Thomas Frank is the author of One Market Under God and What's the Matter With Kansas? He's a founding editor of The Baffler, a contributing editor to Harper's and a regular columnist for The Wall Street Journal. His new book is The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. He's also a regular guest on The Agony Column. Here's where you can find all his interviews, conversations and commentary.
Harper's Magazine, being one of the last bastions of reasonable thought and a monthly publication well worth your valuable reading time, has a new article by no less than Thomas Frank, asking for the unthinkable: "More Government, Please!"
It's been a fascinating few years on the American political and economic landscape, and rather mind-boggling, to tell the truth. We're in the midst of what we like to call an "economic downturn," which is to say, a global economic catastrophe that is likely to make the Great Depression look like Happy Valley. I've been betting on the barrels as a fashion trend for a while now.
In his latest article for Harper's, Thomas Frank thinks the unthinkable, asking for more government and suggesting that we look at re-creating the successful programs that helped pull the nation out of the Great Depression. These are unfashionable thoughts in these days when the loudest shouters are loudly shouting for even less regulation in an economic downturn (read: "catastrophe") caused by deregulation. Happily, Thomas Frank is not so quick to damn logic as those who seek to be the boss of you.
02-03-11:Speaking Frankly: Thomas Frank on The Easy Chair : A Moment of Disregard
"We need the rich to be nice to us..we've been transferring all the wealth of society back to them... shouldn't they be nice to us?"
It's clearly been way too long since I've spoken with Thomas Frank. He's left his steady gig at the Wall Street Journal and taken up with a more intuitively obvious place of publication, Harper's. Now before you begin, yes, I know about the foofaraw at Harper's with regards to layoffs. But, to be quite honest, we were so busy yakking about the transfer of wealth to wealthy and the trickle-up economy, that we could barely even get started. So I decided to do something unusual with this installment.
Generally, I like to begin with a composed introduction to my guest, a bit of boilerplate that lets listeners know who the heck they're listening to and that's about it. But Thomas and I just got to talking, and I realized I'd be well advised to turn on the recorder in mid-stream.
This conversation begins not with the intro, but with me coming back into mic range as I tell Frank about the latest opinion piece by the San Francisco Chronicle's conservative columnist, Deborah Saunders. She regally waves the red flag of debt, and the obvious — to her — necessity to reduce programs that are essential to the survival of the Middle Class, like Medicare and Social Security, all the while ignoring the (to me) obvious elephant among the elephants in the room, defense spending. It doesn't even get mentioned.
Well, what follows is free form smart conversation with one of America's leading political analysts and more fun than anyone should rightfully have when discussing the dire state of affairs in the United States. And yes, finally, I get to the introduction in the middle of our conversation and we launch into a discussion of Frank's latest column for Harper's The Easy Chair, which makes a modest proposal that we dedicate a day to be Rude to the Rich.
"...big-picture, end-of-the-world fear-mongering, let's talk about the destruction of freedom kind of politics..."
After two years behind the lines at the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Frank's last column showed up last month. When you think of his observations and his style of reportage and commentary, it's an amazing run, and truly a brave stint. He's authored some remarkable work there, and I gave him a ring to talk about his time there, and about his visions of the present media and political landscape.
Frank is quite interested in the fate of printed media, and he has good reason to be. As an editor and publisher of The Baffler, he put out a new issue in July, a nice piece of printed reporting and commentary. But the import of the print media has been permanently damaged. Frank talked quite eloquently about the power of the press since the era of Richard Nixon. There are solutions; despair is not required, but preparing for despair is in this age always a good idea.
We also talked about the power of the televised image, and in particular, Glen Beck, who knows how to wield that power expertly. The difference in how we apprehend televised image and the reading experience are precisely why Frank prefers to stick with the latter to comment about the former.
"...they have this theoretical preconception of what history is ..."
Ah, the lot of the speculative fiction reader is sometimes difficult. And the reading is sometimes even more difficult. Not under threat of — well, it's not torture according to his colleagues, but even if threatened with waterboarding — I'd not venture to read Newt Gingrich's writing. But I would pay attention to the fact that he's written alternate history involving Nazi Germany when he starts spouting off about how America faces a Nazi-like threat from his opposition. Thankfully, Thomas Frank is willing to face worse-than-waterboarding; he read Gingrich's latest screed. Not surprisingly, he has something to say about it.
