Book Talk: Thomas Frank on the Great Recession

NEW YORK Tue Jan 3, 2012 11:23pm IST

The cover of ''Pity the Billionaire'' by author Thomas Frank.REUTERS/Metropolitan Books

The cover of ''Pity the Billionaire'' by author Thomas Frank.

Credit: Reuters/Metropolitan Books

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Author Thomas Frank has seen the future and he doesn't think many Americans will like it.

In his new book "Pity the Billionaire," the chronicler of conservative politics and market-based economics discusses the two trends after the 2008 financial crisis that led to bailouts of the large U.S. banks and to a recession.

Throughout the book, Frank seems to be shaking his head over the rise of the free market-espousing Tea Party movement in the midst of hard times and income inequality that he and many others blame on markets that were too free.

"Moneyed interests understand that ... they have nothing to fear from us, and may do as they please," he writes. "This is the real tragedy of the Great Recession."

If "the new, more ideologically concentrated Right" gains full control of the U.S. government, he believes it will slash spending and gut regulators.

Frank spoke to Reuters about where he thinks the United States is now and where he thinks it seems headed.

Q: Why have Americans accepted the Tea Party?

A: "One thing was the lack of a competing voice, a robust challenge ... for two years. Another thing is that what they are offering is very attractive. They seem to have an answer. Their main maneuver is that they don't talk about the financial crisis. What they talk about, and they talk about very well, are the bailouts.

"The bailouts were this moment that just crushed people's faith. It was a shocking moment. It hit everyone. We all had to pay for it. And the Democrats proceeded like nothing was wrong, except for little things here and there.

"The Tea Party people were up in arms immediately. This horrifying moment, they called it exactly right. I don't think their answer is exactly right. You can oppose bailouts from all sorts of points of view. My left-wing friends opposed the bailouts also. But my left-wing friends don't have a TV network. They don't have followers out there rallying in the park. They're writing academic articles and stuff like that."

Q: What does the acceptance of the Tea Party say about the American people?

A: "We are supposed to be a pragmatic people. It was surprising to me how deep into ideology we've sunk."

Q: This book was obviously written before Occupy Wall Street started to get attention. What are this movement's chances against the Tea Party?

A: "The Tea Party movement has pretty much conquered the Republican Party. The party has taken another gigantic step to the right. You have one protest movement embraced by mainstream American politics; people associated with it will get elected. There will be Democrats here and there that show up at Occupy Wall Street rallies and say nice things about it, but the chances that leaders of Occupy Wall Street will run for elected office seem pretty remote to me.

"The biggest change that it has made and I think will make is inserting ideas into the conversation that were completely unacceptable just a few months ago, and I speak from experience."

Q: Do you see the future that you depicted as inevitable?

A: "We would make a terrible mistake to underestimate these people. Look at 2008. The conservative movement should have been completely destroyed. The financial crisis smashed their way of looking at the world. Every pundit in America said these people would be done for if they don't moderate and move to center, as pundits are always saying. And look what happened. They moved to an even more purified vision of their idealism, and they succeeded overwhelmingly in 2010.

"There's little reason to have a lot of hope in the Democratic Party when you see who funds it, what their leading thinkers say. I live in Washington, D.C., which is Democratic Central. All their great thinkers are here. These are people who are committed to the market ideology every bit as much as our Republicans. They tend to be more liberal on social issues, of course, but they believe in markets. And yes, that ideology has led us into disaster. It's leading the world into disaster.

"There are all kinds of ways to bring back robust competition for ideas, but none of them are on the table. The two parties face no third-party challenge. We could use a labor movement again, that is clearly the voice of working people. That would really change the conversation in America.

"So while Occupy Wall Street is a great thing and they have certainly made a huge dent, it's not enough. It's not anywhere near enough.

(Reporting by Lisa Von Ahn; editing by Patricia Reaney)

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