January 9, 2012


Misplaced Pity — Thomas Frank on Why the Policies That Wrecked Our Economy Still Look Attractive

An interview by Dan Lybarger


For a fellow who laments about economic injustice in this country, Kansas City native Thomas Frank is a remarkably genial fellow with a quick sense of humor. The Shawnee Mission East High School grad made his mark with his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? which detailed how conservatives had skillfully used populist rhetoric to promote economic ideas that weren’t necessarily in the interests of the general public.


Since then, he worked as a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal and later a monthly voice in Harper’s. In his columns and in his books, like his 2008 volume The Wrecking Crew, he’s examined how lobbying for congressional largess can be big business in itself, and how the campaign cycle and its constant need of financial fuel has resulted in legislation that prevents polluters and corporate crooks from paying their fair share.


Frank’s latest, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right is loaded with some of the same pessimistic analysis. One of the highlights includes Frank recalling how he heard Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy dressed in an American Flag costume at a Tea Party rally in 2009.


Blankenship complained that he had to stand up for the American worker against government regulatory tyranny despite the fact that his company’s own lax attitude about safety in the Upper Big Branch mine cost 29 workers their lives. Frank, who can toss out 50 cent words with the same finesse as the late William F. Buckley, Jr., refers to Blankenship’s oratory by stating, “We have stumbled upon a nearly perfect example of what the sociologists call ‘complete horseshit.’”


Despite spending his most recent book discussing how people on both the left and the right can be so blinded by ideology that neither can see obvious catastrophes in front of them, Frank frequently chuckles during a telephone conversation from a hotel in New York and can cite Saturday Night Live and Fast Times at Ridgemont High as easily as he does mid-20th century economists and philosophers.


Frank has a PhD in history from the University of Chicago and currently lives in DC. From listening to him, however, you can hear the same sort of quips that fellow former Kansan Jason Sudeikis coined to get through his days in Johnson County.


Throughout the talk, Frank demonstrates an almost gleeful fascination with Glenn Beck and others he disagrees with. He also argues persuasively that wrongheaded rhetoric can sometimes mask legitimate concerns.


Dan Lybarger: In Pity the Billionaire, you say that a lot of the Tea Party grievances are genuine. Which ones do you think President Obama should have paid attention to?


Thomas Frank: The bailouts outraged everyone, when those happened, I think that certain Republican leaders where playing a very opportunistic game. But be that as it may, they got on the right side of that issue. And the Democrats really dropped the ball on that, doing the bipartisan thing and doing the responsible thing.


The bailouts were set up by the Bush Administration and Hank Paulson, the treasury secretary. And I guess it never dawned on the Democrats that (the bailouts) might be used by Republicans as a partisan issue against them (laughs). But that’s exactly what happened.


I’m not trying to let the Democrats off the hook here. They should have been a lot smarter on than they were on it politically and also for the health of the nation, they could have done the bailouts in any of 100 different ways. But they just chose to accept the fate accompli of the Bush Administration. I think that’s just been disastrous for them, and the Tea Party have taken that one right to the bank. To this day, it’s their number one issue.


DL: At the same time, you’re not the only pundit who has warned that unregulated markets lead to looting.


TF: I like that word by the way.


DL: Thanks. In Pity the Billionaire, you point out that a Hungarian economist who was writing at the same time the economist Austrian Friedrich Hayek was offering up his free market philosophy in The Road to Serfdom, Could you tell us a little about him and his philosophy?


TF: You’re referring to Karl Polayni. This is one of those classic books of that period that’s been completely forgotten. It’s called The Great Transformation, and it’s a history of the 19th century, the development and fulfillment of the free market ideology. He had this one very interesting point that we’ve forgotten in the years since. It’s a really careful look at how free market ideology came to be and how various countries around the world in the 19th century tried to achieve this sort of utopian free market state.


He said that basically that the closer you get to achieve the free market utopia, the more it destroys certain parts of society, the more it destroys human social arrangements. This is by its nature. This is what it does. Every time we try to reach out for this utopia, this ideal of the free market, the same thing happens.


By the way, you’re in Kansas City. I want to point out to you that one of the guys who has written about this most convincingly, although not in an ideological way, but in a very practical way, teaches at UMKC (the University of Missouri at Kansas City), Bill Black. He wrote this great book called The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One. I love that title.