OK, I'm going to spill Thomas Frank's terrible secret. He liked Newt's bit of alternate history. There, you have it. That said, Frank is rather well-acquainted with the genre, but not in the fashion of those who read genre fiction. That's because as much as we like out Harry Turtledoves, our Brian Stablefords, and everyone else who ever tweaked reality to suit their fictional purposes, the fact of the matter is that history gets tweaked regularly to serve so-called factual purposes. In the immortal words of Nomeansno, "Just Look Around."
Frank is quite adept at looking around seeing the high fictional content of the words of those in the political world. He and spoke about his last two columns that take writers like Newt Gingrich and Jim DeMint to for eliding the details that don't serve their message.
Now this is fine if you're Harry Turtledove and the novel you have written asserts that aliens invaded the earth during the World War II. I happen to love the Worldwar Series, which is seriously goofy fun. On the other hand, when Jim DeMint asserts that progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson shoved Prohibition down the throats of working-class Americans, that sort of elides the fact that Wilson actually vetoed the Volstead act, the precursor to prohibition.
Damn if it doesn't look like the ice floes are beginning to break up in that frozen white wasteland known as Washington, DC. I guess all this global warming does have some beneficial side effects.
What's emerging is a potential for some sort of financial regulation reform bill, essentially something to re-do what has been undone, piece-by-piece, since the 1980's. And of course, Thomas Frank is on the scene with his usual perceptive commentary on why we need to, as he put it, "Regulate, Baby, Regulate."
Sometimes these podcasts seem to mesh perfectly with current events, and here is a fine example. A couple of weeks ago, Frank wrote about the recent announcement by the Obama Administration to allow offshore oil drilling in some selected areas.
Now, we have a major fire on an offshore platform and regulation in the works that may directly affect oil prices far more significantly than the little issue of supply and demand.
Frank and I talk about the unseen and up until now, at least, unregulated market in oil commodities, with Frank giving a great explanation as to why this sort of thing ends up getting key votes in the Agriculture committee.
To me, over the last decade at least, the fluctuations in oil prices have always seemed sort of arbitrary. Turns out, that was the case. We're not being manipulated by OPEC; we're being manipulated by savvy traders who have figured out how to game the system and turn losses into profits.
But all this is connected with what Frank calls the "Magnetar Moment" behind the increasingly disjointed messages from those who seek to oppose regulation. To start understanding what the heck Magnetar is, you can look at a superb and chilling bit of reporting over at Propublica. They've uncovered a scheme that allowed some other system-gamers to profit from planned loss, the result of which contributed significantly to the financial crisis.
There he was. Thomas Frank, the author of 'What's the Matter With Kansas' and 'The Wrecking Crew,' partying with the Tea Party.
I find it just fascinating that while we read books about newspapers dying, and watch them die in reality, the fact of the matter is that this is an absolutely wonderful time for news itself. Every time you think things have gone off the rails so far you could never get close again, something else utterly unbelievable happens.
Frank and I spoke about his last three columns for the Wall Street Journal, starting with a look at the Texas School Board decisions with regards to the content of textbooks in Texas, and, as a result, through much of the USA. What is so interesting is that Frank's book, 'The Wrecking Crew,' with its idea of a government "captured" by those opposed to the basic principles of government itself, is playing out so obviously around the country, in a variety of venues.
In Texas, for example, some of those on the public school board are opposed to public schools. And again, what comes out of this sort of thinking is a really interesting usage of language, a decision to re-define certain words, or eliminate their use in textbooks. It's positively Orwellian, and funny in a bleak manner. But the long-term consequences are what will prove to be most interesting. What sort of children will we be raising when we have eliminated the word "capitalism" from our textbooks?
But Frank also reported to me on his time spent in DC at the health care protests, where he found the audience to be very polite. This is not the picture we get on television. Nuance works both ways; the nicest mom in the world may be holding a placard with some really incendiary language.
