Bill Moyers
October 30, 2009
Thomas Frank on America’s Short Memory

January 15, 2010

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.

There were hands in the air in Washington this week, but it wasn't a stickup. The new Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, appointed by Congress to find out how America got rolled, began hearings this week. These four are not the victims of one of the greatest bank heists in history -- they're the perpetrators, bankers so sleek and crafty they got off with the loot in broad daylight, and then sweet talked the government into taxing us to pay it back.

Watching that scene on the opening day of the hearings, it was hard enough to believe that almost a year has passed since Barack Obama raised his hand, too -- taking the oath of office to become our 44th president. Even harder to remember what America looked like before Obama, because we've not only been robbed of our money, we've been robbed of memory, assaulted by what the Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz described as a "fantastic proliferation of mass media." We live in a time "characterized by a refusal to remember." Inconvenient facts simply disappear down the memory hole, as in George Orwell's novel, 1984."

President Obama, now, has made plenty of mistakes during his first year, and we've critiqued them frequently here on the Journal, but hardly anyone talks anymore about what happened in the years before Obama. He inherited from George W. Bush the biggest financial debacle since the Great Depression, along with two unpopular and costly wars and a dysfunctional and demoralized government.

So it's important to remember those years, a time that has been characterized by the historian Thomas Frank, as "A Low, Dishonest Decade." He's here to talk about them with me. Thomas Frank is editor of the recently relaunched Baffler magazine, a literary journal; he's a contributing editor of Harper's; a weekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal; and the author of One Market Under God, the bestselling What's the Matter With Kansas? and his latest bestseller, The Wrecking Crew, now out in paperback. Good to have you back.

THOMAS FRANK: It's my pleasure, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: How is it that the people who are responsible for the mess that Obama inherited are getting away with demonizing him when he's only had less than a year to clean it up? Let me show you just a sample of right-wing commentators railing against the President.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: President Obama and the Democrats are destroying the US economy. They are purposefully doing it, I believe.

GLENN BECK: This is a well-thought-out plan to collapse the economy as we know it.

JONATHAN HOENIG: The president has, I think, if you listen to what he says, a hatred for capitalism. Where do jobs come from? They don't come from the government, they come from the profit seeking self-interest that, from what I hear and see, the president never misses an opportunity to smear and [no audio] slap!

RUSH LIMBAUGH: This guy is a coward. He does not have the gonads or the spine to even stand up and accept what he's doing! All of this is his doing. He cannot even probably say, you should like this -- you may not like it, but I'm telling you it's the best thing for you, it's the best thing for me. No! He knows it's a disaster, he has to slough this off, on his previous-- or his predecessor, the previous administration.

SEAN HANNITY: It's his stimulus. It's his record deficit spending. He quadrupled the debt in a year. You know, how many more times are Democrats going to say, "Well, it's George Bush's fault"? This is Obama's economy now.

BILL MOYERS: What goes through your mind as a historian when you watch that?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, that is America for you. I mean, that is the, sort of the demented logic of our politics. Is that now-- Obama's been president for a year. And he will come before the public in the fall, you know, having to defend all of these terrible things. But that's how our politics works in this country.

BILL MOYERS: But you called it demented. I mean, you know, demented means crazy, mad. Mad and crazy enough to cause us to forget the world before Obama?

THOMAS FRANK: I'll give you an example of what I mean. So, I was on a radio show the other day with a tea party leader, you know, one of these protest leaders. And he seemed like a good guy. But what he did say that struck me was, he said, he was really against monopoly, you know? And we're laboring under all these monopolies, all this concentrated power here in America. And what we need to do is get back to free markets. And then we can do away with that. And it was mind-blowing.

Because if you look back any further than the Obama administration, since, I mean, 1980 in this country, we have been in the grip of, you know, of this pursuit of ever-purer free markets. That's what American politics has been about. That's what has delivered this, you know, the awful circumstances that we find ourselves in today. And to think that that's what's missing, that's what we need to get back to, is--

BILL MOYERS: That's more than nostalgia. What is that?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, that's the disease of our time. You know, that sort of instant forgetting.

