Pity the Billionaire


    or, if you prefer the complete title of the new book by Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire:  The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.

    If you have been a regular reader of Daily Kos over the past few years, you will have few earthshaking moments while reading this book – almost all of the points Frank makes have appeared here, in front-page stories and in posts by reader.  Nevertheless this book may qualify as essential reading for how much it brings together, and in the fashion it provides a coherent explanation of what has happened, from the strategy and tactics of those who have already destroyed trillions of the wealth of others in America and abroad, in the failure of Obama and Cogressional Democrats to have prevented it from happening and in allowing it – at least until recently – to continue pretty much unabated. Or, as Frank puts it near the end of his Introduction,  

    This is the story of a swindle that will have terrible consequences down the road.  And although it sounds curious to say so, the newest Right has met its goals not by deception alone – although there has benn a great deal of this – but by offering and idealism so powerful that it clouds its partisans’ perceptions of reality.   (p. 12)

    And if there is a key, brief takeaway that can be learned from how they operated, it is found on p. 33:

    To play by the rules was a chump’s game.

    First, the structure of the book.  It begins with the aforementioned Introduction, titled “Signs and Wonders, and continues with ten chapters:

    1.  End Times

    2.  1929:  The Sequel

    3.  Hold the Note and Change the Key

    4.  Nervous System

    5.  Making a Business of It

    6.  A Mask for Privilege

    7.  Mimesis

    8.  Say, Don’t You Remember

    9.  He Whom A Dream Hath Possessed Knoweth No More of Doubting

    10. The Silence of the Technocrats

    Frank ends with a Conclusion: Trample the Weak.

    The direction of the book can be seen in its opening words:  

    This book is a chronicle of a confused time, a period when Americans roes up against imaginary threats and rallied to economic theories they understood only in the gauziest terms. It is about a country where the fears of a radical takeover became epidemic even though the radicals themselves had long since ceased to play any role in national life; a land where ideological nightmares conjured by TV entertainers came to seem even more vivid and compelling than the contents of the news pages.

    The book is thorough, the material used well-sourced, and as one who has read any of Frank’s previous books might expect, often couched in language that is memorable and powerful.

    After the election of 2008, many were hopeful that the abuses of -economic and governmental power that we had seen in the previous administration would be reversed, that like the election of 1932 the nation would move in a direction that would somehow undo the damage of a Republican administration in thrall to powerful and conservative economic forces and become more responsive to the needs of the ordinary people.  Yet 2 years later the people of the United States chose a very different path.  Frank explores how this happened not so much as an historian, but rather as a political analyst, a contemporary observer who nevertheless can provide the historical context from which our current events flow.  One can simply note, and Frank does, that part of the reason for the rapid comeback of conservatives is the tendency to blame whoever is in power when hard times come.  While the roots of the current economic travails begin in the administration of George W. Bush (with some seeds going back to Carter and the beginning of deregulation, continuing through Reagan and even Clinton), the impact was not fully grasped by many of the American people until after January 20, 2009.  Meanwhile, the Conservatives offered a coherent theory, one in which they declared that every where you looked

    you saw a colossal struggle between average people and the “elites” who would strip away the people’s freedoms.(p. 7)

     And if you have listened to the rhetoric of the Republican presidential debates, you will recognize that despite the immense personal wealth of Mitt Romney or John Huntsmann, they like the other contenders rely heavily on such rhetoric.

    I cannot recapitulate everything that Frank addresses.  In Chapter 3 he notes that

    The conservative renaissance rewrites history according to the political demands of the moment, generates thick smokescreens of deliberate bewilderment, grabs for itself the nobility of the common toilet, and projects onto its revials the arrogance of the aristocrat.  Nor is this constant redirection of public ire a characteristic the movement developed as it went along; it was present and creation.  Indeed, redirection was the creation. (p. 44).

       A key moment in the conservative resurgence and the outbreak of the tea party movement was the famous rant on TV by Rick Santelli.  Frank sees this as illustrative of the observation I have just quoted, noting one page later of that outburst

    the part of TARP that drew his disgust was, significantly, the element designed to help homeowners modify the terms of certain underwater mortgages, making payments more affordable and thus preventing foreclosures.  It was the only part of the TARP that was intended to directly benefit individual borrowers rather than institutional players, and thus it was supposed to help make the program popular.  Instead, it brought down the wrath of this man Santelli who found it inconceivable that such an initiative was even under consideration.  “This is America!” he yelled, working himself into a rage.