We like to make fun of our high school government classes, to suggest that they're a waste of time and that we forget the history we're supposed to have learned. And there is some truth in that; but there are also parts of my American History classes that stuck with me; in particular al the stories of trust-busting back in the early 20th century. Those who would play monopoly with our economy are ever with us. Not surprisingly, Thomas Frank has his eye on the latest degeneration, and has written about it recently in the Wall Street Journal.
Frank is also keeping a close eye on those who would seemingly revise the history that many of us refused to learn. His latest look at the "reactionary right" suggests that some of our modern politicians are taking a page from an essay written long ago by one Stanislaw Lem in 'A Perfect Vacuum,' where he reviews a non-existent book titled Die Kultur als Fehler — 'Civilization as Mistake.'
Lem's review of Kultur als Fehler is eerily chock-a-block with messages that sound like semaphores from the outer reaches of the blogosphere. "It is forbidden us to change the shape of the body, weaken the lust for aggression, strengthen the intellect, balance the emotions, rearrange sex, liberate man from old age, from the labors of procreation, and this is forbidden for the reason that it has never been done, and what has never been done must surely be, by that very fact, most evil."
Frank takes his cues from Barry C. Lynn's 'Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction' a book whose title suggests more than a little about its content. If a business or a corporation is too big to fail, aren't they also, by definition, too big to exist? Frank (and I) are both fans of the sort of anti-trust legislation that is actually enforced. Imagine that — at this point, you'll have to.
Readers who wish to hear Frank and I converse on the subject of our new game of monopoly, and why civilization is indeed a mistake — beyond those wonderful reasons given by the noted socialist Polish late science fiction author, Stanislaw Lem, need do no more than follow this link to the MP3 audio file.
02-18-10: Speaking Frankly With Thomas Frank
From Tea to Shining Tea
"When I think about what I'm saying, it's so depressing..."
The more things change, the more they stay the same. That seems to be the lesson of Thomas Frank's latest columns for the Wall Street Journal. It seems that no matter how thoroughly the Aegean stables of Washington are shoveled clean, the same smell creeps back in with a new name, a new brand ... but the same folks pulling the levers, and the same goals in mind. Some folks, it seems, won't feel free while there are still laws left on the books to obey, and regulations to regulate the transfer of wealth.
It was just the names, really, that alerted Thomas Frank to the never-ending irony that is Our Government InAction. Looking at the top dogs of the new "Tea Party" movement, that ultra-conservative, ultra-free group of roving protestors, Frank noticed some very familiar names. He'd written about them in 'The Wrecking Crew' because they were the ultimate insiders, the wheeler-dealer lobbyists who made the Marianas Islands safe for Sweatshop manufacturing. Now, the same names are calling themselves the leaders of the supposedly grassroots Tea Party movement. It is the sort of irony you could drive a golf ball with — providing that Jack Abramoff had flown you and your aides to Scotland to play the game.
We also talked about the surprisingly pervasive anti-government feeling that manages to keep stepping up to the podium and turning it into the bully's pulpit. It's not surprising that people would be disgusted with government. I would guess that I am not alone in being almost unable to watch TV news these days. But the problems with government, as Frank points out in 'The Wrecking Crew,' stem from the fact that those who were put in charge in the previous administration were against the principles they were supposed to uphold; the regulators didn't regulate.
02-10-10: Speaking Frankly: Thomas Frank on Re-Populism and Re-Launching The Baffler
"I have never seen 'populist backlash in a headline before." Thomas Frank
It's always interesting when words get tossed into the political fire, their meanings burnt to a crispin, only to be reborn, and alas, re-branded. If the word "crispin" doesn't exist it should, and though the word re-branding exists, to my mind, it shouldn't. Unless it refers to being stamped with a hot poker.
Yes, we've heard a lot of populism these days, and the references pretty much seem to point to what those in the UK might call "hooliganism." But it wasn't always that way, or rather it was, but the hooligans, or Populists, as they called themselves in the 19th century, had a rather different endgame in mind.
