Thomas Frank wants you to know how to talk!


We recommend a key word: Please ignore the silly headline on Thomas Frank’s new piece at Salon.

(At the new Salon, headline writers rarely care about what the article actually says. That’s how Paul Krugman gets snarked at in Frank’s headline, even though he isn’t mentioned in Frank’s actual column.)

Ignore the headline, but focus on Frank’s ideas. Frank says progressives have to learn how to talk about—well, we have to learn how to talk about our current condition, whatever we decide to say that condition is.

According to Frank, liberals don’t know how to talk about the condition which is frequently called “inequality.” He says that condition is discussed in the denatured language of professional academics.

We don’t know how to discuss what’s happening in a way that punches the gut.

At one point, people did know how to talk, Frank says. He offers “a famous passage from the Omaha Platform of the Populist Party,” which was written in 1892:

“The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”

Thomas Frank knows how to talk. In a similar vein, we’ll recommend that progressives learn to employ a key word:

That key word is “looting.”

In the past, we’ve used that helpful, accurate word to discuss the way American health care works. Let’s face it: When you see data like these, average people are getting looted every day of the week:
Per person spending on health care, 2011
United States: $8508
Canada: $4522
Germany: $4495
France: $4118
Australia: $3800
United Kingdom: $3405
Japan: $3213
Spain: $3072
Italy: $3012
As compared to France, $4400 per person in health care spending was disappearing that year.

Back in 1892, “the fruits of the toil of millions were stolen.” Today, the average person is constantly looted in his or her spending on health care.

Frank complains about the dull writing “in the New York Times’ series on the subject, The Great Divide, which has run now for a little over a year.” We’ll admit it—the series has generated so little buzz that we didn’t know it exists.

He complains about the standard claim that inequality is “a complex, highly technical problem, with many confusing causes.”

Pshaw, Frank says. “Inequality happened because our leaders set out to make it happen.” He quotes clear direct language from Kevin Phillips in 1990 saying that this is the case.

Do you mind if we add one thought to Frank’s rumination? “Inequality” may be unexciting because of the way the professionals discuss it. That said, you’ll also note that it doesn’t get discussed a whole lot on the liberal “news” channel.

MSNBC tends to define progressive politics around the drive for middle and upper middle class rights. That’s an important part of progressive politics, but it can be pushed so hard that viewers don’t notice that large economic outrages are going undiscussed.

How often have you seen health care spending discussed on MSNBC? How often have you seen the channel’s hosts asking where all that looted health care money is going?

You tend to get a diet of rights on MSNBC. In a Rolling Stone profile of Rachel Maddow, executive producer Bill Wolff discussed the kinds of segments that tend to please Maddow Show viewers:
WALLACE-WELL (6/27/12): While Maddow is on set, broadcasting the show, Wolff tends to stay upstairs in his office and monitor Twitter, to get a sense of how the show's fans are reacting. Maddow has built a base of admirers to the point where she now averages 1.2 million viewers a night, which is just over half of what Sean Hannity averages during the same time slot. Wolff believes that what her fans respond to most are not necessarily the biggest news stories of the day, but the moments when Maddow is defending rights: “voting rights, reproductive rights, women's rights, really any kind of rights.” Viewers like to see Maddow on the attack: "People want to see the home team winning." Oftentimes, the home team is all they want to see. "If there's a Republican, you'll see all these tweets," Wolff says. "Get that Republican off my screen!"
Rights are important, but so is income—and Republican voters are getting looted every day too. Is the cable news diet of topics one of the ways by which liberal viewers perhaps keep getting looted?

Plutocrats don’t care if you have rights; they want to get their hands on your money. We hear about rights, and we see our team winning.

Does this help the looting roll on?


  1. I'm glad you mentioned the headline. At first I was baffled about it, then annoyed. I started to blame Frank for the trick.

  2. Thomas Frank. To 2011 data on per-capita health spending. And back to the Rolling Stone profile of Maddow.

    Yep, another day at TDH, treated to whatever random thought crosses Somerby's mind at any given moment.

  3. Terrific analysis, Bob.

  4. Bob, the site if wonderful. Pay no attention to the trolls who are just horrid people who would plague any site that does not ban trolling. If you are annoyed just ban a couple of trolls and the problem will be gone.

    1. Correcting:

      Bob, the site is wonderful. Language is very, very important and I am trying to become more precise and telling in my descriptions and analyses at work so I completely understand this criticism.

  5. Actually, no Bob. That's not what Frank is saying at all.

    Frank is consistent in saying the problem is far more fundamental than that. It's that the Democratic Party REFUSES to address "inequality" -- not that they lack gut-punching language.

    Scroll down one more column and read: "The Matter with Kansas Now: The Tea Party, the 1 Percent and Delusional Democrats." It will help you put the column you link to into better perspective and a fuller understanding of Frank's consistent theme.

    He very specifically complains that the Democratic Party has ceded the fight for which it should be fighting by consistently moving right instead of left.

