Wednesday, October 08, 2008

“Wrecking Crew” Author Thomas Frank Speaks at City College

Exposes How Capitalism Destroys Good Government — and What We Can Do


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Thomas Frank, by Wendy Edelberg.

Thomas Frank is known for bitter social commentaries about the Right-wing ideology of “One Market Under God” — as he called it in the title of one of his books — and the ruin it’s made of America’s economic and political life, but when he appeared October 5 at San Diego City College as part of the third annual City Book Fair, he couldn’t have been more chipper. Part of that, he admitted after he spoke, was that he was on the final leg of his current book tour. But he was also guardedly optimistic that America’s current economic crisis might finally destroy the mystique of The Market and open possibilities for a liberal revival in the U.S. “This looks like the end times for American capitalism — or at least another wrenching crisis that we have to rescue it from so it can screw us again,” said Frank.

Born in 1965 — which, as Frank ruefully notes in his current book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, looked like the high point of American liberalism but turned out merely to be the sunset before the darkness — Frank first achieved prominence as a social commentator in the early 1990’s with his magazine The Baffler. In that publication, and his first book The Conquest of Cool, Frank noted that not only had the lag time between the development of an authentic form of youth rebellion and its co-optation and capture by capitalists eager to turn it into a profit-making product shrunk to virtually nothing, but capitalists marketing to youths had figured out how to invent their own trends and recruit supposedly representative young people to help them.

Frank followed this with his book One Market Under God, a broader critique of the way market ideology and the worship of the corporate rich had come to dominate American economic thought. He recalled that the book came about from watching the business channel CNBC in the late 1990’s. “They had a feature called ‘CEO Money Meter’ where you could rejoice as your favorite CEO made more money,” he recalled — a form of CEO-worship that ended, Frank added, “the moment Henry Paulson said ‘$700 billion’” as the price tag of his economic bailout plan.

His next book was the best-selling What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which he traveled back to the state where he’d been born and tried to analyze how and why it had been transformed from a bastion of agrarian radicalism to a haven for anti-abortion activists and libertarian as well as social-conservative Rightists. Few books have been so misunderstood as What’s the Matter with Kansas? The sound-bite version of Frank’s analysis, repeated again and again by political pundits on cable TV news and talk radio, was that Midwestern rural Americans had been fooled by a Right-wing political, social and religious machine into voting against their economic interests by being riled up about “cultural” or “values” issues like abortion and Queer rights.

What Frank actually said was that both the Republican and Democratic parties had so totally bought into the pro-corporate line of deregulation and The Market that there was no longer any real difference between them on economic issues — and therefore the Kansas voters he surveyed were rationally and even nobly voting their consciences on the cultural issues on which the parties still differed. Indeed, in a portion of the book that almost never gets quoted, Frank expressed his admiration for the will, commitment and self-sacrificing spirit of Kansas’s grass-roots anti-abortion activists, even though he made clear his utter loathing for their cause.

Frank’s latest book, The Wrecking Crew — the one he was at City College to promote — isn’t about the grass-roots citizen activists of the Right, but about the leaders who created the modern conservative coalition, established its principles and tactics, raised funds for it from the businessmen who were its natural constituency — and made tons of money for themselves in the process. Early on in the book he writes, “There are plenty of good conservative individuals, honorable folks who would never participate in the sort of corruption we have watched unfold over the last few years” — but, unlike What’s the Matter with Kansas?, The Wrecking Crew isn’t about them.

Instead, it’s about the ideologues of the modern-day Right, the business owners and executives who funded them, and how they created a corrupt state because, Frank argues, that’s precisely what the Right wants. Frank locates the beginnings of modern-day capitalist corruption with Northern capitalism’s decisive victory over the Southern land- and slave-based aristocracy in the Civil War. Many of the people who became the fabled “robber barons” of the rest of the 19th century had begun, Frank said, by fleecing the government as war suppliers — and they went right on behaving the same way after the war ended.

“In March 1868 Jay Gould set forth for Albany, New York [the state capital] with a suitcase full of cash,” Frank recalled. “He was struggling with Cornelius ‘Commodore’ Vanderbilt for control of the Erie Railroad. Vanderbilt wanted the railroad and Gould was holding him off with an illegal strategy. Each side bought their own New York state legislators and judges. Fabulous stories were told about the sums they were willing to spend. This was the golden age of American capitalism, and our country worshiped entrepreneurs and spun theories to tell us why the Market’s way was God’s way. For everyone else, unregulated capitalism meant toxic food, insane economic booms and busts, and bitter labor battles and strikes. The logic of entrepreneurship ruled American politics.” Those, Frank said, are the “good old days” modern-day conservatives want to restore.

