As a young man who spent his youth in a very small town and then went straight to the Army, Billy embarks on the Victory Tour with little firsthand knowledge of how class and money function within the United States, let alone on a global scale. As such, the relationship between class, money, and power fascinates him, and he spends much of the novel trying to figure out how they interact and where he fits into that complex relationship. The novel ultimately suggests that the system is closed to individuals like Billy who began life without access to money and power, and there's very little he can do—no matter how hard he tries—to gain access to the privilege and power that come with wealth.
Though Billy admits that he's been fascinated with the American airports and shopping malls since his return to the States, what strikes him most as he moves around the Texas Stadium with Norm Oglesby (the owner of the Cowboys) and Albert is the relationship between money and power. In particular, Billy's fascination with these massive structures stems from a burning curiosity about how money works on the large scale required to finance things like the highways, airports, stadiums, and malls. His curiosity also extends beyond the built environment as he begins to questions how wars and Hollywood blockbusters are financed. The novel suggests that decisions made by the wealthy power brokers of the upper class shape every aspect of the world Billy lives in. This is most often alluded to in asides when rich game attendees mention their friendships with President Bush or Vice President Cheney—both of whom represented America as a nation from 2001-2009. This makes it exceptionally clear to Billy that money doesn't just buy wars and stadiums; it can also buy influence and political power. This is something that's truly shocking for Billy to see firsthand, as prior to the Victory Tour, Billy had never witnessed such conspicuous wealth and rampant consumerism before. This abundance is entirely foreign to him, and it occupies much of his time in the novel as he tries to piece together where he fits into the system.
As Billy attempts to make sense of the vast and often-invisible structures of class, wealth, and power, he makes several comments that indicate his belief that he will never be able to fully understand the system. He knows that going to college is the primary way to learn more about business, power structures, and class, but he is firm in his desire to never return to school. Therefore, he is also convinced that he will forever be unable to gain power for himself within the system, given his lower-class roots. Billy remarks that as a soldier, he makes a meager $14,8000 per year—an income that puts higher education and economic prosperity well out of reach. Both Billy and Mango express despair at what they believe their future lives have to offer: Mango believes that after the army, he has nothing better than a job at Burger King to look forward to, while Mr. Whaley, an oilman in Stovall, promises Billy a labor-intensive, minimum-wage job in the oil fields upon his return. This culminates in Billy's realization that he's nothing more than a "protozoan" in the ocean of unknown depths that is the world of money. Nonetheless, this fatalistic belief leads Billy to an eventual understanding of what he is capable of doing.
Billy ultimately ends up refusing to play into or reinforce the system wherein money equals power. He gives away his souvenir football signed by Cowboys players (an item that other Bravos believe could be worth $1,000 if sold). At the end of the novel, he also refuses to accept Norm Ogleby's offer to compensate each Bravo $5,500 for the film rights to their story. In doing these things, Billy sends a message to those in power that he won't allow them to use their wealth and influence to control his life. Although Billy does this in an effort to demonstrate that the power afforded by wealth is not total, he still remains as dependent on money as anyone, just as he remains at the mercy of the most powerful people in the country—namely, the president and other political figures who influence the course of the war. In this way, the novel suggests that there are limited steps a person can take to claim a sense of agency and resist those who are wealthy and powerful. The novel ultimately shows that in America, a terrible hegemony of wealth reigns supreme, keeping those without money essentially powerless to change the world in which they live.
Class, Power, and Money ThemeTracker
Class, Power, and Money Quotes in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Years and years of carefully posed TV shots have imbued the place with intimations of mystery and romance, dollops of state and national pride, hints of pharaonic afterlife such as always inhere in large-scale public architecture, all of which render the stadium of Billy's mind as the conduit or portal, a direct tap-in, to a ready made species of mass transcendence, and so the real-life shabbiness is a nasty comedown.
Billy sensed the true mindfucking potential of it on their first trip outside the wire, when Shroom advised him to place his feet one in front of the other instead of side by side, that way if an IED blew threw the Humvee Billy might only lose one foot instead of two.
Billy rattled off the cities. Washington, Richmond, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Raleigh-Durham, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Miami, and practically every one, as Sergeant Dime pointed out, happened to lie in an electoral swing state.
The Mr. Whaleys of the world are peons to them, just as Billy is a peon in the world of Mr. Whaley, which in the grand scheme of things means that he, Billy, is somewhere on the level of a one-celled protozoan in a vast river flowing into the untold depths of the sea.
He glows, which isn't to say he's a handsome man but rather shimmers with high-wattage celebrity, and therein lies the problem, the brain struggles to match the media version to the actual man who looks taller than the preformed mental image, or maybe broader, older, pinker, younger, the two versions miscongrue in some crucial sense which makes it all a little unreal [...]
Mortal fear is the ghetto of the human soul, to be free of it something like the psychic equivalent of inheriting a hundred million dollars. This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point [...]
It seems the airiest thing there is and yet the realest, but how you enter that world he has no idea except by passage through that other foreign country called college, and that ain't happening.
The role of cheerleader being secondary by definition, yet cheerleaders themselves exhibitionists by nature [...] Nobody cheers for the cheerleaders! And how that must hurt, the goad for many a deafening scream of crazed enthusiasm.
All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms. Billy himself never noticed how fake it all is until he'd done time in a combat zone.
"So whas it like? You know, like what it feel like?"
Billy swallows. The hard question. That's where he bleeds, exactly. Someday he'll have to build a church there, if he survives the war.
"It doesn't feel like anything. Not while it's happening."
Here at home everyone is so sure about the war. They talk in certainties, imperatives, absolutes, views that seem quite reasonable in the context. A kind of abyss separates the war over here from the war over there, and the trick, as Billy perceives it, is not to stumble when jumping from one side to the other.
Yes ma'am, proud, Bravo has achieved levels of proud that can move mountains and knock the moon out of phase, but why, please, do they play the national anthem before games anyway? The Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears, these are two privately owned, for-profit corporations [...]
"Son, try to look at it this way. It's just another normal day in America."
Billy's heart melts a little at that son. The stage is disappearing around them like a mortally wounded ship beneath the waves.
"I don't think I even know what normal is anymore."
Plus the fact that the war's put up some spotty box-office numbers, didn't I say that might be a problem? So we're bucking that too. I know fifty-five hundred sounds pretty lame after the numbers we've been talking about, but for young men like yourselves, young soldiers on Army pay, it's not nothing, right?
For the past two weeks he's been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, their homeland dream is the dominant force. His reality is their reality's bitch; what they don't know is more powerful than all the things he knows [...]