Liberal Columnist Thomas Frank: ‘Journal’ Readers ‘Get Him’

Tom Frank

Photo: Wendy Edelberg

Thomas Frank — author of 2004’s What’s the Matter With Kansas and editor of radically populist nineties journal The Baffler — now, improbably, works for Rupert Murdoch, as a columnist for The Wall Street Journal editorial page. His latest book, The Wrecking Crew, an old-fashioned muckraker-style polemic against the lobbyist-driven dismantling of New Deal–era social programs, was released last week. He talked with New York about how he’s taking to the columnist life.

Your e-mail address runs at the end of your Wall Street Journal columns making fun of conservative economic policy. What’s the reader response been like?

The kind of people that write letters to columnists are … self-selecting. They’re not too pleased with me. I’m going to leave it at that. But, in some ways, writing for the Journal has been a big change in the right direction.

Their readers are interested in financial issues. When you think about the kind of people that read the small lefty magazines that I wrote for before, they don’t tend to think about big financial questions — or even small financial questions! [Laughs] There are a few places like In These Times and The Nation that talk about workplace issues, but by and large the leftist press is focused on electoral politics in Washington. But the readers of The Wall Street Journal know immediately what I’m talking about.

What do you think of this year’s candidates?
I used to like McCain! The big issue that runs throughout my book is privatization and outsourcing of government work, saying, look at what they’re doing, it’s unbelievable! McCain was one of the smartest guys in the Senate on that subject, and you know who one of the other smartest guys was? Obama! They were the two leaders in demanding oversight on outsourcing and privatizing, and they’re the two guys running for president. I wish they were debating this stuff, but McCain is busy sliming Obama, and Obama is trying to stay above it all, and he should know better. He should be getting deep into a criticism of the Bush administration and conservatism generally.

What would you like to see the next president do to address this issue?
The problem is the federal government has been hollowed out; the good people have left for the private sector, a lot of its authority has been contracted out, in sometimes very alarming ways, but almost always in very expensive and wasteful and very incompetent ways.

What do you do about that?
You investigate it in a massive way. I’m going to mention at every talk I give on this tour my idea for Obama, which is on day one as president to have a reverse Grace Commission. The Grace Commission was appointed by Reagan after he’d driven the country into a massive deficit via the tax cuts — he appointed like 400 executives who got to examine the federal government in its every detail. So it was literally the business community gets to examine its enemy, the federal government. And they were the ones who said we need to privatize and outsource basically everything. So he should appoint a reverse Grace Commission.

You’ve been picking on Thomas Friedman lately. Do you think he has a shelf life as a columnist in a time when all his predictions about things like Iraq and the economy are turning out wrong?
Ha. I really admire his reporting on the Middle East — when he sticks to that subject, he’s the best there is. It’s sad to see a guy like that become a cheerleader for the free market. It’s really just tragic. I’m sure he’ll just move on to the next subject. I’m sure he’ll do very well.
Ben Mathis-Lilley

Liberal Columnist Thomas Frank: ‘Journal’ Readers ‘Get Him’