"Pity the Billionaire" recounts hijacking of public opinion

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Book Review

"Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right"

By Thomas Frank

2012, Metropolitan Books, hardcover, 240 pages, $25.00

Thomas Frank, ex-Wall Street Journalist turned liberal political savant, is currently the darling of the airwaves for NPR and Democracy Now fans. Just Google "Pity the Billionaire," his latest book, and scroll through the pages of reviews and interviews bubbling up since its publication in early January.

According to his version of the recent past, some three years ago the ruling class was facing angry busloads of inner-city residents shouting across manicured lawns in commuter-line gated enclaves. There was talk of "clawback" and criminal prosecutions. The sound of the tumbrels was in the streets and images of the guillotine kept them awake at night. Yet within months the right-wing populism of the middle-class had reared up in the guise of the tea party and, in 2010, gave Republican politicians the biggest electoral landslide in decades.

The received wisdom of the pundits was, at least briefly, he says, that the left would have a resurgence and that we were entering a progressive florescence like the 1930s. But in less than an interrupted heartbeat, the bourgeoisie was on the offensive again, screeching plaintively about "class war" and calling for economic social Darwinism with "let the failures fail."

What started as clear-sighted fury at Wall Street casino-style shenanigans was deflected into a malicious whine at the "irresponsible" victims who had been bilked into buying the American dream of home ownership! Frank traces this "bait and switch" ideological maneuver in the media political dialog from the infamous Rick Santelli rant on the floor of the Chicago commodities exchange through the deification of Fox and Company's Glenn Beck to the Astroturf (a la Koch brothers) inflammation of the body politic in November 2010.

By Frank's analysis, Ayn Rand-spouting "free-marketeers" had hijacked the popular energy of an anti-elitist upsurge and channeled it into an attack on the toothless Keynesian bureaucracy centered in D.C. The gains of 1930s-era financial regulation had been rolled back or gutted by 40 years of creeping Reaganomics and now those hard-won measures were held up to blame for the very excesses they were designed to curb.

As for the mechanisms of this most recent bubble and crash, other renegade traders (but more especially investigative journalists like Pro Publica) may do a better job of explaining the historical details, but Frank's strong suite is his description of the capitalist "reaction" and the seeming sluggishness of the left's response in shaping the media dialog.

In a chapter titled "Mimesis" (Greek for 'imitation'), Frank, aside from a few pages of ill-informed anti-Communist bile, tries to make the case that that the right has learned from the left and become more polemical than at any time in recent memory. The ruling class now claims that they weren't laissez-faire enough, and that Democratic congressmen, their arteries clogged with co-operative cholesterol and corporate sugar, are feeling faint.

A frequent contributor to Harper's magazine, Frank produces a well-turned and emotive prose and provides a brief respite from the mindless palaver of the 24-hour news cycle. If you want a copy of "Pity the Billionaire," get it soon and give it to a liberal friend, because it's so deeply topical and immersed in 15-minute history that it is likely to be out of date soon. He was writing before Occupy Wall Street hit the front page. Like in his earlier books, he suffers from the lack of investigative legwork on his subject, unless it is the media itself. But give him due; after all, he is only a columnist, not a reporter. It seems a shame that he is so busy holding his nose in the air that he has forgotten to keep his ear to the ground.

 

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