Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire: A Review, Part II

In his analysis of the housing market’s crash of 2008, Frank keeps discussing the irresponsible lenders and traders who caused the crash. He is absolutely right in that their actions deserve to be investigated and condemned. However, Frank avoids the discussion of the other side of the equation, namely, the irresponsible borrowers. Unless we recognize that the Tea Partiers express a legitimate grievance of many against those who borrowed huge amounts of money they had no hope of repaying, there will be no opportunity to address the economic and political situation in this country in any productive way. When a very well-paid professional whose job it is to analyze finance drives himself into bankruptcy by irresponsible borrowing just because he needed to feel “gangsta”, can we really condemn those who work hard and try to live debt-free for feeling outraged?

The irresponsible lending goes on. In my neighborhood it definitely does and it horrifies me to imagine into what fresh round of drama this will lead us. But my neighborhood bank would not have been able to hand out the record number of zero-downpayment mortgages last month, had there not been people willing to snap up these loans. “The Bad Neighbor Doctrine” of the Tea Partiers that Frank condemns makes a lot of sense to me, a passionate Liberal.

If anything, Frank’s Pity the Billionaire made me feel an unexpected affinity with the Tea Partiers. He works hard to refute any accusation of racism and religious fanaticism that might be directed at the Tea Party. According to Frank, a regular Tea Partier is an educated, polite, blog-reading and blog-writing fan of Ayn Rand who believes that small businesses are the backbone of the economy and who deeply respects the entrepreneurial spirit of the Americans. Does this description remind you of anybody? Right you are, Frank’s typical Tea Partier is . . . me. There has got to be something wrong with the kind of analysis that does not distinguish between ultra-Liberal Progressives like myself and the followers of Glenn Beck.

The part of the book that I found the most disturbing is Frank’s profound and inexplicable hatred of small-business owners. According to Frank, they are so bogged down in their puny little concerns that the larger picture always eludes them. Small-business owners, Frank suggests, contribute nothing of value to the economy while, politically, they represent very regressive forces for the simple reason that they are too stupid to understand any complex phenomenon.

I am one of those ignoramuses who believe that small businesses (and, of course, small business loans) are, indeed, crucial to any healthy economy. What’s more, my barbarity is such that I see the American entrepreneurial spirit as not only unique but also profoundly admirable. Probably this is why I didn’t like Thomas Frank’s new book at all.

Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire: A Review, Part I

I’m a huge fan of Thomas Frank. His What’s the Matter With Kansas was absolutely brilliant. Since I discovered that great book, I’ve been following his articles and interviews and eagerly awaiting his new book.  You can just imagine how happy I was when I got the chance to read the proofs of his Pity the Billionaire, a book that analyzes the reasons behind the rise of the Tea Party movement. The book strives to answer the crucial question: how is it possible that the Americans’ response to the global economic crisis that happened as a result of unbridled free market practices led them to form a movement that would defend the free market rather than to a movement that would ask for regulations?

The book, however, turned out to be a massive disappointment. Frank’s trademark wit is gone. Aside from a few forced jokes, the book is written in a plodding, unimaginative style that I had no idea this author was even capable of.

His analysis of the “right renaissance” is also unimpressive. People who have been reading my blog for a while know that I’m no fan of the Tea Party. Still, I have to recognize that Frank is being intellectually dishonest in his characterization of the Tea Partiers. For instance, he blames them for the apocalyptic tone they often adopt and the doomsday scenarios they enjoy generating. This, however, is not a distinctive trait of just the Tea Partiers. It is just as present among the Progressives. The Liberal blogs I read are filled to the brim with endless apocalyptic scenarios. By the way, Slavoj Zizek’s 2009 book is titled Living in the End Times. You don’t get either more apocalyptic or more progressive than that.

Another fault that Frank ascribes to the Tea Partiers is that they erase the class distinctions and see no difference between a share-cropper and a small-business owner. Does this remind you of anything, by any chance? Yes, right you are, the #Occupy movement that lumps everybody who is not a billionaire into the imaginary downtrodden 99%.

Frank then proceeds to blame the Tea Party for its rhetoric of self-pity:

[They] advance their war on the world by means of a tearful weepy-woo. Self-pity has become central in the consciousness of the resurgent Right. Depicting themselves as victimized in any and every sitiation . . . is essential to their self-understanding.

Again, #OWS, anyone? Remember this statement from a prof with no debt, a house of his own and a wonderful life, who wallows in self-pity because his life is so complicated and anxiety devours him? So why do the Tea Partiers get blamed for their weepy-woo while Liberals don’t?

[To be continued. . .]