David Sirota Talks with Tom Frank About Pity the Billionaire

Pity the Billionaire
Journalist and Back to Our Future author David Sirota interviews Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas? and The Wrecking Crew, about his latest book.

David Sirota: Do rich people in America genuinely feel persecuted, or are their requests for pity a political ploy to combat their critics?

Tom Frank: Well, we’re talking about something that’s self-evidently preposterous. The phrase “Pity the Billionaire” is the absurd but inevitable end-point of the present conservative argument. The book is about people trying to depict themselves as the victims of a situation where they are manifestly not victims: imagining that corporate enterprises are ground under the iron heel of an over-regulating government, that banks were forced to issue the loans that puffed up the real-estate bubble, that taxes are by definition onerous and thieving, that businesspeople are all, as a rule, hard-working, unassuming, and straight-shooting—and that they have risen up righteously in a great strike, like in Ayn Rand’s and John Boehner’s fantasy.

Sirota: Why has the economic crisis resulted in a rise of conservative economic populism rather than progressive populism?

Frank: Because conservatives got there first with the most money.

Remember, the right has been “populist” for a long time now, raging against this educated elite and that. Populism is a language and a style that the conservative movement is comfortable with. It wasn’t hard to turn a well-funded, well-organized movement already accustomed to thinking of itself this way into a protest movement for hard times.

Of course, this involved the swiping of a whole range of traditional left-wing ideas and symbols, everything from the exaltation of the strike to the notion of a despicable “ruling class.”

The other side of the question is, why weren’t the liberals there to contest this larceny? Where was the left-wing populist movement? Occupy Wall Street didn’t turn up until three whole years after the September ‘08 crash.

The answer to this, I’m afraid, is that genuine populist movements don’t just spring up overnight, in the way the Tea Party did. They come together slowly. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, which is the traditional home of working-class movements, has grown very uncomfortable with populism. They don’t like it, they don’t trust it, they sure as hell don’t know how to talk it. The Democratic Party more and more sees itself as the party of conscientious professionals—of bankers who are socially liberal, for example—and not as the party of working people.

Sirota: Is the American elite any greedier today than it was in the past?

Frank: I don’t think so. It’s hard to imagine that a human vice comes and goes like an influenza epidemic. What has changed is that greed has really been turned loose in the last forty years—that’s the idea behind the great move to markets in every field of human endeavor since the 1970s: unleash self-interest, unleash incentives.

What happened was we got to the point where the incentives were so great that they encouraged people to loot their companies. The tens of millions of dollars to be made by knocking together some toxic investment product—or letting an obvious conflict of interest pass, or rating some piece-of-trash bond Triple A—outweigh by far any consequences your actions might have for your employer or your country. With incentives like those, what does anyone care anymore? I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone, safe behind the gates of our fortified neighborhood while the working world burns.

Sirota: How have the right’s ideas changed since the days of the financial crisis?

Frank: I am amazed, as I look back over the last three years, at how little the message has changed since the beginning of the disaster. In 2008, remember, a group of conservatives in the House decided to oppose the Bush Administration’s bank bailouts, allowing the farthest right to claim and hold the high ground on the bailout issue ever since.

Blaming the slump on the selfishness of the unproductive people at the bottom has also been present since the beginning. Same with the idea that personal debts are essentially equivalent to the federal deficit, and that the nation can only find its way out of the hole by slashing government spending immediately—it’s been present since the beginning.

The only change since 2009 is that these ideas have gone from the fringe to the mainstream. Today they are all common sense in the GOP. Listen to Republican debates and town hall meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire and you can see how far it’s gone. Everyone agrees now: we need to take a sledgehammer to government, and deregulate some more, and unleash the “job creators,” and rescue the beleaguered billionaires. The solutions that were extreme before 2008 are mainstream today.

Sirota: Okay, but why do average people vote for this? Do they believe they will all be millionaires one day? Or is it something else?

Frank: Well, people once believed that Iraq had a hand in 9/11. They didn’t think that because they were stupid, but because they had been deceived. The same is true today: The right has a compelling explanation for what has happened to us, and they have their own TV network where that explanation is the shared “common sense” of everyone on camera. It’s wrong, but it’s ideologically coherent.

And what’s the competing explanation? Has President Obama or one of his surrogates ever stepped forward and told us why regulatory agencies failed and continue to fail all over the place? Have any of them ever acknowledged that we might have done the bailouts differently? Have they ever offered a really thorough critique of Wall Street? Have they attempted to defend “big government” or deficit spending?

Americans these days are “mad as hell,” as the expression goes; they’re furious at how things have been screwed up—and the right says they’re “mad as hell” also. The liberals, meanwhile, just sort of drone complacently on. Trust the experts, they say; the experts will put things right. They haven’t addressed the public’s outrage at all.

Sirota: Don’t you think the right has had its day? Occupy Wall Street has changed everything, hasn’t it?

Frank: The most promising thing about Occupy is that it has--finally!--given conservatism a little competition for the “mad as hell” storyline. But remember, the Republican Party just finished bouncing back in the most amazing way. The GOP took a terrible beating back in 2006 and '08; every commentator said the party had to moderate itself and move to the center. But they did exactly the opposite, and then they won their greatest Congressional victory in decades. Today they are moving further to the right all the time, and they are taking a huge part of this country with them. Until liberals figure out how to do what their ancestors did--speak convincingly to a nation enduring terrible hard times--this is going to continue.