BILL MOYERS: But what does it do to our politics when the very spokesmen for what some people have called a decade of conservative failure. I mean, remember before Obama, they turned a budget surplus into a deficit. They took us to war on fraudulent pretenses. They borrowed money to fight it. They presided over a stalemate in Afghanistan. They trashed the Constitution. They presided over the weakest economy in decades--

THOMAS FRANK: Not weak for everybody.


THOMAS FRANK: Some people did really well.

BILL MOYERS: Okay, they compiled the worst track record on jobs in decades. And they ended up with the worst stock market in decades. I mean, it was a decade of conservative failure. And yet, Obama's their villain?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, think of all the crises and the disasters that you've described. And I would add to them things like the, you know, what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And the Madoff scandal on Wall Street. And, you know, on and on and on. The Jack Abramoff scandal. The whole sordid career of Tom DeLay.

All of these things that we remember from the last decade. I mean, some of them that we're forgetting. Like who remembers all the scandals over earmarking, anymore? And who remembers all the scandals over Iraq reconstruction? All that, you know, disastrous, when we would hand it off to a private contractor to rebuild Iraq. And it would, you know, of course, it would fail.

Those things have all sort of been dwarfed by the economic disaster and the wreckage on Wall Street. But I would say to you that all of these things that we're describing here are of a piece. And that they all flow from the same ideas. And those ideas are the sort of conservative attitude towards government. And conservative attitudes towards governance. Okay?

BILL MOYERS: That government is a perversion.

THOMAS FRANK: Government is-- yeah, government is a perversion. And to believe that the federal government can be operated, you know, with all of its programs, can be operated well and do things that are good for the people, is, as you say, is a perversion.

And they look at someone like Barack Obama and it makes them seethe. Because that's, you know, that's what he's trying to do. What conservatism in this country is about is government failure. Conservatives talk about government failure all the time, constantly. And conservatives, when they're in power, deliver government failure.

BILL MOYERS: Not merely from incompetence, you say, but from ideology, from philosophy, from a view of the world.

THOMAS FRANK: And sometimes from design.

BILL MOYERS: From design? What do you mean?

THOMAS FRANK: Not always from design, but often. The Department of Labor, for example, the conservatives when they get in office, routinely stuff the Department of Labor full of ideological cranks. And people that don't believe in the mission.

And the result is that it doesn' t-- they don't enforce anything. Towards the very end of the Bush era, the Department of Labor had been whittled down. It was a shell of its former self. And at the very end of the Bush administration, one of the government accountability programs did a study of the Department of Labor. And, I'm smiling because it's kind of amusing. It was like an old spy magazine prank.

They made up these horrendous labor violations around the country and phoned them in as complaints to the Department of Labor to see what they would do, okay? They responded to one out of 10 of these, you know, where they called in as like, "Well, we got, you know, kids working in a meat packing plant during school hours. You know, can you, you going to do anything about that?" "No." Or you look at something like the Securities and Exchange Commission. These guys are supposed to be regulating, you know, the investment banks, okay? Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, that sort of thing. These guys were so underfunded, and not just underfunded, but you had people in charge of it who didn't believe in regulating Wall Street.

BILL MOYERS: They made the Securities and Exchange Commission a laughing stock, if you will. They really did.

THOMAS FRANK: Right. Well, there's these horrible stories that came out. Once Bush was out, there was a study done of the SEC, as well. These people didn't even have, like, their own functioning photocopiers, okay? So, we're talking about the lawyers that are supposed to be protecting us from Wall Street. And they have to go stand in line at Kinko's to do their own photocopying. And they're going up against the best paid, best educated lawyers on planet Earth, who represent the investment banks. And they're supposed to be defending us.

BILL MOYERS: The curious thing about this is that you and I and my audience knows that our ancestors believed that capitalism needed to be supervised. But when the conservatives came to power, they began to muzzle the watchdog.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah. Well, or you know, do away with it altogether, defund it. Look, beginning in the 1980s, President Reagan came to office and came to power, and you remember the kind of rhetoric that he used to use in denouncing the federal workforce. He hated the federal workforce. And this is an article of faith among conservatives.

