By Molly Ivins
Editor’s note: Molly Ivins is on vacation. In this column from 2001, she argues that in a country where CEOs make 475 times the salary of their employees, most people’s “economic freedom” is limited to a choice between cinammon- and mint-flavored toothpaste.
AUSTIN, Texas—I haven’t had so much fun reading a book since I was 12 and found “The Three Musketeers.”
Thomas Frank’s “One Market, Under God” is a populist romp over the most delicious idiocies of the past decade. The obligatory subtitle is “Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy,” which doesn’t sound promising, but this is a ring-tailed tooter.
The book is a delicious chronicle of the hubris of capitalism in our time, and it contains some of the most savagely funny cultural criticism I have ever come across.
Of course, it’s really not fair—all Frank has to do is quote them: business as God, technology as divinity, the New Economy as the end of history. We live in a culture that produces books like “God Wants You to Be Rich” and “Jesus, CEO.”
What’s startling about this book is the extent to which we’re so surrounded by this nincompoopery but don’t even notice it. How many TV ads for stock brokerages do you suppose you’ve seen in the past 10 years? Anything about them strike you as funny?
It should have. The specific subtext of the IBM-is-God ad is so outrageous that it could gag a maggot. But I, for one, never even thought about it until I read Frank’s dissection of it.
Much of this book has the charm of the child who pointed out that the emperor was wearing no clothes. It’s been a long time since anyone commented on the obvious with such gleeful disrespect:
“Very little of the ‘New Economy’ is new. What the term describes is not some novel state of human affairs but the final accomplishment of the longstanding agenda of the nation’s richest class. ... Once Americans imagined that economic democracy meant a reasonable standard of living for all—that freedom was only meaningful once poverty and powerlessness had been overcome.
“Today, American opinion leaders seem generally convinced that democracy and the free market are simply identical. ... What’s ‘new’ is this idea’s triumph over all its rivals: the determination of American leaders to extend it to all the world; the general belief among opinion-makers that there is something natural, something divine, something inherently democratic about markets.”
One of his most useful observations concerns why politics in the 1990s was so often surreal—populism got stood on its head. Anyone who questioned the Great God Market was held to be an “elitist.” Pointing out that the majority of American workers either lost ground or barely kept up with inflation during the ‘90s was considered bad form, like belching in church.
While the likes of Rush Limbaugh and George Gilder raged against “elitists,” CEO compensation during the decade went from 85 times more than what average blue-collar employees received in 1990 to 475 times what blue-collar workers received in 1999.
Any old populist can rage against the gross maldistribution of wealth; Frank’s special contribution is his mordant examination of the cultural snow job that accompanied the redistribution of wealth to the rich.
Just one symptom of how deeply this nonstop propaganda has affected us lies in the fact that the new president and Congress are on the verge of repealing the estate tax. Gee, taxing estates—what an un-‘90s notion.
The tax affects the 1.5% of Americans with estates of more than $2 million; they can pass along the first $2 million tax-free but have to pay now-lowered taxes on the rest. The people who brought us welfare reform on the grounds that getting $8,000 a year to raise three kids is very bad for a mother’s moral fiber now tell us that Junior, who never worked a day in his life, needs to inherit $200 million tax-free. And anyone who thinks otherwise is an elitist.
The redistribution of wealth upward keeps getting worse. Under President Bush’s tax proposal, the richest 10% of Americans will get 60% of the benefits of the tax cut. And this is at the end of a decade in which the rich have made out like bandits while everyone else stalled.
We all know why such decisions are made: The political process no longer represents the people—it represents money. It’s been bought. While we were being sold a bill of goods about how the market “empowers” us because we get to choose between the mint-flavored and the cinnamon-flavored toothpaste, thus expressing our individuality, we lost something important in our vision of a just society.
Frank, being a good populist, is also an optimist. He doesn’t think we’ve really lost the vision of economic democracy—it just sort of got buried beneath the bull.
To find out more about Molly Ivins and see works by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website, www.creators.com.