    He doesn't have kind words for Clintonism, or for Gore's capitulation in 2000, which should really ruffle you feathers.

    I don't entirely agree. I think it takes a lot of time and space to turn a battleship around. And I think the passage of the ACA, the first national health insurance plan, was a watershed moment, as flawed and as compromised as it was to get it through, not Republicans who did not cast a single vote in favor of it, but the "yellow dog" Democrats in the Senate, as well as your buddy Al's running mate.

    1. What do you think it means that both parties have been moving to the right?

    2. How else could Glass-Steagall have been repealed?

    3. Republican majorities. Clinton didn't support it but a veto would be overturned.

    4. WRONG!! Clinton very publicly supported it, calling Glass-Steagall outdated and very much in need of reform. Part of the whole Clinton "triangulation" thing.

      But let's set the truth aside and go with your story for argument's sake.

      Clinton did sign it. If you are saying that he wanted to veto it but signed it instead for fear of the veto being overturned, then you are making also Frank's point.

      According to your version, Bill Clinton caved out of fear of a veto being overturned. Given the choice between the interests of people against the interests of the very largest financial institutions, Clinton chose the latter, and for no better reason than he didn't want a veto overturned.

      Now back to the real world, after the financial collapse of 2008, Clinton would call his support for Gramm-Leach-Bliley a mistake, and would also blame the Bush Administration for defanging the SEC.

      But Bill's fingerprints are all over that one.

    5. By the way, going back even before Clinton, you ought to read Chris Matthews book about the cozy relationship between Reagan and Tip O'Neill.

      Very unintentionally, it reads like a Stephen King horror novel.

    6. I am basing my comment on what Clinton said.

    7. Well, here's his statement when he signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley:

      "Today I am pleased to sign into law S. 900, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. This historic legislation will modernize our financial service laws, stimulating greater innovation and competition in the financial services industry. America's consumers, our communities, will reap the benefits of this Act."

      The full statement is here:

    8. And when asked later about it he said he had no choice.

    9. No, when asked later, he said he made a mistake.

      He had no choice? Good grief, he was the President of the United States! This bill repealed key provisions of the New Deal, which the GOP has been trying to repeal in whole, including Social Security, for 80 years.

      Go read the full signing statement before you shoot your mouth off again. Clinton is effusive in his praise.

      You can't turn that into "well, he really didn't mean it" no matter how badly you need to to "win" and Internet argument. It speaks for itself, very loudly.

      And to point, THIS is what Frank is saying -- that it's not just how Democrats are saying it, it's what they are saying, what they are willing to take a stand on and fight.

      But in the Gospel According to Somerby, it's all about how they are saying it. Yep, all they need to do is punch up their same, old, tired rhetoric a bit, and people will buy it.

    10. Well, I saw him interviewed on this topic and he didn't say it was a mistake. He said that due to the Republican majorities his veto would have been overridden anyway so he signed it, but that he wasn't in favor of it at the time or later. He did say it was a mistake, but I do not recall him saying it was HIS mistake.

      This past administration of Obama's should illustrate the difficulties of working with intransigent Republicans in Congress. Obama has compromised far more than Clinton, in my opinion. I don't like everything Clinton did, but I also do not believe his accomplishments are the sum total of his aspirations in office.

      Those of you who dislike the compromises Clinton made should be equally harsh in judging Obama, but I just don't see that happening. If Clinton gave gifts to Wall Street during his administration (like Glass-Steagall), why did Obama receive so much more funding from Wall Street than HRC did?

      I don't evaluate political intentions using boilerplate and formal statements that are largely ceremonial or pro forma. Further, it was Bush who turned signing statements into hedges on what he was signing. Bush II who came after Clinton.


      I do know that Somerby has taught his fans how to lie.

      But "I saw him interviewed on this topic" is a huge one.

      I produced his signing statement. If such an "interview" exists anywhere execept in the deep recesses of your ass where you pulled it from, then produce it.

      Or shut up.

      You can't even lie or dissemble any were nearly as well as Somerby. At least his mountains are made out of molehills.

      You just simply make stuff up.

    12. What an angry person you are.

      I would cite a context if I remembered it. It was during Hillary's campaign because this stuff was raised as a criticism of her. He gave lots of interviews different places. But this isn't a debate or a lawsuit or an academic treatise so citing sources is unnecessary. We are having a conversation and we disagree with each other about this.

      Saying that I am making this up is like calling someone a cheater in a card game. You better smile when you say it. But you are way to angry to be anywhere near a keyboard on the internet.

      Signing statements are official documents not personal opinions about the worth of legislation or one's degree of support for it. It is like saying someone believes in God whenever they spend a $1 bill because God is in the fine print. You are overly impressed by something that is an empty formality.

      But if you cannot converse without calling people liars, you aren't going to make any friends here.