All this new-fangled populism, left, right and center is perfect fodder for Wall Street Journal Columnist Thomas Frank. He wrote about it in "Populism is Democracy at Work," and it's the usual Frank column that makes everyone in the political realm a bit nervous. And they should be! Populism has a long and actual history that has been written down and verified. It's not exactly what the latest newspapers purport it to be. Were the original members of the Vox Populi to arise from yesteryear and assert their opinions, they'd not be so ... popular as those claiming the crown are today. Oh history, as Frank and I discuss. It is ever so inconvenient.
01-22-10: Thomas Frank
Bringing Back Glass-Steagall and the Price of Gold
I shouldn't have been surprised that the two latest Thomas Frank columns for the Wall Street Journal dealt with money matters. After all, he pointed out to me, it is the Wall Street Journal. And Frank is indeed the author of 'One Market Under God,' a book that is becoming more au courant every day. The surprise, he says in "Bring Back Glass-Steagall", is where the calls for reform of the Glass-Steagall act are coming from. And how fast the ground is changing beneath our reporting feet, as the Obama Administrastion has done an about face on Glass-Steagall.
With his column "One Cross of Gold, Coming Up", Frank takes a page from Jonathan Swift, but to my mind, he does sort of neglect to notice that of late, at least, the real world seems to be giving satirists a run for their money.
The suggestions one makes laughingly now have a way of being reported as serious news by the sorts websites that aren't all that interested in reading as we are here. Then there are reports on the reports, and reports on the reports on the reports, until the original source material is lost in a blur of hyperventilation and exaggerated paranoia. Of course, only a few of us know that there is a secret government program to steal American's gold teeth for meltdown.... Project Tooth Fairy.
01-07-10: Thomas Frank and the Populists of the GOP : "The Demented Logic of American Politics"
We apparently live in a world where the past, say, 30 years, can be swept aside with a few bracing words. Thomas Frank, author of 'What's the Matter With Kansas?' and 'The Wrecking Crew', alas, has a tendency to remember what so many would prefer to forget.
In Thomas Frank's latest column for the Wall Street Journal, "Watch Out for GOP Populism," Frank takes aim at Republican Representative Paul Ryan, who authored an article for Forbes Magazine titled, "Down with Big Business." Yes, you read that right. Of course, when you get to the heart of what he wants, it's kind of a "Freedom from Freedom" song. Frank and I start with Rep. Ryan, but, like the populists in the GOP, we really relish our freedom of speech, which you can hear by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
12-29-09: The Chat Before Christmas With Thomas Frank, December 24, 2009
If there's one thing that's clear as we lurch towards a new year, it's that everyone is quite happy to be shut of the last ten years. From the Y2K panic to twin tragedies of 9/11 and the Iraq war, from housing bubble to the ugly crash, we are all simply so done. We're eager to draw the line and hope to quickly step over it, bringing nothing from the past that we may have to scrape off our shoes. We are all simply so done.
Let's all join Thomas Frank, then as he hoists a glass to "A Low, Dishonest Decade." While Frank is best known for 'What's the Matter with Kansas?' and 'The Wrecking Crew', this time around we got back to a book he wrote in "the before time," 'One Market Under God,' an excoriation of "Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy." After all, this little tome from Y2K sought to pop the bubble a mere eight years before it was large enough to take down, uh ... the world.
Of course, it wasn't just the sort-of, almost new Depression that rained on our parades. (Unless, like me, you’d invested heavily in BarrelWear once you saw things start to circle the Big Swirly.) There was also the tiny, almost insignificant matter, or pretty much our entire government being up for sale, and unhappily, not even to the highest bidder. It was the sort of decade in which even a man like Jack Abramoff, a guy who wears a black hat in case we didn't get who the bad guys were, starts to seen a little like a tragic figure. Sure, your sympathy might last all of ten seconds, and it is clearly tens second more than deserved, but at least had the decency to get caught and fess up. Everyone on the other side of his deals, with too few exceptions, is still in the business of selling the United States government to business; now they're in business and not in the government, and they're still toxic waste. We've managed to throw away the keys before they got locked up. I suppose it's just a matter of getting things in the right order. Listeners who want to hear to New World Order subjected to some Old World Wit need but follow this link to the MP3 audio file of our conversation.
