Thursday, September 21, 2017

"Dark Money," "Hillbilly Elegy," and a Response to a "Hillbilly Elegy" Dissent

                Here are my takes on a couple of the books I’ve read lately as well as my response to an editorial about one of them. Enjoy.

                Jane Mayer’s Dark Money is a study of conservative billionaires who have taken advantage of the Citizens United ruling to attempt to direct the course our country takes by throwing massive amounts of money at conservative candidates who will advocate for their interests. Chief among her targets are the Koch brothers. The book is revealing—especially about the family history of these allegedly self-made billionaires. Although these folks are good about claiming they got where they are by working hard and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, almost without exception every one of them was born into families with money and inherited their positions and money, bringing to mind Ann Richard’s comment about George H. W. Bush, “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” The Koch family history is especially interesting. It seems Charles Koch didn’t feel he was inheriting enough, so he went after his brothers in an expensive, multi-year legal battle to increase his share of his father’s estate. One of his brothers may or may not be gay, and Charles was happy to break into his New York apartment, rummage through his stuff and threaten to reveal his guilty secret (or imply he had a guilty secret) to get him to give Charles control over his part of the company. All of this gives us an idea of the lengths to which the Kochs are willing to go to have their way. This includes trying their best to dig up or invent dirt on Ms. Mayer after she had written the article for the New Yorker which was the basis for this book. (She had previously written an article about liberal billionaire George Soros, who was not happy with the article but took no similar action.) And the Kochs aren’t the only ones skewered in this book. You won’t find me “saving big money at Menards.” Or buying Amway products—not that I would have, anyway.
                J. D. Vance has emerged of late as a spokesman for the conservative white working class largely as a result of his successful book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. This book is the story of Mr. Vance’s surviving his childhood largely through the efforts of his grandmother, a foul-mouthed and unrepentant hillbilly woman who loved him. His mother was at times a drunk, an opioid abuser, a heroin addict, and had serial boyfriends and a unique way of perceiving the world. (It’s always about her.) When his grandfather died, his mother objected to his and his sister’s mourning. (“He was MY father, not yours.”) The same happened when his grandmother died, although who was more of a mother in every way except biologically could be debated. When his grandmother died, she had virtually nothing because of all the money she’d spent on her daughter’s serial rehab stays. Mr. Vance said his uncle never spoke to his sister again.
                Mr. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, where his grandparents had moved from rural Kentucky for good jobs with Armco Steel. So many people from Kentucky moved to Middletown for those jobs the city became known as “Middletucky.” (Most Ohio cities have similar areas—in Columbus, Grove City is “Grovetucky.”) By J.D.’s generation, though, Armco had merged with Kawasaki, and most good jobs there were history. Thanks to his grandmother, J.D.’s grades were good enough to get him admitted to The Ohio State University, but he didn’t feel ready either for the debt he’d incur or for college, so he went into the Marines and was shipped to Iraq, where he was a communications director. After Iraq, he took advantage of the Veterans Administration’s tuition program and went to Ohio State. He eventually held down three jobs to pay his way through. He did well enough to go on to Yale Law School, where he met his future wife. At the end of this book he’s practicing law in Cincinnati.
                He compares his life to his former peers in Middletown, and notes he’s done much better, thanks to his grandmother, the Marines, and all the people who have mentored him. He worries about those left behind who didn’t have the advantages he had. He talks about those who are mired in a sense of victimhood, among them his grandmother’s able-bodied (white) neighbor who never worked and lived in Section 8 housing and on food stamps and who was always complaining about (black) welfare cheats. He gives examples of people who “can’t find jobs” while there are jobs all around them. It turns out they can’t keep jobs because, once they get jobs, they don’t show up for them and don’t do the jobs when they do show up. He says people can’t accept that the fault for their situation is theirs. Most of the people he discusses have the same background as Mr. Vance—Kentucky roots living in Ohio.
                Coincidentally, just as I finished this book, an Ohio man with Kentucky roots plowed his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia.
                One thing I really admired about Mr. Vance is he does not claim to be a self-made up-by-the-bootstraps man as do those born to wealth in Ms. Mayer’s book. Even though he held three jobs while going to school, he gives much of the credit for his success to those who helped him along the way. I wouldn’t be surprised to see J. D. Vance’s name on a ballot someday—perhaps in the next Ohio governor’s race.

                Just as I was about to publish this review the local rag published an editorial written by Betsy Rader for The Washington Post taking umbrage with Mr. Vance’s book. Ms. Rader, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Northeast Ohio, says she was born in Appalachia in the 1960s. It appears Ms. Rader was born in Coshocton, Ohio in or around 1962 and grew up in Newark, Ohio, not too many miles northeast of Columbus (and known for its iconic Longaberger building). She says her parents divorced when she was nine, which would put that divorce in or around 1971. Her mother was the single mother of four children, and they lived on $6,000 a year. At this point Ms. Rader seems to forget (or hopes her readers will forget) that she’s writing about the early 1970s. In the early 1970s, as one person who responded to Ms. Rader pointed out, $6,000 was the equivalent of $37,000 today. Admittedly not a lot of money, but a great deal more than the $6,000 Ms. Rader emphasizes. Repeatedly. I presume Ms. Rader’s mother was not, like Mr. Vance’s, a drunk, an opioid abuser, a heroin addict, etc.
                Ms. Rader takes exception to Mr. Vance’s criticism of his own family and peers (“We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to the high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy… . Thrift is inimical to our being”) pointing out that her family certainly did not do that on (here we go again) $6,000 a year. Need I point out the dearth of giant TVs, iPads, credit cards, and payday lenders in 1971? Also, houses were much cheaper in 1971. A decent house in Columbus at that time could have been had for $20,000; in Newark, housing would have been even cheaper.
                Ms. Rader has some valid points, but she loses credibility when she counts on her readers’ amnesia about the differing circumstances between now and nearly fifty years ago. To me the most annoying statement in her entire diatribe is “I didn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps. And neither did Vance.” I wonder if Ms. Rader even bothered to read the book. Mr. Vance explicitly says he did not pull himself up by his bootstraps.
                Hillbilly Elegy may well be due some criticism, but Ms. Rader, who we know will be on next year’s ballot, has written a response that brings just one word to mind, and that word is disingenuous.  

© 2017 Larry Roth


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