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Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right

How we got to this grim pass in our political and economic system

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How on earth did this happen? For Frank, you can see "the movement's most essential obfuscation" in the division of all Americans into two groups: "ordinary people" and "intellectuals." This latter category includes everyone from professors and bureaucrats – "or that unholy cross of the two, President Obama" – to the entire media and publishing industries, whose influence the Internet has almost totally negated. (If you wanted to learn about the Great Depression you once went to the library to read Arthur Schlesinger; now, your first Google results will teach you that the New Deal was an utter failure and that "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" is a Hooverite screed against government handouts.) By this binary logic, everyone trying to make a buck is united against big bad Washington and its attendant elite institutions. The absurdity that such elite figures as bank CEOs, four-star generals, and Alaskan governors are somehow men and women of the people goes unmentioned.

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Frank is not afraid to call this victory of Wall Street and big business a "swindle," and like many liberal critics he faults the president for fighting too little and
compromising too much – for, in sum, "choosing the path of Herbert Hoover." But I'm not sure it could have been otherwise, at least not immediately. What was
required was not just the right policy – Christy Romer, the now-departed chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, largely laid that out in 2009 – but an ideological frame in which to advocate them. The Democrats, incapable of discussing class or even society, thought that expertise was enough. The right gave us "movements and ideas and manifestoes" instead, and they won.

After 30 years of Reaganism, you can't just effect an epistemological shift in a day, not even when it's the day Lehman Brothers collapses. But something of the sort has begun. The Occupy movement and other protesters – the sort of people Frank dismisses as "the world's teenaged anarchists," a snide digression that marks this book as already dated – are transforming the terms of American economic discourse more profoundly than any Tea Party hallucinator, while Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have faded into obscurity with surprising speed. In this election year, “Pity the Billionaire” has the virtue of describing how we got to this grim pass in our political and economic system. But it does not describe the state of the nation. Not anymore.

Thank heavens.

Jason Farago is a Monitor contributor.

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