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Monday, 11 August 2008 07:01

Thomas Frank's 'The Wrecking Crew' Explains the Right's All-Out Assault on Good Government

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I think that what we're seeing now -- no-bid contracts -- is disgusting. ... That's the closest thing that you're ever going to get to government-backed business. At the end of the day, that's really what it's about. It's not about free market utopianism. It's about government by business.

-- Thomas Frank, author of The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule

* * *

One election cycle back, Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? helped Democrats understand the problem they had holding on to their erstwhile base of working middle America. Now in his latest book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, Frank nails the conservatives who have outsourced, privatized, shrunk, and absolved government of any impulse it might have to hold itself accountable to citizens.

As reviewer James Warren of the Chicago Tribune sums up Frank's expose of the conservatives now in charge of government: "Its leaders laugh off the idea of the public interest as airy-fairy nonsense; they caution against bringing top-notch talent into government service; they declare war on public workers. They have made a cult of outsourcing and privatizing, they have wrecked established federal operations because they disagree with them, and they have deliberately piled up an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis. The ruination they have wrought has been thorough; it has been a professional job."

Thomas Frank moves from the befuddling support many working class whites give to a Republican Party that picks their pockets and tosses them out of their jobs in "What's the Matter with Kansas" to the center of the corporate-run operation to make national government a subsidiary of multi-national inc. in "The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule."

Frank has established himself as one of the most trenchant and provocative analysts of an American democracy that has been sold to the highest bidder.

* * *

BuzzFlash: Tom, as you know, we interviewed you after you wrote What's the Matter With Kansas? You've written several books, but certainly the most noted was What's the Matter With Kansas? I believe The Wrecking Crew will join that. You went from the heartland of Kansas, where you grew up, and a fascinating study of why so many people vote against their economic interest, to the "wrecking crew" in Washington. Why, beyond the fact that you now live in Washington, would you make that journey?

Thomas Frank: Well, it's the logical next step. Look at how these guys actually behaved when they were in power? Early, I talked about the culture of conservatism that you encounter in places like Kansas. But, now, let's see what they do when they're actually at the seat of power.

BuzzFlash: Your book is pretty scathing.

Thomas Frank: Yes.

BuzzFlash: Do you have anything nice to say about the government in Washington?

Thomas Frank: Well, I believe that you have to have a strong central government if you're going to have a social democracy, and the government has to be managed effectively and efficiently. So in theory, I believe in government. Do I have anything positive to say about the current bunch that's in there? Let me think about that.

BuzzFlash: Well, your last chapter, I think, may sum it up. It's called "Win-Win Corruption."

Thomas Frank: Yes.

BuzzFlash: Another chapter is called "The Best Public Servant Is the Worst One." Does this all go back to Grover Norquist -- and I'm paraphrasing his quotation, which is now quite infamous or famous -- the best thing to do with the federal government is strangle it and then drown it in the bathtub.

Thomas Frank: Yes, he said something like that. He said he wanted to shrink it down to the size where he could drown it in a bathtub. He has a colorful way of talking. There are lots of conservatives who have hated government, and they've hated it a long time before Grover Norquist came on the scene. Hating government and doubting the possibilities of government is really the bread and butter of American conservativism. It goes back to the 19th Century. The core doctrine of American conservatism is not family values. It's laissez faire. It's let the market do it. Let business do whatever it feels like. That's the core doctrine.

Government has always struck them as an imposition, as a meddler, as something they have to do battle with, or conquer, more accurately. They've always said they're for small government. What they're really about is captured government.

BuzzFlash: When you say "captured" -- are you talking about privatization? We can look at Iraq, for example, where there wasn't competitive bidding for many major contracts, including a large number of the ones given to Halliburton and KBR. That's not "free" market. That's a fixed market.

Thomas Frank: That's true. The bottom line is that a pure free market is something that exists only in theory, and will never exist in reality. I don't know how much time you've spent around real free market true believers, but they have a sort of self-exculpating explanation. They always say, well, it wasn't a pure market. You have to let us keep trying, because we didn't get exactly what we wanted this time.

Arguing that, they can get out of any situation. If you ever spent time around Chicago School economists, they look at any situation where the market failed -- it didn't deliver all the great things it's supposed to deliver -- and they look for where government somehow, or a labor union somehow, intervened and "tainted" the processes of the market. And they say: See, it wasn't a pure free market.

I think that what we're seeing now -- no-bid contracts -- is disgusting. And there's a lot more of them than people think. It is loathsome. That's the closest thing that you're ever going to get to government-backed business. At the end of the day, that's really what it's about. It's not about free market utopianism. It's about government by business.

BuzzFlash: You went to the University of Chicago, the school that --

Thomas Frank: The pioneer of a lot of this thinking.

