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Soundings

Steven Malanga
What’s the Matter with Thomas Frank?
The liberal author’s got Kansas all wrong.
Autumn 2004

Kansas is a reliable “red” state, won by George W. Bush in a landslide four years ago and expected to go the GOP's way again easily this November. The state's rock-solid support of Bush and other conservative candidates has sent at least one of its native sons, political commentator Thomas Frank, into paroxysms of rage. In his new book, What's the Matter with Kansas, Frank argues that all those Jayhawk State rubes have got things backward: they've continued to vote Republican as the state goes through real economic hardship, even though, by doing so, they're voting against their own economic interests. The book is a big hit with left-leaning commentators and has sold very well, making the author something of a celebrity on the talk-show circuit.

In purple prose, Frank paints a grim picture of the state and its towns. Kansas is “pretty much in a free fall,” he informs us, and as a result of its economic devastation, it's “a civilization in the early stages of irreversible decay.” The cause of all this decline, he says, is modern capitalism, especially as practiced by all those businessmen-GOPers. Kansas is “burning on a free-market pyre,” he writes apocalyptically. Things are especially bad in his old hometown of Shawnee, where, during his visits, he no longer sees anyone in the streets. Instead, “heaps of rusting junk and snarling rottweilers” blight the landscape.

So Kansas is sinking into economic oblivion, right? Well, Frank's characterization of the Jayhawk State is completely—bizarrely—at odds with the facts. Kansas's economy has actually outpaced the nation's for years now. Throughout the 1990s and the first part of this new decade, Kansas had a lower unemployment rate than the U.S. economy as a whole. In fact, when the country's unemployment rate dipped below 5 percent from 1997 to 2001, Kansas's fell under 4 percent—a level so low that economists basically consider it full employment. Overall, the state's economy added 256,000 new jobs during the 1990s, a 24 percent growth rate, compared with a 20 percent national gain in the same period. Even when the economic slowdown set in and the recession finally hit in 2002 and 2003, Kansas lost jobs at a slower rate than the national economy did.

The objects of Frank's particular concern, his hometown of Shawnee and the rest of Johnson County, have done especially well. For three years in the 1990s, the Shawnee area's unemployment rate actually dipped below 3 percent, making it one of the tightest labor markets anywhere.

When the recession hit, Shawnee's unemployment rate did rise but still stayed below the national economy's. And though Frank describes the place as practically desolate, Shawnee's population grew by a robust 27 percent during the 1990s. Even more astonishing, today, only 3.3 percent of its citizens live below the poverty level, compared with about 12.5 percent nationally. “It's possible his view of us is outdated,” says Jim Martin, executive director of the Shawnee Economic Development Council, in classic midwestern understatement.

Regardless of Kansas's economic performance, Frank's main thesis—that people who are struggling economically should be voting as liberals, not conservatives—is dubious. As an editorial in the Wichita Eagle observed: “There's nothing wrong with many Kansans wanting to hold onto a little more of their paychecks . . . or preferring that when they need help it comes from their family, their church, their community—not an intrusive federal government.” But what's really astounding is that Frank, who offers little in the way of economic data, would base his argument on such blatant falsehoods. To Frank's liberal prejudices, something may be the matter with Kansas, but it's sure not its economy.

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