Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: Listen, Liberal by Thomas Franks

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the PeopleListen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People by Thomas Frank

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

True confession. I dog-eared pages as I read through this book.

*dodges the stones and rotten tomatoes *

I know. I know! But I have an excuse. I had only two bookmarks with me as I read, one for my current place and one marking the endnotes; neither did I have any little Post-it notes or sticky flags, nor any other method to mark all the passages that stood out. So I turned down the page corners instead.

Thomas Frank’s premise is that the progressive movement, or what he terms “The Liberal Class”, has forgotten its roots in the labor movement; has set aside its concerns for the poor and the working class; and has become obsessed with meritocracy rather than equality. Frank wonders what it means “…when the dominant constituency of the left party in a two-party system is a high-status group rather than the traditional working class? …[It] means soaring inequality. When the left party in a system severs its bond to working people…issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.”

Let’s define two terms. Meritocracy is the belief that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on ability and talent. Followers of this belief system proclaim those who work hard and take advantage of all educational opportunities will, by virtue of their talent, rise to the top; ALL of society’s problems can be solved if only everyone had access to higher education.

The high-status group Frank mentions above are members of that meritocracy [as a class name, rather than a belief system]. They are those who have risen to the top and taken power, based on what they believe is their ability and talent. Even though “liberal elite” is often used as pejorative term, it’s a valid description of the mostly-Ivy League-educated individuals who front the progressive movement. They are what Frank calls “the well-graduated”, mostly Caucasian, mostly from privileged backgrounds, and mostly wealthy in their own right. Exceptions abound, of course: the Clintons were not wealthy as young people; and President Obama is neither Caucasian nor from a privileged background; but they are by definition meritocrats, having been smart enough and lucky enough to take advantage of the educational opportunities that launched them into heightened circles of prestige.

Speaking of Clinton, Frank rips apart the 8-year presidency of William J., and doesn’t express much hope for the better for the prospective term of Hillary R. (The only thing that saves her from outright excoriation is the spectre of a Trump Presidency, something even more disastrous than Clinton II.) In Frank’s view, the Clinton Administration, with its 1996 welfare reform legislation, completed the dismantling of the social safety net that had begun with the Reagan Administration. Having worked on the front lines of a social service agency since 1995, I can testify that Frank is right. Fewer people may be on public assistance, but more people are in poverty.

It seems like I always have my own rant about inequality and the abandonment of the poor to impart whenever I read one of Mr. Frank’s books. I’ll spare you the rest of it; and the rest of the passages I marked. What I will say is access to higher education has never been the answer to income inequality. A college degree does not guarantee success. (Case in point: My own spouse has a master’s in business administration; he’s the smartest man I know; and he manages a retail store because he can’t get hired in his chosen field. I never finished college myself, but I was in the right place at the right time to be hired by my employer, and now I make three times his salary.) What will help those at the bottom of the social ladder isn’t just education, it’s opportunity and infrastructure investment and plain old good hard cash.

Go read this, especially if you are of a liberal bent. You’ll be enraged and outraged; you’ll be enlightened; you’ll despair; and then you’ll get back on your feet, filled with determination to vote, to write your Congressional representatives and the editor of your local newspaper, to make noise, and to take care of the “least of these”, because ultimately, that’s our responsibility as human beings.

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Posted in Book review

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.