According to Frank, the excesses of the late 19th century capitalists brought forth various movements to “reform” the system — “but they couldn’t figure out how to do it,” he explained. “They set up a nonpartisan civil service, but nothing worked. They figured the problem was much deeper; you cannot bring political corruption to heel without bringing capitalism to heel.” In The Wrecking Crew, Frank quotes Louis D. Brandeis, who was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Woodrow Wilson and served until 1941, usually dissenting from his Republican brethren’s opinions favoring business over labor and consumers, as saying, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

“Today we are learning these lessons all over again,” Frank told his audience at City College. “The principal players in the Enron and Jack Abramoff scandals [Abramoff, the College Republicans organizer turned super-lobbyist turned convict, looms large in The Wrecking Crew] were all true believers in the Market. There are theorists who believe there’s nothing wrong with insider trading, price-fixing and bribery. Our country worships billionaires, and the top 1 percent of the population makes as much as the bottom 50 percent. Our politicians of both [major] parties gush over the prospect of ‘market government.’”

One of the favored tactics of Market conservatives — in both parties, but particularly among Republicans — is to sabotage attempts to regulate business by appointing pro-Market ideologues to run those agencies. “Governments routinely appoint individual people to run regulatory agencies who are hostile to the missions of those agencies,” Frank said. “The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) let investment bankers run wild, and they destroyed themselves. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) came to regard the airlines — not the public — as their ‘customers.’” (So, though Frank didn’t mention it, did the staff members of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with the pharmaceutical companies — who, under current law, actually pay “fees” to fund most of the budget of the agency which supposedly regulates them.)

Frank cited a recent story about staff members on an obscure agency within the Interior Department charged with regulating oil companies’ performance on leases on public lands — the ones Republicans like John McCain and Sarah Palin want to expand dramatically with their chants of “drill, baby, drill” — whose members routinely had sex with employees of the oil companies they were supposedly regulating. Thus, Frank said, they were not only figuratively but “literally in bed with industry representatives.”

According to Frank, the assault on government by the Right-wing activists, philosophers and businesspeople he refers to as “the wrecking crew” is total and multi-faceted — and, in one of the most controversial assertions in his book, Frank says the incompetence of Right-wing government we have seen in the Bush administration is intentional. Frank claims that the Right doesn’t want a government that functions efficiently in the service of free-market ideology, just as they don’t want one that functions efficiently in the service of liberal reforms. Rather, they want a government that barely functions at all — so not only does it not get in the way of businesspeople, but eventually it destroys the public’s confidence in their ability to clean things up by electing different officeholders.

One of Frank’s most interesting sources for that is an article called “A Plea for Inefficiency in Government” that appeared in 1928 in Nation’s Business, the house organ of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The piece was an interview with the Chamber’s then-president, defense contractor Homer Ferguson. “The best public servant is the worst one,” Ferguson said. “A thoroughly first-rate man in public service is corrosive. He eats holes in our liberties. The better he is, and the longer he stays, the greater the danger. If he is an enthusiast — a bright-eyed madman who is frantic to make this the finest government in the world — the Black Plague is a house pet by comparison.”

“For decades after the 1929 crash,” Frank writes in The Wrecking Crew, “the nation ignored the Chamber’s plea for lousy government, bent instead on using government to build a more equitable society. Through depression and war and postwar boom, the civil service continued to grow, hitting its postwar peak in 1968. Conservative Washington, however, is Homer Ferguson’s kind of place, a point made quite explicitly in 1987 by the conservative pundit Doug Bandow, once a special assistant to President Reagan, who announced that for conservatives, ‘excellence in government’ was not an acceptable goal.”

“We shouldn’t want a proficient public sector,” Frank quotes Bandow as saying. “Given that government absorbs and redistributes wealth rather than creates it, we desperately need to keep the very best people out in the private sector where they can do the most good. … The definition of public service should be doing what is right, not doing anything well.”

Frank describes many ways the Right has sought to destroy the U.S. civil service, from imposing loyalty oaths (like twenty-something Regent University graduate Monica Goodling’s infamous question to people who wanted to be U.S. Attorneys under the Bush administration, “What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?”) to slashing its pay and benefits to reassigning and demoting civil servants who haven’t got the message that it is now businesspeople and the corporate rich, not the rest of the public, who are their agencies’ “customers.”

But the Right’s most far-reaching way of eliminating competence in the civil service, Frank argued, is to get rid of large chunks of it altogether by “outsourcing” its functions to the private sector. Frank said that’s even happening in the recently approved $700 billion economic bailout, in which executives of the very Wall Street firms that are being bailed out have been hired by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as “consultants” to determine which loans and other assets he will buy with the money, and which he will let fail.

“Massive outsourcing is what the Bush administration is about,” Frank said. “It’s a ripoff of gigantic proportions. In all three Bush administration initiatives — the Department of Homeland Security, the reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina, and the war in Iraq — it’s been a botch. Today the Defense and Homeland Security departments accept contracts so badly written, they seem devices to sluice out money [from taxpayers], and since the contractors are private companies there isn’t any oversight. One of the strange things conservatives did when they had control of Congress was get rid of the agencies that were supposed to supervise contracts. Even the main agency that was supposed to supervise outsourcing was outsourced.”