DL: Pity the Billionaire also deals with some of the historical and economic misconceptions that Glenn Beck and others have been peddling. Why do you think he’s become so popular because you describe how he had seemed marginal before he landed the Fox News gig?


TF: The first time I saw him was before the economy fell apart in September of ’08 when everything went down. I was watching him before that. He had a different show on CNN (Headline News), and my reaction to it is was like, wow! Who is this guy on TV?


I thought it was unbelievable that there could be an audience for that sort of thing in the era of George W. Bush. Here was this red hunter with a crew cut. He didn’t make any sense to me.


After the collapse, he went to Fox News and he really caught on. I remember he was this overnight sensation on the cover of Time magazine, all that sort of thing. He definitely caught the spirit of the moment, the panicked, fearful spirit of the moment.


I was just watching something that he was doing recently. It was yesterday. I was surprised. Every time he opens his mouth, there’s still some kind of foreboding of unthinkable disaster hurtling right down the tracks at us. And that’s what Glenn Beck has always been about, the disaster that’s coming.


One of the things I point out in the book, I don’t know if your (readers) are aware of this, but he’s a big fan of Orson Welles, me as well. Citizen Kane is one of my favorite movies of them all. Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, he’s the greatest, Orson Welles.


I think that what Glenn Beck has in his mind when he talks about Orson Welles is the famous Halloween night broadcast in 1938 where the (fictional) Martians had landed in New Jersey. Do you remember this? You’re obviously too young, but do you know about this?


DL: We reenacted the script for The War of the Worlds in my high school.


TF: Well then you know the story about how a lot of people thought the story was for real and it really frightened them. After figuring this out, it was suddenly like I had the key to understanding Glenn Beck. That’s what he does every day. The Martians are here, and oddly, it’s slightly more realistic in his case.


DL: But with him and others, could there be a situation like the one with radio evangelist Harold Camping where it’s like, “Hey, you’ve been preaching doom for three or four years. Where is it?”


TF: What I’ve always said about Glenn Beck is that his Achilles heel is that when this stuff doesn’t come true, when the economy recovers, which it will. Look at the price of gold, by the way. These paranoid types have attached their fortunes to the price of gold. When that reverses direction, which it seems to be doing now — you never know sure. When the panic stops and when the economy starts to recover, all of this is going to look pretty silly.


DL: As much as Beck drops Orson Welles’ name, Welles’ work as a product of the New Deal program the Works Progress Administration (WPA).


TF: Yes. And not only that, Orson Welles was very clearly on the left in the 1930s. I was reading a lot of things about Orson Welles.


There’s a really curious thing about Glenn Beck. I think Glenn Beck is a much more interesting person that other people think. Most people just think he’s this sort of radio blabbermouth. One of the really strange things he’s always talking about is the dangers of fascism. This is sort of one of his trademark fears. That struck me as very odd. We don’t really have a fascist movement in America, or not much of one anyway.


It’s been pretty much wiped out around the world. Francisco Franco is still dead (laughs). I went back, and I was reading about Orson Welles, not only about his Martian broadcast. A lot of these radio broadcasts he did from the ‘30s were anti-fascist parables. Just the other day I was watching Turner Classic Movies, and they were showing a documentary about the Spanish Civil War that was made in 1937.


And who was the narrator? Orson Welles. That’s what he did in the ‘30s.


DL: But at the same time, you wrote frequently in the Wall Street Journal about several assertions that Beck made that were nonsense. Beck constantly cites Thomas Paine, but Paine, unlike Beck, had contempt for Christianity. Go through Project Gutenberg, and you can read his book The Age of Reason.


TF: That’s true. That’s a great, great, great book. It’s one of the most savvy takedowns of organized religion that anyone has ever written. It sort of got Paine banned for life from the club of American leaders.


Paine was a very interesting thinker. He proposed a system of social security. He made it all up by himself, and when it finally came to where we came up with a social security system in America. He’s one of the forefathers of it.


DL: Have you ever envied the reach Beck has had?


TF: Would I like to have a larger audience? I don’t really think about that too much because I have enough of an audience to make me happy. Golly. I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I’d rather not be on Fox News. Let’s put it that way.


DL: That reminds me. Beck makes some of these assertions you affectionately refer to in the book as “horseshit.” And he would tell his audience that he could be believed because no one came on his show to challenge him.


