologists? Frank spends a lot of time investigating the Tea Party movement, and remarks one sign he saw at a rally: “Your Mortgage Is Not My Problem.” Does this make it sound like the Tea Partiers represent the party of the bread line?

Frank’s guiding assumptions derive from Chomsky’s foundational belief that people are manipulated by the media. My own feeling is that this misses something, that people aren’t tricked into believing a lie so much as they choose to believe what they want (or even need) to believe (a point I made previously in my review of Chomsky’s Failed States). Be that as it may, in excavating the manufacture of the “comeback” of the American Right, Frank (again, as in his previous books) spends a lot of time looking at some pretty easy pop culture targets: in this case the Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck, and the novels of Ayn Rand. After the dust has settled, however, I came away thinking Frank had mainly recapitulated arguments he’s made before and missed addressing some important issues.

Chief among these is the public’s growing dissatisfaction with government. This is an obvious point, but it goes to the core of Frank’s own belief in the government’s power to regulate capitalism for the greater good. By and large, people don’t seem to share this faith any more. Frank correctly points to one reason why in his observation “that small businesses actually experience the regulatory presence, such as it is, far more acutely than do their big-business colleagues.” This is something I can vouch for based on personal experience, but there is clearly more to it than this. Not everyone, for one thing, has run a small business. Furthermore, distrust of the government has metastasized in recent years to an assault on the entire public sector. And while part of this is being driven by an anti-union corporate agenda, anyone who has followed the recent Greek economic meltdown or California’s budget difficulties (or read about these subjects in Michael Lewis’s Boomerang) knows that this is a global systemic failure that can’t be blamed on banks or big business. And it seems to me that this is a problem that writers from the political left have yet to deal honestly with. Are twenty-first century unionized public sector workers the “victims,” the men on the bread line, in Frank’s analysis? Or are they more likely to be the sort of people attending Tea Party rallies?

Given the structure of the two-party political system in the U.S., a “comeback of the right” was less “unlikely” than inevitable. Perhaps the more remarkable thing is that even at a time when the ideology of the right has been so badly shaken there has been no politically-viable counter-position offered. In the 1930s alternatives were still on the table, but the battle for ideas, at least in the West, now seems to be over. The “forgotten man” has been forgotten primarily because he doesn’t vote, leaving America with two parties appealing to temporarily distressed billionaires.

Review first published online March 19, 2012.