Somewhere, over the rainbow, a blog is born. A blog for Kansas. A blog for America. A blog by a reporter with a difficult-to-pronounce last name. But most importantly, a blog that is AMERICA'S ONLY PLACE dedicated to the vital intersection of politics and Sunflowers. The Heartland gods nod in wise approval.

Friday, August 13, 2004

An economist's take on WTMWK

Henceforth, all second references to Thomas Frank's book, "What's the Matter With Kansas," will be written as WTMWK. Not only is it edgier, it saves a lot of typing about a book that seems to be lingering much longer than I thought it would.

It's really amazing, the chord this book has struck with Heartland types. Both liberals and conservatives write me about it, and I myself have written about it more than once. But in recent days I've been wondering, 'What would BJ think of the book?' BJ is better known as Dr. William Polley, economics prof at Bradley University in Peoria. He and I go way back to dorm-hall days, when we basically conducted a "from-the-left, and from-the-right" running commentary on issues of the day at Concordia College in Moorhead. Not only is Dr. Polley an accomplished political observer and talented economist, he visits Wichita a lot -- his brother lives there.

So when he told me he got the book, I was waiting for his critique. Three-quarters of the way through, here's an excerpt from what he's saying, which I thought was worth sharing with people, whether they've read the book or not. Of all the stuff I've read on WTMWK, I have yet to hear this perspective -- I find it interesting in that it focuses purely on economic issues, without focusing on the social wedge issues Frank and other reviewers get caught up in. Anyway, use it as a springboard for your own political thought this weekend. (And sorry for the dearth of links. When I work from home I'm using a slow dialup connection, and the decline of layering shows.)

From The Doctor:

Frank paints the picture as if Kansas is what changed, not the Progressive/Populist/Democratic movement.

The whole book (I'm at page 180 now) seems to be about why Kansas no longer looks to the Democrats for the blue collar/labor union/looking out for the little guy politics and why they blindly follow the Republicans down the road to economic ruin. As they say, all politics is local. And Frank's book is a case study in the veracity of that old saying.

Furthermore, I would argue that if anyone screwed up, it was the national version of the Democratic party and the liberal movement that forgot this. What was at the root of the Populist movement? It was largely an East vs West thing. Folks from Indiana westward resented the way the economic conditions of the 1890s extracted wealth from them and sent it to the "Eastern moneyed interests" which were connected to the London bankers (which gave a significant dose of anti-Semitism to the whole thing -- which has, unfortunately, been revived by today's far right militia groups, etc.)

In the 1890s, there was no national income tax, no IRS to confiscate their hard earned money. But taxation was there in a sense -- at least as they perceived it -- in the form of very high real interest rates under a monetary system that was, how shall I put it... a mess. Kansas in the 1890s wasn't under the thumb of big business (railroads excepted) as much as they were under the thumb of this dreadful monetary arrangement. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was a start towards fixing that. After learning some hard lessons in the '30s, we got our monetary act together, and compared to the 1890s it's a non-issue to most Kansans today.

For some reason, in our neck of the woods [note: Dr. Polley is referring to Minnesota here, where he and I both grew up], there arose a large number of people who kept Progressive ideas alive at the local (i.e. grassroots) level. Maybe that didn't happen in Kansas. We had people like Floyd B. Olson, LaFollette, Humphrey, and Wellstone, just to name a few. It was an unbroken chain, and many of them would be unknown names in other parts of the country today. (Ask your friends who Floyd B. Olson was. If they don't know, tell them to read about him.) While some of them went on to national office, many of their most significant acheivements were local.

As you point out [note: Here he's referring to a review I wrote], Minnesota and Wisconsin would make better examples of how the Democrats succeeded in this regard. When Republicans became the party of lower taxes (Reagan), the transition was complete. Now they had an issue that resonated with Kansas (and the rest of the midwest and south) almost as much as the money issues of the 1890s. Kansans of the 1890s didn't want income redistribution, social programs, and so on. They wanted a level playing field with the railroads (fair prices for their crops) and money that didn't suddenly become scarce.

Frank's strongest argument is about deregulation. But I repeat, all politics is local. Speaking out for local control of the schools so that they can teach creationism is more resonant than national regulatory issues. So far, the only politician on the national stage that articulates a progressive message that might satisfy a Kansan of the 1890s as well as a liberal or even a moderate today is Barack Obama. If a few people would run for local office on his message, that just might bring back a grassroots progressive revolution.

Enough for now, but I'll just toss this one out there for you to consider. Frank gets economists all wrong. I can see nothing in his writing to indicate that he has ever had a one-on-one serious discussion with an economist. Indeed, I get the distinct impression that he would react with disdain to the idea of it -- unless it was Paul Krugman.