There's something called the pay gap that they used to talk about a lot in Washington, DC, which is, back in the '50s, '60s and up into the 1970s, federal workers were paid a comparable amount to what people in the private sector earned. Okay? So, if you're a lawyer working for the government, you got about as much as a lawyer working in the private sector.

Not as much, because government benefits are considered to be much better. Okay. Under Reagan, you had this huge gap open up between federal workers and the private sector. I asked around. And I found out a government attorney makes $140,000 a year on retirement. After he's been there all his life. In the private sector law firm in Washington, you'd be making $160,000 starting salary. That's first year. Right out of law school.

BILL MOYERS: So what's the consequence of this pay gap you described? Or, do we get inferior government because of it?

THOMAS FRANK: Absolutely. It keeps the best and the brightest out of government service, unless you're really dedicated to a cause.

But let me go one step further with this, Bill. When I say this is done by design, I'm not exaggerating. And this is one of the more surprising things that I found when I was doing the research for "The Wrecking Crew," is that there's a whole conservative literature on why you want second-rate people in government, or third-rate.

I found an interview with the head of the US Chamber of Commerce from 1928, where he said-- this quote, it's mind-boggling to me. But he really said this. "The best public servant is the worst one." Okay? You want bad people in government. You want to deliberately staff government with second-rate people. Because if you have good people in government, government will work. And then the public will learn to trust government. And then they'll hand over more power to it.

And you don't want that, of course, if you're the Chamber of Commerce. And I thought, when I first read this, "That's a crazy idea. I can't believe that sentiment." And then I found it repeated again and again and again. Throughout the long history of the conservative movement. This is something they believe very deeply.

BILL MOYERS: It comes out of a definitive way of seeing things, right?

THOMAS FRANK: Yes. And we can summarize that very briefly. That's that the market is the, you know, is the universal principle of human civilization. And that government is a kind of interloper, if not a criminal gang. And it's getting in the way.

BILL MOYERS: But we saw with this collapse and this bailout, we saw the failure of that.

THOMAS FRANK: Of course.

BILL MOYERS: And yet there's no sense of contrition. What's amazing to me, and you wrote this, that the very people who brought us this decade of conservative failures, the party of Palin, Beck, Hannity, Abramoff, Rove, DeLay, Kristol, O'Reilly, just might stage a comeback.

THOMAS FRANK: I think they might. I think there's a very strong chance of that.

BILL MOYERS: After only 11 months out of power, because of the record. I mean--

THOMAS FRANK: Look, well, the stuff--

BILL MOYERS: --it's crazy.

THOMAS FRANK: --the stuff we've been talking about here today. The stuff in "The Wrecking Crew," that's all forgotten. The financial crisis had that effect of-- that stuff is now off the-- down the memory hole--

BILL MOYERS: Do you really think they believe that unfettered capitalism, unregulated markets, will deliver an ideal democracy and prosperity for everybody?

THOMAS FRANK: No, I don't. I think that they believe that, and to some degree, they're sincere in that belief. But the conservative movement in Washington, I'm not talking about grassroots voters in Kansas here. I'm talking about the conservative movement in Washington. And the whole constellation of think tanks and lobby shops and not-for-profits. And, you know, newspapers and fundraisers and all of this stuff.

They believe this is an industry, okay? This is an industry that churns out this product. And one of the things that, I mean, it's one of the things that they're doing now is they excommunicate George W. Bush, deeply unpopular, so therefore, not a true conservative, right? So, that way they get to start over fresh. The problem with George W. Bush, the reason we're in such a deep hole is that we never went far enough.

As Tom DeLay has said, in his newspaper column, and I'm paraphrasing here. The problem with conservatism isn't that it was tried and failed. It's that it never really got-- we never really tried it in the first place. So, what we have to do -- and I've heard, conservatives have said this. "What we have to do is go back and deregulate all the way. We have to, you know, slash government. We have to tear that thing down. That's what it's all about."

And the amazing thing about this. This allows them to represent themselves as dissidents against the sort of established order in Washington. Even though they ran the established order for years and years and years and years and years.

