Ironic 'Pity the Billionaire' slams right, left
and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right
By Thomas Frank
Picador/Henry Holt and Company
First, in case you're one of the 1 percent looking for a sympathetic ear, the main title is meant ironically. The subtitle should give you an idea of the book's real intent. Don't expect impartiality or even-handedness here.
Frank aims his acerbic analytic pen (or, more likely, keyboard) at many targets on the right, including Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand fans in general, Paul Ryan in particular, Wall Street, but also banks too big too fail, bailouts for the guys who caused the problem but not the little guys who were hurt, and, a little surprisingly, Obama and the liberal Democrats in Washington
But if you're a conservative Republican, a tea party supporter or fan of Glenn Beck, you're more likely to be offended by Frank's views.
This is the paperback reissue, which it says has been "fully updated and expanded," but I didn't read the hardcover, so I don't know by how much really. Many critics of the first edition noted that events had to some extent overtaken Frank, so that his continual swipes at Beck seemed out-of-date, given that his Fox News show was cancelled before it was published. I don't know if any such references have been removed, but I don't find the number of times he's mentioned in this edition is excessive, given his many best-sellers and the reverence with which he is held by many in the tea parties.
Some critics also observed that the Occupy movement got short shrift because of timing, suggesting this was the left wing uprising that Frank lamented hadn't taken place. But the Occupy movement hasn't really moved, not in any meaningful or politically effective way.
In general I'm sympathetic to Frank's views, but I don't accept everything he says here as fact. And sometimes you have to check the footnotes to get the whole joke (an example with Michigan connections: he quotes somebody, but you have to turn to the back of the book to find out it's Ted Nugent rather than a politician or economist).
Frank's main contention is that the banking and housing meltdowns should have led to a call for greater government oversight and regulation of business and bankers, as did the Great Depression before it. Instead the populist anger was redirected by the conservatives to call for less regulation.
I'm sure a conservative Frank could argue that this was the best course of action, that the over-regulation during the Depression slowed down rather than led to the recovery. As I said, I'm not taking this as gospel.
While Frank gives the right "credit" for seizing the opportunity, he also blames President Obama for giving the right the ammunition by botching the bailout. Frank points out, as have many conservatives, that Wall Street and the banks got money with little or no strings, its executives got to keep their jobs and bonuses, while the little guy got ... little.
My favorite part of the book is Frank's analysis of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, a tea party favorite (as has been reported, Paul Ryan allegedly made interns and staffers read the book as a condition of employment). He points out that in many ways it is a version (parody?) of the bad, leftist propaganda novels of the 1930s, and suggests that the book isn't set in the 1950s during which it was written, or the near future, but rather in the 1930s. The obsession with railroads and steel mills, the opening scene where a man is begging for change (Frank repeatedly mentions the song "Brother Can You Spare a Dime") and the almost complete lack of mention of television while radio is everywhere (even John Galt's 80-page speech is only broadcast on radio) all point to the 1930s. Maybe it's an alternate 1930s (is there a version of steampunk where technological advances are delayed rather than accelerated?).
Amusingly, Frank also points out that a main plot point -- Hank Rearden's development of a new super metal, culminating in his factory being destroyed by a proletariat mob -- is virtually lifted whole from a Little Orphan Annie storyline.
Ultimately I doubt Pity the Billionaire will change any minds, but it's food for thought.
For more about the book, visit Thomas Frank's website.