Frank also discussed the so-called “revolving door,” through which government employees and even elected officials gain lucrative jobs with the companies they formerly regulated — and their colleagues left behind get the message that if they, too, go easy on industry they’ll also be able to get cushier and better-paying jobs in the private sector. The “revolving door” has spun for decades, but under the Bush administration it’s spun far faster than it ever did before. “The people who wrote the prescription-drug Medicare plan [which specifically forbade the government from negotiating with drug companies for lower prices] were plucked from private industry and went right back there once they were done,” Frank explained. “Fifteen people involved in that plan went through that door, including the head of the House committee that considered it, Billy Tauzin, who was hired to be the head of lobbying for Big Pharma at $2 million a year.”

Virtually all the modern Right’s strategies serve a dual purpose, Frank said. Not only do they get government out of the way of The Market and the “right” of business to make profits whatever the social cost, they also “defund the Left” — a phrase coined by long-term radical-Right activist Grover Norquist early in his career — by draining the potential sources of funding for any movement opposing the Right’s agenda. So-called “tort reform” not only shields companies from having to pay civil verdicts for unsafe products or working conditions, it severely cuts the income of trial lawyers and thus their ability to donate to liberal causes and Democratic politicians. Attacking the labor movement not only allows business to drive down the costs of labor and avoid having to spend money fixing unsafe working conditions, it also slashes the money available to unions and forces them to remain on the defensive, unable to attack the political Right.

The result of all this, Frank said, has been to turn the U.S. from a country in which prosperity was widely shared to one in which inequality of wealth and income has already reached Third World levels — and is still growing. “In 1965, when I came into the world, America was enjoying a period of unparalleled prosperity,” he said. “The gross domestic product (GDP) grew 6.5 percent per year, as opposed to 2 percent in the best years of conservative government. That growth was in accord with an economic principle of ‘a growing abundance, widely shared.’ Taxes were high, regulations onerous, and J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world, was bitter because the average man could enjoy the luxuries the rich had once had to themselves.” Indeed, Frank recalled, during the liberal era economists simply assumed that gains in productivity translated into increases in workers’ wages.

Today, by contrast, “American productivity gallops along but only the people at the top benefits. Think of what it costs to build us another billionaire: the sudden outbreaks of deadly food poisoning, the train derailments, the deadly mine accidents, the stock market that shakes and shimmies, the tap water that’s unfit to drink, the mysterious workplace diseases that it turns out upon investigation could have been easily avoided at only a slight expense to management. But all of these things are made possible, and even unavoidable, by a philosophy of government that regards business as its only important constituent.”

Asked whether there will be any meaningful change if the Democrats win this year’s elections, Frank used the question to illustrate how the Right has sought to make these changes permanent and wipe out the ability of any competing political movement to undo them. “Barack Obama has been moving Left lately as the economy collapses,” Frank acknowledged. “He’s starting to talk like Franklin Roosevelt — and that’s what he has to do to win. He’ll have a Democratic Congress. He’ll have 100 days and he will be able to crack down on outsourcing.” But, Frank argued, President Obama will run smack into the reality that the Right has put the government so deeply in debt that even if he wants to enact a liberal agenda, he won’t be able to.

Frank described the huge budget deficits run up by the last three Republican presidents as the ultimate “defund the Left” strategy. “I don’t have a problem with deficit spending, but it has to be responsible and intelligent,” Frank said. “Under Reagan, the Right figured out that deficits make a fantastic weapon against liberals. They dumped the whole thing in the lap of Bill Clinton, and it made it impossible for him to do any of the liberal things he’d promised. You guys can want national health care — the idea that a family must declare bankruptcy because their kids get sick is horrible — but the enormous budget deficit takes national health care off the table,”

Asked whether the $700 billion bailout will make a difference for anybody who makes less than $40,000 per year, Frank replied, “People have been screwed already. Unemployment is 6 percent and rising. Food is much more expensive, and farmers are not benefiting from the higher food prices because it’s all going to the middlemen. Productivity keeps going up and workers’ wages are flat. The whole economy is structured to screw average people.”

The only way that’s going to change, Frank said, is if ordinary people somehow get together and build the same kinds of mass social movements that moved American politics to the Left in the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s. “We were moving towards social democracy because we had movements,” he explained: “labor movements, farmers’ movements, civil rights movements. We didn’t get good wages or Social Security because politicians gave them to us. We got them because we had a social movement pushing for that. That movement is moribund, while the Right’s social movement just keeps on chugging. They’re an outgrowth of business and they will never be without resources. We’ve learned a lesson in the last 30 years: if you give those people an inch, they will screw us.”