12-15-09: Thomas Franks on Republican Purity Tests : Return or Re-Run of the Montagnards
Leave it to Thomas Frank to bring back the French Revolution, or at least the cool beheading action aspect. The columnist for the Wall Street Journal recently wrote about the proposed Republican Purity tests, in "Conservatives Want Republican Purge Trials" and I rang him up to draw out the violent details.
The problem with purity tests is that eventually, we're all going to fail them. The question is just who is going to be on the giving side and who is going to be on the taking side. Thomas Frank, author of 'The Wrecking Crew' (/agony/reviews/2008/frank-the_wrecking_crew.htm), decided to take those lovely current-day Republican litmus strips and run them past some of the would-be graven-in-stone heroes of the Republican party, in particular, one ex-actor and astrology fan who had his hand on the tiller of this (once) great nation. Frank and I have a pretty good idea that when they break out the guillotine "for reals," that we're not long for this world anyway. Why not start living dangerously now? You can up your danger content by following this link the MP3 audio file of our conversation, no test required!
12-02-09: Tears of a Clown : Thomas Frank Unbuilds Glen Beck
Language gets misused more often than it gets used — if the goal of language is to communicate the truth clearly and effectively. As readers and as a listening audience, we have to pay attention to the use and misuse of language out there in the wider culture, because a world where that book can become some insane bestseller is created by the wider use of language in that culture. If we all preface every sentence with, "Cluck, cluck," our bestsellers are likely to read like a bull session overheard in a chicken coop. Thomas Frank, author of 'what’s the Matter with Kansas?' and 'The Wrecking Crew' knows a thing or two about how language is tormented in the wider culture. And he's been studying the Fox networks who assert that they should be guarding those chickens.
In particular, Frank took on the unenviable task of looking into the life and work of Glen Beck, now the loudest mouth in the henhouse, and the result is the funny and frightening "Glen Beck's Holy War: How an Unlikely Talk Show Host Became the Savior of the Right," running in his this month's Playboy Magazine.
Readers know I enjoy horror fiction; the horrors of this actual world, not so much, perhaps. But Frank's article is important in its vision of language tortured beyond the imaginations of the Eli Roths of this world. Also, it's really fun to read and sort of amazing. Beck is an almost Fortean character who can apparently cry on demand. And he;s a lot of fun to unbuild, to take apart like a stack of Jenga pieces. Remove one piece and the whole illogical mess comes tumbling down. So instead of listening to frothing rants of politics mutated by nuclear radiation into horrific entertainment, why not sit back and enjoy the smooth styling of my conversation with Thomas Frank by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
10-27-09: Thomas Frank's Labor and Paranoia
"This is something that drives a certain segment of our society absolutely crazy..." — Thomas Frank
...and in that quote we've not even begun to talk about paranoia! That's right, Thomas Frank is back, with a look at the big ideas in small events, the little bread crumbs that are found in the back pages of the newspaper that actually point out the huge changes coursing through our cultural and political establishments. This week, we looked at one of those tweedly, insider bits of news that opens up a new vista of vapidity and celebrated the upcoming 45th anniversary of a little bit of prescience on the part of Richard Hofstadter from the November 1964 edition of Harper's Magazine.
I caught up with Thomas Frank as the tears started to roll down the face of a certain talk-show host. Actually, that's not hard! There's a whole lot of crying and self-pity going on in the political world. And fascinatingly, it starts from the smallest of seeds, from the Mike Enzi hold on Obama nominee Labor Department solicitor nominee Patricia Smith, guilty of having been an effective advocate for labor rights, in that she helped to start the Wage Watch program, chronicled in Frank's column for the Wall Street Journal,"The GOP vs. Labor Law". There's an interesting strain of politician afoot who seems to feel the needs to be a politician while denying the import of government; sort of like if your local police thought that laws were counterproductive in terms of encouraging and enforcing lawful behavior. It's funny, in a very depressing fashion.
Frank and I also talk about The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by Richard Hofstadter, an essay writer some 45 years ago to address the then-minor-league phenomenon of the John Birch Society. It's a great essay, and it was especially fun, after reading Frank's essay for the Wall Street Journal, "From John Birchers to Birthers", to talk with him about the new ranks of the American Paranoids. These are people who have pioneered cry-on-demand television. Alas, their only reason for crying is their mind-boggling wealth. I have too much fun talking to Thomas Frank, and I trust you'll enjoy hearing his take on events as you follow this link to the MP3 audio file.
