Chatting with Bookforum's Chris Lehmann about Rich People Things

Chris Lehmann is a conspicuously over-employed editor and cultural critic. He’s a co-editor of Bookforum, an editor at Yahoo news, a columnist for the Awl, a contributing editor for The Baffler, and a guitarist and singer for the band The Charm Offensive. He’s also penned a book, Rich People Things, published by OR books. We recently caught up with Mr. Lehmann via email to discuss the how his blog column became a book, why he considers himself an economic populist, and what we talk about when we talk about class in America.

Q: Mr. Lehmann, I can’t help notice that your name figures prominently in my Gmail Priority Inbox. In the interest of full-disclosure, we should probably mention that you’re one of the chaps who edits timely and informative articles for Bookforum, and that we sometimes spy you thumbing through galleys here in our New York office, though you’re based in Washington, DC. That is you, isn’t it?

Yes—which is one reason among countless that it’s absurd for you to refer to me as “Mr. Lehmann.” I know your own preferred form of address for me is simply my last name, with maybe an under-your-breath expletive before or after.

It’s true that for a while, I was trying to capitalize on the occasional confusion between my name and that of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the retired daily book reviewer for the New York Times. But then I recalled Philip Roth’s longstanding vendetta against the guy—Roth once offered to sponsor a competition among college seniors, any of whom, he maintained, would be an improvement on Lehmann-Haupt. There’s also another Chris Lehmann who’s a prominent educational tech wonk in Philadelphia; I plan on impersonating him the next time an angry author letter targets one of my reviews.

Q: Rich People Things started out as an accidental column on the blog The Awl, in which your assignment was to cover the media’s most egregious examples of wealth worship. Can you describe how the column evolved into a book?

Well, the efficient cause was Colin Robinson, the co-publisher of OR Books. He’d been reading the column for a while—and for some time before that, he’d wanted to enlist me as a writer when he was at Scribner’s. I’d never considered the column as potential book fodder prior to that—I’d mainly just adopted it as an odd public form of therapy, an outlet for the dissonance I’d feel reading delusional twaddle on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page or viewing Vanity Fair slide-shows of heirs and heiresses in the midst of a crushing recession. And when you’re filing a column every week, you don’t really have time to consider how the same material would come across in a longer format. But Colin assured me that we could approach the book as an extended version of the column. The idea, as he saw it, was to use the column’s point of view to size up various freestanding institutions that shore up the social myths and free-market orthodoxies that rationalize howlingly unjust and destructive life outcomes for most Americans at punishing moments in our economic history like the present.

He was full of it, of course—but in the productive and creatively beneficial way that book editors are often full of it. The book wasn’t so much an extended version of the column as well, a goddamn book, and therefore a lot more work than it sounded like an overgrown column would be. But that’s the sort of Tom Sawyer style bait-and-switch that makes one a talented and persuasive book editor.

Q: How does the OR Books distribution model work, and how can readers buy Rich People Things?

Well, the only part of this question I can confidently answer is the most important one, from my standpoint: Readers can get the book by ordering it here. As to the OR model, I think it’s actually pointed in the way the publishing industry as a whole will likely be headed in the years ahead—an initial run of pre-orders and e-book sales is supposed to trigger a deal with another distributor or publisher for an additional (and so I hope, anyway, larger) print run after the poor little thing demonstrates it can stand on its own two legs. Colin is also waging a noble crusade against Amazon, which is nice for him, but of course puts all that much more pressure on his writers to generate early sales. But you know, as the book makes painfully clear, no one ever said that solidarity would be easy.

Q: Rich People Things is at time polemical (though always leavened with humor), assailing cornerstones of American life such as the US Constitution, The Supreme Court, The Free Market, and the New York Times as mere playthings of the rich. And yet, you’re no Molotov cocktail-flinging radical intent on overthrowing capitalism. What are some of the reforms you think could move social and economic policy—and the media that reports it—back towards something that actually addresses our current distressing reality?

I’ve always considered myself an economic populist—even though that term’s been pretty well debased by legions of cable pundits who clearly have no idea what it might refer to in our actual political history. The capital-p Populists of the 19th century were able to highlight the many ways that the emerging financial order of the industrial age were defiling the institutions of our democracy, and proposed creating things like a labor-and-commodities based system of currency, public ownership of utilities, direct election of senators and the like to level the political playing field to accommodate the interests of small producers and the working class. Many of these reforms were later carried out in the Progressive and New Deal eras.