TF: You’re taking about the “red telephone” business? I always thought that was really amusing. It was the weirdest stage prop. He had this red telephone on his desk, and then he’d say this is a hotline to the White House. I’m making all these allegations about them, and if I’m wrong, all they have to do — I’m saying so-and-so’s a Communist, and so-and-so is a Maoist, you know, on, on, on down the line. And if I’m wrong, all they have to do is call me and correct me. I thought that’s funny because I knew several people whom Beck has made these wild accusations about.


I’ve forgotten about this because it’s such a long time ago. I called these people up, and I said, “Has Beck ever given you the number of the red telephone and invited you to be on his show and tell the world about your ideas?” Some of these guys would do it, too. Some of these don’t have any problem debating a guy like Beck. He hadn’t contacted any of them.


DL: Pity the Billionaire deals a bit with activists Charles and David Koch. Could you tell us a little about them and how they were helpful in the rise of Congressman Mike Pompeo?


TF: The Koch brothers are these two billionaires down in Wichita, and as everybody knows they’re huge backers of right-wing institutions, conservative institutions, libertarian institutions.


It’s funny. When I wrote What’s the Matter with Kansas? I did a lot of research on them, looking up articles that had been written about them and that sort of thing. They weren’t the biggest donors back then. They weren’t even the second biggest or the third biggest. It was all the Scaifes and the Coors, these other very wealthy people.


Since then, the Kochs have become the number one donors to these institutions, particularly on the Tea Party right. Two of the big groups (Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks) behind the Tea Party movement are founded by the Koch brothers.


The new congressman from Wichita, Mike Pompeo is a very interesting case in point. He’s a small businessman, or he presents himself as a small businessman, a job creator. He knows how the business system works. You need somebody like that in Congress, he says. It turns out that most of his career was doing business with Koch Industries. Executives at Koch Industries donated a lot of money to his campaign. It’s sort of the classic case of small business being a front for big business.


DL: You’ve been covering Occupy Wall Street and the Wisconsin recall effort against Governor Scott Walker. You don’t mention either much in Pity the Billionaire.


TF: I think I mentioned Occupy once, and I don’t know if I mentioned Wisconsin at all. I mentioned what Governor Walker tried to do there. He did it; he dropped the bomb. I don’t talk about them very much at all. They do fit in the narrative, but there’d have to be several more chapters.


The Wisconsin example is particularly interesting because what happened is you get this guy in office. He comes in waving the Tea Party banner, and he seems to be a populist.


He tries to crack down on collective bargaining, and the next thing you know you have a populist movement going the other direction. You know there are people out there who have completely switched sides. What’s also fascinating is that the movements (Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street) are superficially very similar. You always hear about Occupy Wall Street and how they have no leaders and they’re not really organized. They’ve made kind of a fetish of this. The Tea Party said exactly the same stuff.


DL: Do you still get a lot of feedback on What’s the Matter with Kansas?


TF: Yeah, sure, and I do try to keep up with events there. But in the last two years I’ve been working on this other project. I just haven’t been keeping up to speed like I should have done. I’m sorry to disappoint you on that front.


DL: Since 2004, you’ve been arguing that the Democrats need to get back in touch with their populist roots. Have you heard from anybody in the party?


TF: I’m sure there are people who are reading What’s the Matter with Kansas? and taking it to heart. But I don’t know who they are. I’ve met a number of Democrats and members of Congress since then. Some of them are very good, and their hearts are in the right place. But it’s all about President Obama these days.


I saw some hope for President Obama a couple of weeks ago when he went to Osawatomie and gave a speech. That was very impressive. I didn’t have anything to do with it.


DL: In the 2004 speech that put him on the map, he said that he didn’t speak for the “red states” or the “blue states” but the United States.


TF: The whole centrism thing. At the time, I knew he was saying that, but I didn’t take it seriously actually because every new president says that. That’s always been one of his themes. That’s just standard stuff for political oratory. I assumed once the man got into office, he would know what to do and would understand that this was just rhetorical window dressing. In my view, that’s an ornament. In his view, that’s his essence (laughs). It’s just basic stuff. That’s what you really need to worry about.



Thomas Frank will be at Unity Temple on the Plaza Thursday, Jan. 12, at 7 p.m. to talk about his latest book and get back in touch with his roots. Tickets are available through Rainy Day Books by calling 913-384-3126.