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Nation of whiners watch: Dickey Flatt speaks, biffs Baffler

July 17, 2008 |  3:33 pm

Genocidal tyrant Rubert Murdoch made a smart move by putting Thomas Frank, labor's post-ironic champion, on his roster of columnists — though I don't know what Frank's column title means. (Is the tilting yard where knights joust and ladies swoon to see them? Or does "tilting yard" have some industrial-age, manual-labor, fighting-the-rentiers meaning I don't know about?)

The latest column from the beloved Baffler co-founder summons a figure from a misty, long-ago time: Dickey Flatt, the Mexia, Texas printer who — through the "Dickey Flatt test" — once served as Anaxagoras to Sen. Phil Gramm's Socrates:

Although it seems hard to believe now, it once pleased the press to call Mr. Gramm a "populist." Long before he scolded the common man as a whiner, Mr. Gramm was widely thought to have the common touch himself. He was the sort of politician who could "connect with working people," he said in 1995, and he used to wax righteous about "the people who do the work and pay the taxes and pull the wagon." Mr. Gramm even came up with his own salt-of-the-earth everyman to champion: one Dickey Flatt, a printer in Texas, whose tax burden had to be weighed against the cost of any federal program before it won Sen. Gramm's judicious nod.

To judge by Mr. Gramm's legislative deeds, however, what the Dickey Flatts of this nation wanted most of all—what they longed for right down to the ends of their weary, ink-stained fingers—was the enactment of big money's legislative agenda.

Mr. Gramm invoked the long-suffering family farmer to demand the repeal of the estate tax. He fought New Deal banking rules not in order to clear the way for lucrative corporate mergers, but just to "make things simpler for anyone who has a checking account, car insurance or a share of stock." Subprime lending itself he defended as "one of the blessings" of prosperity, which blessings he illustrated with the story of his own hardworking mother, who had to accept a higher rate for her mortgage but who still paid it off on time.

Since the age-old longing of dirt farmers everywhere was deregulated financial markets, Mr. Gramm gave the people what they wanted. His Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 allowed investment banks to merge with commercial banks and insurance companies. And he helped craft the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which allowed energy trading to go unregulated, making possible certain of Enron's amazing escapades the following year. It also sanctioned an unregulated market in credit default swaps, the financial derivatives that may be the next act in the ongoing credit-market tragedy.

Whole article here (and that "certain of" in the phrase "making possible certain of Enron's amazing escapades" at least reassures me that the WSJ's copy desk is still paying attention).

As noted yesterday, I am not persuaded that trying to roll back the free market is as popular or populist a position as Frank believes. But it's not what I think or Tom Frank thinks that matters. It's what Dickey Flatt thinks. I called up Flatt Stationers Inc. to find out, and I found the 66-year-old printer to be not only the essence of Lone Star cordiality but a staunch supporter of his former senator.

"It couldn't be any more far from the truth," Flatt said of Frank's column. "He got it all wrong. When a reporter just goes by what's out there and doesn't do much research, that's what happens."

As for Gramm's "whiners" comment, Flatt, who this year is celebrating the family business' 70th year in operation, was philosophical. "I think he was referring to the leaders, not the people," Flatt said. "Phil's always had a habit of saying what he thinks."

Is the country in an economic malaise? "I think there's a little bit of overkill," said Flatt, "because the economy's been great for a long time. It's due a correction. Prices have gone up before, then come back down.... I'm a Reaganite: less government. Individuals should be held accountable. Everybody has bad times, you've just got to work through them."

Business in Mexia, Flatt concedes, has been tough lately, and the printing and office supply business is "a struggle, because you've got the big boys. It's a Wal-Mart society we live in now." Nevertheless, he had kind words for the town's Wal-Mart Supercenter, which has drawn shoppers from elsewhere in Limestone County and central Texas. "And now they're trying some of the other stores. So we try to diversify and find niches and offer stuff the big stores don't offer. Because you can't compete with them on price."

So have things gotten tough enough to make even Dickey Flatt doubt Phil Gramm's free-market policies? You be the judge: "I think the government ought to stay out of it," Flatt says. "But I'm not a scholar. Phil Gramm could tell you better than I could. I've known him for years, I love the guy, and I go with whatever he says."

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