There’s no reason that similar campaigns for economic fairness couldn’t emerge today—to make the Federal Reserve, for instance, not merely a de facto annex of Wall Street but to include representatives of labor and consumer groups on its board. (Oddly, the original Populist battery of financial reforms, known as the Subtreasury Plan, was by some accounts an early model for the Fed, though obviously the Fed’s founding overseers came from technocratic policy and financial elites rather than from the ranks of the farming and laboring classes.) Likewise, if the government is going to continue to subsidize and oversee banking concerns, it seems reasonable to ask why it should abjure exercising shareholder rights and vote on corporate policy. What’s so sacred about the present modes of corporate governance—especially after its administrators fiddled so complacently for so long over the sacking of our productive economy? Or, if we really do see a quality public education as a birthright for American workers competing in a globalized new information economy, then why do we continue to fund our public schools via property taxes—one of the most regressive and unequal ways to distribute a social good imaginable? Why are our prestige universities privately owned—and their endowments to a ridiculous degree tax-exempt—when most other Western democracies have managed to sustain nationally competitive state-run university systems without any noticeable slide into socialist ruination? Why had the public health insurance option—which consistently showed polled majorities supporting it, once pollsters dispassionately explained how the system worked—turned into an unthinkable policy notion, and virtually a byword for socialist revolution, much as the eminently fair and sensible single-payer system had been demonized out of consensus debate in prior battles over health care reform?

To even raise such questions in the present political climate seems weirdly utopian and wild-eyed—though of course virtually every other developed democracy on the planet has arrived at fair, equitable, and politically appealing solutions to dilemmas like these, which seem hopelessly intractable on the American scene. I don’t know how you marshal the political will to demand a modicum of this kind of fairness in our political culture, but my best guess is that you’d begin roughly where the 19th century Populists did—by spelling out very plainly and directly the ways in which the Money Power has turned our democracy into a dead letter.

Q: As someone who has worked in journalism through two boom and bust cycles (the tech bubble of the ‘90s and the recent housing market collapse), and as a student of Depression-era American history, can you describe how the language that’s used to depict economic prosperity and calamity has changed? Why is it so difficult to talk about class in America now?

Well, the very long answer to this question is the book’s concluding chapter. But the shorter one is that the whole idea of social class militates against the core myth of American social mobility. If you endorse the idea that a great many of our life outcomes are severely delimited by economic forces far over our heads, you’re going up against the sturdy Horatio Alger myth holding that infinite opportunity awaits every plucky self-made individual doggedly pursuing the main chance. Of course, Alger’s tales ultimately hinge on anything but hard work and self-starting virtue. Instead, they rely on completely implausible infusions of coincidence and luck—the young boy-hero rescuing some wealthy soul or another from peril and thereby getting set up for life. What’s more, Alger himself was a disgraced preacher who regarded himself as a literary failure. Ironically enough, he gave up writing novels toward the end of his career in favor of nonfiction works that denounced the excesses of capitalism and speculative investment—not exactly the sort of epilogue you encounter in one of his own novels.

Anyway, so long as Americans fundamentally view themselves as upward striving Algerian monads—entrepreneurs waiting to happen, in essence—the language of social class, and the political aims of economic fairness, will always strike our ears as dangerously alien and morale-sapping. But of course class privilege is everywhere on view in our common life—especially at a moment like this one, when the investment economy subsists on government subsidy, while our trade balances and manufacturing base are consigned to the none-too-tender mercies of neoliberal market values. One concrete way out of this bind, it seems to me, is to get in the habit of talking more plainly about the predations of our lords of finance. Past economic reformers had a whole colorful vocabulary of abuse reserved for such figures—from Croesuses and Molochs for the classically minded to robber barons and plunderers for the merely outraged. Reviving these more vivid sorts of expressions may not seem like a huge step forward, but language can be a powerful determinant of thought. If I didn’t believe that, after all, why would I be at Bookforum?

Q: Finally, I have to ask: The Prosperity Gospel’s preacher Creflo A. Dollar, the Supreme Court ruling that corporations are people, too, Ayn Rand’s continued popularity—these things strike me as ridiculous and couldn’t possibly be true. Did you go the James Frey route and simply make some of this stuff up?

Hah. If only. I didn’t even get to the real howlers, like the “rational market hypothesis” and the Laffer Curve.