    Frank makes clear that what happened has bipartisan fingerprints all over it.  For example, on p. 27 he reminds us that

    visionary, tech-friendly Democrats had joined with stern, patriarchal Republicans to circumvent the country’s banking rules and to mute its supervisory agencies

     Later, in the chapter titled “The Silence of the Technocrats”  (with its inevitable echo of the movie “The Silence of the Lambs”), Frank is far more blunt.  He is critical of Obama turning economic policy over to “well-known friends of Wall Street” Tim Geithner and Larry Summer and on his continuation of the Bush bailout policy even after AIG.  He is scathing about the Democrats “blowing it during the debate over health-care reform” (p. 168).    He is shocked that during the contentious town halls of 2009 Democrats failed to engage in a dispute about freedom and the nature of government:  

    It was as though the old-school liberal catechesis had become forbidden language, placed on some index of prohibited thoughts. . . .  In full retreat before the right-wing onslaught, the Democrats threw themselves into the arms of their corporate allies.  They jettisoned the simpler, more popular, but more government-centric idea under consideration and settled on the “individual mandate.” . . .  (p.170)

     One page later Frank is blunt about the failure of the Democrats:  

    And so the Democrats tried to assuage public anger over the bailouts while hardly mentioning Wall Street’s power over Washington – that subject they left to the resurgent Right.  They gave us a stimulus package, but not a robust defense of deficit spending.  They beefed up certain regulatory agencies, bu they didn’t dare tell the world how money had managed managed to wreck those agencies in the first place.  And when a clearly unsafe BP oil well poured millions of gallons of poison into the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama told a reporter that before he could figure out “whose ass to kick” he had to convene a panel of experts.  {pp. 171-172)

    Allow me to quote one more paragraph from this section, first noting that Frank reminds us again and again that the Conservative resurgence has been fueled in part by coopting language, by accusing its opponents of its own damaging actions (something political junkies know as the normal method of operation of one Karl Rove).  Frank is critical of Obama’s compromising with “the wrong party” as he puts it.  There had been previous bailouts that had been popular, but what the Obama administration was doing was used to bludgeon them.  

    The difference, in a phrase, is Wall Street.  What makes bailouts toxic is cronyism, the coming together of government and private wealth, the spectacle of Washington doing special favors for its pals in the investment banks.  What makes bailouts healthful is government acting as an alternative to Wall Street; government helping others recover from Wall Street’s mismanagement of the economy. (p. 173)

    One might wonder if Obama’s recent recess appointment of Richard Cordray  might be an indication that the current administration is finally recognizing how badly they are perceived in their handling of the economic crises that have beset this nation throughout their tenure.   Perhaps actions like this might cause Frank to rethink his equating Washington Democrats with “the tragically incompetent British general staff of World War I”  and as having “the same blindness, that same fixed thinking” (p. 178).

    I hope that by now you are convinced that Pity the Billionaires is a book worth reading, having as a reference.   One must hope that key people in the administration will read it, take from it the lessons of how badly they have handled the mess they received upon taking office.  They did not create the disaster that has wreaked havoc upon so many.  Perhaps they might take note of the title of the conclusion:  “Trample the Weak.”  That has clearly been the policy of the current generation of Republican leaders, whether it is Paul Ryan’s plan to ‘save” medicare or it is Mitt Romney accusing Obama of the kind of crony capitalism without which the Republican party could not function.    Frank warns us of what might be coming should Republicans get control of all the mechanisms of the federal government.  He also notes the loss of what could have been in 2009, had the Democrats been more aggressive, so that now

    Moneyed interests understand that with no second FDR, no incorruptible new cop on the financial beat, no return to the rules that once made banking boring but safe, they have nothing to fear from us, and may do as they please.  This is the real tragedy of the Great Recession. (p. 185)

     He warns us of the language we can expect should they get full control, describing anything that is public as wasteful, ending that examination by noting

    the time is not far off when the freeloading by poor kids will be the factor that galls our leaders most.” (p. 187)

    which will be the final factor in abandoning any notion of “public” education, the thing that more than a capitalist economic system made this country great.

    Frank warns us of heading in a direction of a new American dream, driven by the idealogues of the Right, that will lead us “on into the seething Arcadia of all against all” (p. 187).   Those are the final words of this powerful volume.

    For those who do not recognize them, they are a reference to famous words by Thomas Hobbes, in Chapter XIII of Leviathan   in which Hobbes warns that without commonwealth, without a government to control what otherwise happens among men with no rules in place, one gets a war of every man against every other man, resulting in no commerce, no building, no agriculture, in short, chaos.  Hobbes ends that section by noting that in such a situation the life of man would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.   Frank is warning us that the direction of policy driven by the billionaires and their fellow travelers is leading this nation, this society, in a direction that for the vast majority of us will not be an American dream but rather an Hobbesian nightmare.

    Read the book.


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