Faculty Feature: Book Review

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right
by Thomas Frank
A book review by Dr. Michael Cunningham
Editor’s Note: This book review has been contributed by Dr. Michael Cunningham, director of the Arts & Ideas program at Lewis University. The review is especially relevant now due to the upcoming election and the book’s release in paperback format.

Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire: the Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right is indispensable reading for this election year, especially if you are a progressive. And if you’re leaning toward or solidly in the camp of Right, there’s much to learn about your side in Frank’s trenchant analysis of Republican method, myth, and madness.

In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank exposed the clever ruse that enabled the Republican party to appeal to the movement wing (moral majority) of the party and to cement victories for George Bush. Promising to roll back Roe vs. Wade, to send homosexuals back in the closet, and to put Christ back into Christmas, they accomplished very little on these moral fronts. Indeed, most of the nation is reasonably comfortable with current abortion legislation and practice, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed. “Black Friday” is just as frantic and economically necessary as it has been for a long time.

According to Frank, the establishment wing (the Wall Street crowd) of the party, interested in advancing their own economic interest, used moral wedge issues, in fact at times cynically exploited them, to get the silent majority to vote against their economic self interest. The hedge-fund manager never really cared about partial-birth abortion, nor did the handsomely remunerated CEO of a mega-bank really care about prayer in school, but they found it politically expedient to align themselves with those who did.

In Pity the Poor Billionaire Frank turns his attention to the paradoxical and shocking re-emergence of the Right and the mythology of unfettered capitalism after the second worst economic calamity in the last 100 years. While one might have expected the triumph of progressives pushing Wall Street regulation, consumer protection, and punishments for the masters of the universe who impoverished so many, we have seen progressives playing defense and government stigmatized. While one might have expected a new version of the New Deal, the corrective to the Crash of ’29, we got misappropriations of history that suggest that Roosevelt’s policies caused the economic downturn. The final indignity: the agents of destruction, so deserving of prosecution, rewarded themselves with bonuses from government bailout money. Yet we are asked to look at these folks with pity rather than scorn.

Republicans have been successful in absolving the perpetrators of the crimes and shifting the blame for our economic woes to the looters and leeches of the underclass, to wastrel bureaucrats and government workers, and to the academic crowd that allegedly plants the seeds of a socialist revolution in the minds of millions of impressionable college students. In the mixed-race Obama, former community organizer and university professor (he fits all three categories), they have found the perfect explanation for what’s wrong with the country. The proponents of the pure free market, unrestrained by regulation, one that unleashes the entrepreneurial spirit of the true American, believe that capitalism failed because it was not true unfettered capitalism. The administration of George Bush is rarely spoken of because it tolerated a compromised capitalism. Against all expectations, the right has come back by moving further right.

Frank is brilliant in showing how the myth of pure markets (where rational actors always make wise decisions that benefit not only themselves, but the nation) blinds the apologists from seeing “the facts on the ground.” To interfere with the “natural system” of the markets is always dangerous. To ignore Adam Smith and St. Reagan is to hasten American decline. Restraints on economic life are tantamount to a restraint on personal freedom. Regulation of big banks, coal plants, and drug manufacturers is a step onto the slippery slope of government regulation of personal conduct in a police state. The apologists conveniently ignore the distinctly American blend of government and business that has served the nation’s prosperity reasonably well for the last 100 years.

Frank has one of the best critiques of Ayn Rand’s gospel of enlightened self-interest that I have read. He marvels that so many have been seduced by her dogmatic utopianism. Difficult times bring out simple solutions and Rand’s simple — and silly — belief system fits the bill.

Frank finds the manipulative hand of the moneyed class behind the emergence of the Tea-Party, the anti-government crowd. Stoking the notion that we have to take our country back to an idealized America that never was, the corporate class has conveniently found the foot-soldiers to do its dirty work. By all rights these Main Street folks, although reasonably prosperous middle-aged types, should be railing against the collusion between Wall Street and the Congress. And they have and should, but they have directed most of their ire toward the Congress, unable to see that our representatives were handmaidens not the principal instigators of the catastrophe.

Well-heeled Republicans have put up the money to support Tea Party efforts and Fox has served as the mouth-piece and display case for Tea Party grievances. A billionaire Nevada casino owner pays for the attack ads of neo-populist Newt Gingrich. The Tea Party movement also makes good economic sense for long-time opportunistic Republican entrepreneurs. Someone is making money off the sale of “Don’t Tread On Me!” T-shirts and tri-cornered hats. Folks who are in the Other 99% have laid down in bed with the 1%, united around the Reagan mantra that government is not the solution to our problems but the source of them.

When the Obama team entered the Oval Office in January of 2009, Rahm Emanuel, then Obama’s chief-of-staff, referring to the financial meltdown, said that a crisis was a terrible thing to waste. Frank treats the statement as a flippant remark of a pragmatic in-fighter who knew that the “hope that you can believe in” would quickly run aground against the realities of working with Congress. While the astute Frank is very mindful of the steep uphill climb that Obama faced, given the depth of the recession and Republicans who vowed from day one to make him a one-term president, he laments that Obama didn’t seize the moment more forcefully and that he felt constrained by his chief-of-staff and other political realists.

To take one example, Frank especially regrets that the President and his Democratic congressional lieutenants could not explain more forcefully the larger benefits of Obamacare. He’s mystified that the new Great Communicator was tongue-tied when it came to providing the large frame for this complex piece of legislation. As they have so often during the last thirty years, they let the Republicans frame the issue. Thus, Obamacare was deeply unpopular with the American public (until you explained the specific advantages). It represented the most intrusive governmental takeover of personal decision-making ever (though it retained considerable free choice). It represented an adoption of dreaded European socialism (though it still relied on private insurance companies, though Europeans are far happier with their health care than are Americans). And it created death panels that would pull the plug on granny (though its intention was to encourage individuals to create living wills). Once again, facts could not compete with the belief that any government intervention in the market was poison.

Through sheer audacity, an unswerving belief in the redemptive power of the free market, and a dismissal of any facts that would reveal the myth as a massive delusion, billionaires like the Koch Brothers and their Congressional defenders, are back in the driver seat. And the re-election of Obama and the return of a Democratic House of Representatives, which should be a slam-dunk, is still far from certain.

— Dr. Michael Cunningham

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