BuzzFlash: And they won more Nobel prizes for this type of thinking. What's wrong with the Nobel committee that they're awarding Milton Freidman types?

Thomas Frank: That I don't know. I've never understood that.

BuzzFlash: They basically posit a sort of heaven of economics, where it would work hypothetically. But we can't attain heaven on earth in our own lives.

Thomas Frank: What you're basically saying is it is a utopia. And it is as ridiculous a utopia as the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat after which the state will wither away -- it's as silly as that. It's impossible. And to think that we in this country have chased that rainbow, to our lasting detriment, is really sad. It's awful.

BuzzFlash: You also have a chapter called "City of Men," which, for political correctness' sake, we'll change to both men and women.

Thomas Frank: Most lobbyists are men, though.

BuzzFlash: But here's my question. The conservatives on the campaign trail and so forth, engage in patriotic heart-tugging. But what your book really argues, is that this actually is about surrendering the government to corporate sovereignty rather than national sovereignty. Really the corporations rule. They have the primacy of decision-making. They have the primacy of moving the markets around and affecting the way we live, without government interference. The government's really responsible for very little, particularly when you're selling naming rights to things like tollways and bridges for marketing purposes. You're really just selling the government off. The government really becomes replaced by corporations.

Thomas Frank: Yes. That's exactly right. And in a literal sense. This is not an exaggeration or a metaphor. It is actually what has happened. They've outsourced and privatized all sorts of operations of the state, aspects of the state, to private corporations. They pay for it with our money, taxpayer money. And it's very hard to hold them accountable. They don't answer to us. They never did. They're private corporations.

First of all, there is very little accountability because of private corporations. Sending the money there closes down scrutiny of how the money is spent and how the government operates. Second of all, there are all these offices scattered around the federal government to track this phenomena -- to keep an eye on the government contractors. And conservatives have made it their business to close these offices down or to defund these offices. The office in charge of overseeing outsourcing has actually been privatized itself -- Duncan Hunter, Congressman from California is the guy involved in doing that. He actually tried to defund the Inspector General's office in Iraq, which has actually been doing a really good job of keeping track of where the money goes in Iraq. They're giving us a great accounting of a disaster. But he tried to close and defund that office. I don't know why. He would just slip it into bills. He'd defund the office that's keeping track of where the money goes.

BuzzFlash: Going back to What's the Matter With Kansas? - you rightfully, from our perspective, put a lot of blame on the Democrats for not talking about class issues, and not bringing up the enormous redistribution of America's economic assets toward the wealthy, particularly since Reagan's election.

Thomas Frank: Yes.

BuzzFlash: Even now with Obama, the Democrats only obliquely talk about this. They don't use the word "class," for the most part.

Thomas Frank: You don't necessarily need to use the word "class," but they do use it when talking about the middle class.

BuzzFlash: Certainly the Edwards campaign, and I think Pelosi, have tried to get a little more on top of some of these economic themes. But the Democrats still seem somewhat tepid about this. Hillary Clinton, in the last month of her candidacy, seemed to try to be populist and hit some of these issues, although some of them in a misleading way, like the summer gas tax.

Thomas Frank: She was way too late and a dollar short.

BuzzFlash: Yes, and it was during a campaign. It seems when it comes to governing, the Democrats still are failing in attempting to seriously legislate issues that would redistribute the income back toward the middle class and the working class.

Thomas Frank: Right.

BuzzFlash: Is that your finding in The Wrecking Crew?

Thomas Frank: In an earlier book of mine before What's the Matter With Kansas?, called One Market Under God, I really went after the Democrats for this stuff. That was written during the Clinton administration. Clinton, it struck me, basically gave in to conservativism on all these fronts, and that really disturbed me.

In this book, I enumerate a couple more ways in which the Democrats capitulated. For example, the whole project of outsourcing and privatizing government -- they went along with that under Clinton in a huge way. They were very enthusiastic about it. They claimed to believe in entrepreneurial based government just as much as Republicans do.

Now that they are back in charge in Congress, they have been better than the Republicans. They have enacted some lobbying reforms. They've done this, they've done that. But there are some Democrats that are just as anxious as the Republicans were to get their hands on the money. And that's very disheartening.

But you've got to remember the whole way the political system is set up in this country -- money has pulled both parties to the right. The magnetic power of money has pulled them both to the right. Yes, I'm very disappointed with the Democrats. But on the bright side, Obama is one of the few U.S. senators who used to actually talk about the failures of outsourcing government, and how stupid the whole thing was. He hasn't talked about it on the campaign trail, but maybe he will. I sure hope he does.

