Book review: Pity the Billionaire by Thomas Frank

Three of five stars

When I read What’s the Matter With Kansas? several years ago, I finished the book determined to conduct any future political discussions with a focus on how economic/social justice issues are inseparable from personal morality: that is, if one claims to be a “Christian”, one cannot ignore one’s responsibility to care for the needy and the oppressed, and said responsibility includes approving and encouraging government assistance such as food stamps, disaster relief, and jobs programs.

It’s been a very frustrating several years.

Thomas Frank’s new book helps explain WHY it’s been so frustrating. In this new America, The Free Market is God, and any attempt to regulate and control The Free Market is seen as socialism, communism, fascism, choose-your-ism, both by people who ought to know better AND by people who don’t know better because they’ve never bothered to educate themselves in matters of economic policy as it has played out in US history.

As Frank points out, however, it has been ever thus. In one of the few passages that actually made me laugh, Frank briefly discusses how labor unions were seen as a threat to capitalism in the 1840s, and “…sure enough, the form of capitalism they had in those days died, to be replaced by ‘capitalism modified by the right of collective bargaining.'” A few decades later, regulation of railroads signaled the End Times and “…the end of the world came to pass. Capitalism died, to be replaced this time by ‘capitalism modified by the right of collective bargaining and Federal regulation.'”

The main thrust of Frank’s thesis here, though, is the surprising “Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right”, to quote his subtitle. Based on previous economic history as it played out in the 1930s, the Right’s new fascination with Ayn Rand’s doctrine of Objectivism and the anti-government, anti-regulation rhetoric should never have taken hold in the general population. Conventional wisdom dictated the rank and file “common man” should have been screaming in the streets for Washington to come down hard on the bankers, investors, and corporate entities who created the crisis. Instead, the Tea Party was screaming in the streets for government to take its dirty little fingers out of the pockets of the “job creators”, to cut back on current and proposed regulations that “crippled the economy”, and decrying any government attempt to alleviate social ills as treacherous steps on the road to the evils of a socialist society.

How the Right managed this shift in public perception makes for fascinating reading. Unfortunately, said reading had the side effect of leaving me feeling (a) helpless and demoralized in the face of so much misinformation, misunderstanding, and sheer right-wing obstinacy, and (b) supremely angry at liberal leaders and politicians who cowered in the face of such obstinacy, who did not articulate their positions in language that would be understood by the rank and file Right, who essentially shrugged their shoulders and abdicated their responsibility. (Yes, you, President Obama, I’m looking at you.)

I’ll get over the demoralization in a few days, and re-enter the fray with renewed vigor and determination. I hope our elected liberal officials — who are few and far between these days — find their courage and their voice and join me.

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this book.

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