BILL MOYERS: Here's something else that's bizarre to me. And I wonder what you think about it, as a historian. I mean, right after the failed terrorist threat of Christmas, Obama's critics went to work scrubbing what happened when the Bush White House was out to lunch in the weeks and days leading up to 9/11.

I mean, you know, there were terrorists sneaking into the country. There were warnings from the intelligence community about something-- an attack on an American city coming. And that's all been flushed down the memory hole. Giuliani goes on the air and says, "We didn't have any terrorist attacks when Bush was president."

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, and that's another-- we also forget the anthrax episode which happened right after 9/11. Look, this is not an argument that I have made. That other people have-- that all of these things need to be added to the list of government failures. And if you want to talk why does government fail? You know, there's two answers out there.

One is the conservative answer. Government fails because that's the nature of government to fail. And if you want to look a little bit deeper about, you know, why does government fail? Because government has been systematically destroyed. When we, whether you're talking about the, you know, the pay gap and making-- deliberately making government an unattractive career option. Or you're talking about outsourcing.

This is another conservative strategy for dealing with the state. If you hate and despise government employees. And you understand them as, you know, unbelievable human wickedness, right? What do you do about them? Well, the answer's obvious. And at the same time, you believe in the market. You believe that private industry does everything better. You outsource the federal workforce.

BILL MOYERS: Have we reached a stage where you make things bad enough that people despair and then you manipulate their despair into -- to your own advantage in the next election?

THOMAS FRANK: It's a cynical town, Washington, DC. And the conservative movement tends to be deeply, deeply, deeply cynical about government. Now, it's also, I mean, deeply idealistic about the market. I mean, the market can do no wrong, almost by definition. But government they regard as a criminal gang. I mean, many, many conservatives have compared-- oh, they always do, compare government to criminals. All the time.

Taxation is a form of theft. It's as bad as a mugger in the street saying, "Give me your money." And America is pretty much unique among the nations in that our political system, half of our political system is basically dedicated to the destruction of the government from within. I don't know any other country where that's the case. But there's plenty of countries where government works really, really well. I mean, even, for God's sake, in India, you know, which we don't think of as being an advanced industrial society, their banks didn't all go bust in the latest downturn. Now, why is that?

Because their equivalent of the Federal Reserve was not, you know, deregulating, stopping enforcement. They weren't doing any of those things. They were keeping a very tight lid on it. Government can work. It works all the time.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote What's the Matter with Kansas? Let me ask you to broaden that canvas and ask, with the answer to the question, what's the matter with America that we tolerate all of this?

THOMAS FRANK: I think a large part of it is that-- well, it's the chronic historical forgetting, you know? We just elected Barack Obama in this-- you know, he had quite a mandate. You know, biggest majority of any president since Reagan. And now a year later, and the public is already turning on him. And that's a part of the problem.

But, you know, another part of it is that the conservative argument about government and freedom is very compelling when they say that something like, you know, the national, you know, any proposal for a national health program is a violation of our freedom. Americans don't like to hear that their freedom is being violated. That is a hot button argument. Now, the obvious-- look, there's an obvious response that Democrats could make. Which is no, this is a way of growing our freedom. This will actually expand human freedom, not limit it. They never say that.

BILL MOYERS: Why? So, part of the problem with America is the Democratic Party?

THOMAS FRANK: A huge part of the problem, because look, the conservatives have for decades now made their-- the whole point of their party is to attack government, attack the state, encourage cynicism about government. And then wreck it when they're in charge, right?

Democrats never defend the state. They never come out and say, "No, no. It's important to have, you know, government. It's important to have a Department of Labor. These are, you know, having government actually-- a good government increases your freedom. It doesn't ruin it." They never fight back consistently.


THOMAS FRANK: I think they're-- some of them do. You've got members of Congress here and there that do. But by and large, the prominent leading Democrats in our society don't do that. Why is that? Because I think that would get them in trouble with their funders. I mean, the power of money is huge in the political system. You know, despite all the efforts that have been made over the years to get money out of politics. It's still immensely powerful.

BILL MOYERS: The book is Thomas Frank, The Wrecking Crew. The literary journal is The Baffler. Congratulations on both of them. And thanks for being with me on the Journal.

THOMAS FRANK: It was my pleasure.

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