  6. Great piece. Thank you.

  7. "Still, to read around on the subject is to get the feeling that certain liberals like it that way. “Needlessly clinical” is exactly their style. The subject, for them, must be positively cloaked in wonkery. They don’t talk much about “class,” like some troublemaker from the ’30s; they talk about “inequality,” which is a delicate and intricate signifier. Oh, it is extremely complex. It requires so many charts."

    Because "certain liberals" have nowhere to go with it after they phrase it in a way that "punches the gut"

    What are they going to offer once the crowd is all ginned up, Bob? Some tweaks to the earned income tax credit? "Creating an opportunity culture"? They have nothing they're willing to do about any of this, and that's why they've forgotten how to talk about it.

    Interestingly, the only people who DO know how to talk about it are labor people. Both liberals and the Democratic Party could take lessons from Richard Trumka. Democrats inability to talk about things like "wages" coincided with the decline of labor as a force in the Democratic Party. I watched it happen.

    1. "Democratic politicians have nothing they're willing to do about any of this, because just exactly as the Republicans, they are well-paid to do nothing about it, and that's why they've "forgotten" how to talk about it."


  8. This piece of spam brought to you courtesy of a word search for "gin and ginning" often found in Somerby's analysis of Maddow's George Washington Bridge coverage.

  9. OMB (Liberals, Looting, Losers. How We Learned to Love Linguisitics)

    One area where we find BOB most persuasive is his point about American spending on health care. We often found the debate about the Affordable Health Care Act in your 2% of planet's surface puzzling
    and BOB seemed to agree. Not much in the proposal addressed the affordability of the service, but rather how to arrange or rearrange payment so more people could obtain what was becoming more and more unaffordable.

    BOB is also right about the lack of coverage on this issue. Given the that broadcast news and opinion programming revenues are fattened by a steady diet of pharmaceutical adverts, one wonders if there is not a cynical reason why they don't bite the hand that drugs them.

    But, like BOB, we stumble mentally back to another gripe. BOB constantly lists the ranking of per capita health care spending of nations. It is a statistic, just like the Census Bureau's figure of average annual income.

    When BOB calls it "Per Person Spending," is that where an Alex Catellano might interrupt, as he did with Rachel Maddow when she presented the wage gap statistic and say "not exactly"?

    We don't spend that much per person. It is how much we spend on average per capita. How much of it is spent in the last year off a dying person's life? How does our average per capita spending on health care rank when only spending on those 65 years of age and older is calculated? Are we being looted? Or are we on a spending spree managed (or mismanaged) by our government on unnecessary and/or overpriced efforts to prolong, often in misery, the last year of a person's stay on the planet? We have yet to see BOB do the kind of analysis when he presents this statistic that he demands when someone (read Rachel Maddow) presents something like the wage gap.

    If such analysis revealed the biggest problem with American health care costs is the outrageous costs of treating terminally ill elderly, what then? Do liberals really want to revisit the issue of pulling the plug on grandma?

    Just a thought.


    1. A very interesting straw man. What about death panels? Here in the US we pay twice as much for the same health outcomes as other nations, but you think this can't be fixed. Yet somehow all of the industrialized world has figured this out. I have much more faith in our American know-how.

    2. Not a straw man at all, but interesting you set up a straw man by claiming "straw man."

      KZ's point is well taken. If we are going to break down the "77 cents on the dollar claim" which is of course "technically accurate" even by Bob's scrupulous standards, then why do those same scrupulous standards prevent a deeper look at the oft-repeated "twice as much per person" claim.

      Yes, it is indeed the average per capita spending figures are "technically accurate" but could we also dissemble about them to portray anyone reciting it to be "misleading" the poor "rubes" who would hear it and believe it?

      As KZ clearly demonstrates, yes we could.

      I might add another thing. Suppose the French are not as concerned with, say, toenail fungus as Americans are. It requires a rather expensive visit to the doctor, plus a prescription to fight this dread disease, while a Frenchman might simply said, "Mon Dieu! Le heck avec it." and simply proceed through life with yellowing nails de tootsies. We don't know, and Bob doesn't tell us.

      In other words, there could be cultural aspects at play as well, such as "women are the ones who have to rush home to take care of sick kids, so naturally they work less hours and get paid less. It isn't discrimination." It is possible. It has never been disproved on a journalistic basis.

      But the old 'twice as much per person" line lives on!

    3. KZ talking to KZ.

  10. If you want to read writing that's lively, provocative, and thoughtful ---- not turgid, repetitive, and mind-numbingly obssessed with Campaign 2000 and/or Rachel Maddow --- then the incomparable Thomas Frank is your man. I follow him wheerever he goes: Harper's, now Salon, whererever.... I can assure you, he doesn't conflact "Clinton, then Gore" with progressive interests.

  11. How does it serve progressive interests, and help reverse the looting, by banging on an on about a cable network that no one watches? Talk about an upper middle class fixation! The people being screwed by the plutocrats don't watch Rachel and don't know who Maureen or Gail are.

    1. Aren't we all being screwed by the plutocrats?