Kansas artist M. T. Liggett protests FEMA's rebuilding of
Greensburg, KS, from the movie What's the Matter with
Kansas? by by Laura Cohen and Joe Winston
10-09-09: Thomas Frank Unleashes The Predator State : Consuming the Consumer
Everybody reads differently, which is what makes reading such a wonderful way to entertain one's self — while expanding your outlook on the world. For example, check out Thomas Frank's Wall Street Journal piece on how Conservatives read liberal writer Kenneth Galbraith, Health Care and the 'Predator State'.
When you're done, grab a brew, pull up a chair and give a listen to my chat with Thomas Frank, where we cover the week's politics with our own reading of events — and talk about the movie based on his book, 'What's the Matter With Kansas?' Yes, events can be read as well, in fact, the core concept of reading, the skills of the reader, are called into play a lot more often than anyone might suspect. We read one another — we read the road in front of us or suffer the consequences. And we have to read the news, even if we watch it on television. Paper has not refused ink — and our ears do not refuse the words that are spoken in our general vicinity. We have to sift through them and give them meaning. Here's a link to my conversation with Thomas Frank.
I thought it might be fun to get Frank on the phone and talk to him about the week's events, which is something that we really can't prepare for, because things are changing so fast, and the outrageous events pile up so quickly that it's hard to keep track of the lies, the truths, the lies about the truths and the truths about the lies. When I scheduled the interview, I must admit, I told him it was conditional on the phones still working. Anyone who remembers the recent outage in northern California when the lines were deliberately cut will know that's no given. (And note that there was never really a satisfactory explantion given for what could well have been an act of terrorism.) You can hear my conversation with Thomas Frank, covering recent events (phone lines permitting) by following the link to the MP3 audio file.
08-18-08: A 2008 Interview With Thomas Frank
For a guy with bad news in his book and on his mind, Thomas Frank sure has sunny disposition. He arrived at KQED with lunch in hand and chomped cheerily in the atrium while chatting with my wife and Naomi Eppel. Heck, we might have all been out on a picnic, everybody was so happy. This in spite of the torrent of bad news that unfolded soon afterwards when he and I sat down to talk about 'The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule'. Frank is witty, quick and smart, and often mordantly funny even as he is spinning the tale of how we've managed to put people in charge of government who actually hate government. Just this morning, I read about the resignation of Paul Hoffman, the former director of the "Chamber of Commerce" (read: "group of greedy businessmen") of Cody, Wyoming, from the Department of the Interior. He's quoted as saying the department "gets into your blood but doesn't necessarily turn it green." At this point there are so many foxes in henhouses that it seems quite likely they'll have to begin feasting on one another since the poultry's got to be getting pretty scarce.
The preceding paragraph was brought to you by a 52-minute conversation with Thomas Frank, which you can hear for yourself via this link. Frank and I delve into details that didn't make it into his book, since he admits having done "way, way, too much research on South Africa" and the shady goings-on with the IFF, that is, the International Freedom Foundation. "They're for freedom, Rick — internationally, of course." Frank's the kind of writer and speaker who could tell you that ICBM's were streaking over the Arctic Circle and leave you smiling as you consider the potential effects of their passage on the Aurora Borealis. But he also has all the hard facts that enable you, the reader (and listener) to face the hard decisions that are coming our way. And make no mistake, those decisions are headed towards us with the inevitability of an ICBM, and alas, no potential for pretty side effects on the Aurora Borealis. Readers and listeners had best enjoy hearing Frank tell us what we've done to ourselves. Smart language is our only way out.
New to the Agony Column 12-14-11: Commentary : Peter Orner Weighs 'Love and Shame and Love' : The Unstuck Family
09-26-11: Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with Neal Stephenson, Plus Live Reading and Q and A : "Here you're asking me to engage into more self-examination than is my wont..."
09-19-11: Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2011 Interview with Lev Grossman : "I'm gonna write it ... and if Viking doesn't publish it, everyone can just come over to my house and look at it on my laptop."