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Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right Paperback
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Amazon Exclusive: A Conversation Between David Sirota and Tom Frank
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.
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
In describing the foundational popular protests of the New Deal as a pointed contrast to the Tea Party's rise, Pity the Billionaire often reads like a police procedural that re-creates the political crime scene where left-leaning populism met a swift death. The foundation underlying this entertaining, but at times misguided, book—that the aftermath of the 2008 crisis energized the Right but flummoxed the Left—may have already begun to shift, but it doesn't invalidate Frank's history lesson. —Will Bunch --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
Pity the Billionaire explains why, rather than a return to enlightened and effective policies of the thirties following the great recession, America has jerked even farther to the right. And as Frank would say, "The fault, gentle readers, rests with those who do the bidding of their fat cat friends -- that is, the Democrats." If you stand for nothing, anything, no matter how absurd on its face--and Frank points out how absurd is the populism emerging from the likes of Freedom works and Glenn Beck--will prevail.
Only a true idealist could be as splendidly cynical as Thomas Frank. While his prose at times is laugh out loud funny, beneath it lurks a most rare and admirable quality, the belief that words do matter and that standing up to the billionaires and their buds can return America to at least a modicum of compassion, fairness and equality. I am so grateful that Thomas Frank has not become so disheartened as to simply give up and go away.
Please continue fighting, Thomas, giving a voice to people like me who increasingly think, Why bother? That fighting the insane right with a flabby, corrupted political party that has long since lost its way is an exercise in self-torture. Perhaps it is. But so long as you keep on writing and keep on skewering our politicians and exhorting us weary liberals to keep on fighting, the least I can do is to embrace your grace and passion and tenacity with a measure of my own.
According to Frank, the ideological weakness of the Obama administration has played a role in strengthening conservative forces. The Obama administration, for the most part, has not had a clear populist message but has projected the image of a moderate technocratic political force. Meanwhile the Tea Party has consistently and clearly projected a populist message that provides answers, if ludicrous ones, for the financial malaise of this country. Frank notes that the Obama administration and congressional Democrats cannot fight the Tea Party with a militant populist message of their own because they rely on campaign funding from the same corporate forces as the Republicans. The result has been that the administration has presented no clear alternative to the populist message of the Tea Party /Republicans. Instead Frank notes that the administration has legislated corporate friendly health care reform that forces Americans to buy insurance from the nefarious health insurers. The administration's reform of the financial sector was very tepid, refusing to break up the "Too big to Fail" banks. For his financial appointments Obama chose establishment hacks like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. Geithner helped oversee the hugely unpopular bailout while Summers helped direct the financial industry deregulation of the late 90's which has led us to the mess we are in now. Frank suggests that Obama's oversight of the bailouts would have been far more politically successful if he had copied the activities of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) during the New Deal of the 30's. According to Frank, the RFC, created under Roosevelt's predecessor Herbert Hoover, operated in a blatantly crony capitalist manner before the New Deal. The Hoover administration concentrated on bailing out Wall Street banks. In a blatant conflict of interest, it directed bailout money towards a bank recently placed under the management of Charles Dawes--Vice President under Calvin Coolidge--who had resigned his chairmanship of the RFC only weeks before. But when Franklin Roosevelt took office, the RFC fell under the control of the conservative Texas banker Jesse Jones. Jones spread out the RFC's bailout money, not merely to Wall Street but to agriculture, small banks, small businesses, educational institutions, public works, etc. Jones fired the executives of bailed out banks when he felt it justified and imposed limitations on the compensation of CEOs overseeing bailed out firms "that were far stricter than anything contemplated by Team Obama."
According to Frank, the right wing has driven its resurgence in this country with heavy use of language redolent of left wing populism. But Frank finds this populism phony. One example he gives is Congressman Paul Ryan's 2009 article for Forbes magazine entitled "Down with Big Business." Ryan attacked crony capitalism in our government, with the bailouts of 2008-09 being a prime focus. Ryan presented himself as carrying the mantle of small time entrepreneurs against a big business and a federal government intertwined together in a crony capitalist order. Of course, as Frank notes, Ryan was showered with campaign donations after the 2010 elections from big business, including the financial sector. Ryan spent an evening with the hedge fund magnate Clifford Asness in 2011 and Mr. Asness provided Mr. Ryan with "$700 worth of wine."
Right wing actors utilize the language of populism to gain sympathy for big business and the wealthy. Thus Rick Santelli in his famous rant in February 2009 referred to traders on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade as representative of ordinary Americans. Of course, these traders are actually pretty wealthy compared to average Americans. In 2009, Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, hosted a rally at which appeared Sean Hannity and Ted Nugent. The rally, Blankenship claimed, was held to support humble and hardworking American workers in the face of government bureaucrats seeking to enforce job killing environmental and safety regulations. In 2010, 29 of Blankenship's employees were killed in a mine explosion that, Frank writes, could have been prevented if government safety inspectors had enforced their numerous citations against the company.
Frank notes that Republican politicians (and others--Obama included) have frequently claimed that small businesses are the foundation of job creation in this country. Obama once claimed that 70 percent of American jobs are created by small businesses and Republicans denounced this figure as too low. This claim seems fallacious. Frank quotes in his endnotes a 2009 New York Times blog which--citing 1992-2008 figures from the Office of Small Business Administration--found that 36 percent of jobs created were with firms of over 500 employees and 30 percent were with firms of between 50 and 500 workers. The really small businesses created the fewest jobs. Wrapping themselves in the mantle of small business is a cover for Republicans to pursue the interests of big business.
There are some points where I wish Frank would be more expansive. For example, at one point he mentions that many right wingers blame the Community Reinvestment Act for the financial meltdown. He doesn't try to refute this claim, evidently viewing it as too absurd for comment. At another spot, he mentions the notion (which he agrees with) that the US has never really had a true free market economy but doesn't elaborate on it as much as I would have liked.
Occupy Wall Street seems to have emerged after Frank completed this book. He only mentions it once, in passing. It is certainly probable that Frank will incorporate the OWS experience in the paperback edition of this work.