BuzzFlash: I saw an interview with him just from the other day about economics. And he says - I think it was in the Washington Post - him saying, well, he's kind of turning, as Clinton did, to a more populist approach, although not quite as populist, I think, as Clinton went. And so they were talking to him about, you know, big oil companies, versus the waitress who, you know, is living off of tips. And he said: Look, I don't hate the big oil companies. I just am on the side of the waitress. He said I believe in free markets, but, in essence, what he was implying is that he didn't believe in fixed free markets. But he does have a little bit of that free market school.

Thomas Frank: He does, and I've criticized him for this. You know, I write a column for the Wall Street Journal now.

BuzzFlash: Right.

Thomas Frank: I've criticized him for it a couple of times. You see that ideology sort of peeking out every now and then. But he came out of Harvard and the University of Chicago. It would be pretty hard to not have that.

BuzzFlash: Well, the conservatives say we'll control the government to ruin it, and let the corporations run it.

Thomas Frank: They've ruined it so thoroughly that it's going to take a huge effort to rebuild it. It's going to take Obama times ten. That's one thing the guy's got -- he's got a lot of energy, a lot of charisma. If there's anything out there on the political scene that could rebuild the government -- it's him.

BuzzFlash: I have faith in the government. As you point out in your book, one of the conservatives' goals was to ruin faith in government by ruining government.

Thomas Frank: Exactly. And it's funny how that works. It's a self-fulfilling sort of thing. It works in the other direction, too. If you just believe the government is inherently awful, you're going to deliver bad government. What's funny is that bad government kicks up public cynicism about government, and reelects these people who think it's bad in the first place. There's this self-fulfilling cycle. Maybe we can break out of it this time around. I'd like to see that.

BuzzFlash: You received your - was it both your graduate degree at the U of C. In relation to Senator and Presidential candidate Obama, we've been doing a video series on Hyde Park. Do you think that Hyde Park's been getting a bad rep in the press? How would you describe Hyde Park?

Thomas Frank: I wrote about this. Did you see it?

BuzzFlash: I did not see it.

Thomas Frank: It's in the Wall Street Journal. I started snooping around Hyde Park looking for - they're going to attack Obama by making fun of his neighborhood now. The way I responded was there were all these people saying this was an upper-class neighborhood. And statistically, it just ain't so. I lived there for fifteen years. There are some rich people there, as there are everywhere. And some college professors. But, I'm sorry, that is not the upper class.

BuzzFlash: Hyde Park is generally mostly apartment buildings, with some houses intermixed.

Thomas Frank: The point is, Hyde Park has two important national political movements associated with it. One is economic conservatism, and if you were going to diss Hyde Park, you know, you're dissing Milton Friedman. That is where conservatism comes from. The economics department of the University of Chicago is about 25 guys, right?

The general population of Hyde Park is very liberal. And that's one of the things I liked about the place. It's also one of the only neighborhoods in the city that has consistently bucked the machine. That's a tradition to be proud of -- to oppose that tradition is to align yourself with the ugliest aspects of Illinois politics. That's the argument that I made. I liked Hyde Park.

BuzzFlash: The other aspect is that it's long been one of the few fully integrated neighborhoods in Chicago.

Thomas Frank: That's right.

BuzzFlash: When critics in the right-wing media attack Obama as part of the political machine, it is important to point out --

Thomas Frank: That's absurd.

BuzzFlash: -- that Hyde Park was the independent cog that constantly got in the maw of the machine.

Thomas Frank: That's right.

BuzzFlash: And that's the area that he represented in the state legislature in which his professional career blossomed.

Thomas Frank: You'll find the story - it was in the Wall Street Journal. And it was called "Mr. Maverick, Meet da Machine." You'll like it. It'll be right up your alley.

BuzzFlash: Well, Thomas, thanks again. We recommend your new book The Wrecking Crew to everyone. It's another great one from you. And you're one of the great thinkers who is also accessible to a larger audience. You've got the academic background, but you've also got a very distinctive style and you're very accessible, and really very compelling.

Thomas Frank: That's very kind of you.

BuzzFlash: We highly recommend it. And we still say What's the Matter With Kansas? remains a seminal book for Democrats who need to understand that the Party won't be unified until its liberal, affluent wing reaches out to the working class that has everyday problems that need to be resolved.

Thomas Frank: That's exactly true.

BuzzFlash: They need solutions.

Thomas Frank: That's right.
Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

* * *


The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (Hardcover), Available from BuzzFlash,
by Thomas Frank, author of What's The Matter with Kansas
Tilting Yard: Mr. Maverick, Meet da Machine (Thomas Frank, The Wall Street Journal)
Thomas Frank, Author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Discusses the Populist Right and How They've Been Fooled by Conservatives, A BuzzFlash Interview (2004).
Read 2554 times Last modified on Tuesday, 19 August 2008 13:41