Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Matt Taibbi's "Griftopia: Bubbles Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con that is Breaking America"

If you like gonzo journalism, this is the book for you. It is an over-the-top reportage of the 2008 meltdown with all the cultural-politico accountrements:
If American politics made any sense at all, we wouldn't have two giant political parties of roughly equal size perpetually fighting over the same 5-10 percent swatch of undecided voters, blues versus reds. Instead, the parties should be broken down into haves and have-nots -- a couple of obnoxious bankers on the Upper East Side running for office against 280 million pissed-off credit card and mortgage customers. That's the more accurate demographic divide in a country in which the 1 percent has seen its share of the nation's overall wealth jump from 34.6 percent, before the crisis in 2007, to over 37.1 percent in 2009. Moreover, the wealth of the average American plummeted during the crisis -- the median American household net worth was $102,500 in 2007, and went down to $65,400 in 2009 -- while the top 1 percent saw its net worth hold relatively stead, dropping from $19.5 million to $16.5 million.

But we'll never see our political parties sensibly aligned according to these obvious economic divisions, mainly because it's so pathetically easy to set big groups of voters off angrily chasing their own tails in response to media-manufactured nonsense, with the Tea Party being a classic example of the phenomenon. If you want to understand why America is such a paradise for high-class thieves, just look at the way a manufactured movement like the Tea Party corrals and neutralizes public anger that otherwise should be sending pitchforks in the direction of downtown Manhattan.

There are two reasons why the Tea Party voters will probably never get wise to the Ponzi-scheme reality of bubble economics. One has to do with the sales pitch of Tea Party rhetoric, which cleverly exploits Main Street frustrations over genuinely intrusive state and local governments that are constantly in the pockets of small businesses for fees and fines and permits.

The other reason is obvious: the bubble economy is hard as hell to understand. To even have a chance at grasping how it works, you need to commit large chunks of time to learning things like securitization, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, etc., stuff that's fiendishly complicated and that if ingested too quickly can feature a truly toxic boredom factor.

So long as this stuff is not widely understood by the public, the Grifter class is going to skate on almost anything it does -- because the tendency of most voters, in particular conservative votes, is to assume that Wall street makes its money engaging in normal capitalist business and that any attempt to restrain that sector of the economy is thinly disguised socialism.
And this where Taibbi is following Bill Parson, a Tea Party candidate for Senate in Nevada...
I keep trying to bring him [Parsons] back to the economy, but he keeps countering with his belief that we need to abolish the Departments of Energy and Labor, to say nothing of financial regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The DOE and the DOL, he says, aren't in the Constitution.

"But neight is toothpaste, or antibiotics," I say. "I mean, they wrote the Consitution a long time ago. It's missing a few things. This is a whole realm of financial crime that was not even conceived of back then. How do you police the stuff that's not in the Constitution?"

Parson frowns and looks ahead at the road -- we're driving through the Nevada desert at night. Then he turns slightly and gives me a This one goes to eleven look. "Well," he says, "I just keep getting back to what is in the enumerated powers of the Constitution ..."

Parson's entire theory of the economy is the same simple idea that Bachmann and all the other Tea Partiers believe in: that the economy is self-correcting, provided that commerce and government are fully separated. The fact that this is objectively impossible, that the private economy is now and always will be hopelessly interconnected not only with mountains of domestic regulations (a great many of which, as we'll see, were created specifically at the behest of financial corporations that use them to gain and/or maintain market advantage) but with the regulations of other countries is totally lost on the Tea Party, which still wants to believe in the pure capitalist ideal.

Bachmann spelled this out explicitly in an amazing series of comments arguing against global integration, which showed that she believed the American economy can somehow be walled off from impure outsiders, the way parts of California are walled off from Mexico by a big fence. "I don't want the United states to be in a global economy," she said, "where our economic future is bound to that of Zimbabwe."

The fact that a goofball like Michele Bachmann has a few dumb ideas doesn't mean much, in the scheme of things. What is meaningful is the fact that this belief in total deregulation and pure capitalism is still the political mainstream not just in the Tea Party, not even just among Republicans, but pretty much everywhere on the American political spectrum to the right of Bernie Sanders. Getting ordinary Americans to emotionally identify in this way with the political wishes of their bankers and credit card lenders and mortgagers is no small feat, but it happens -- with a little help.
The book is filled with wonderful insights while decorated with colourfully outlandish prose. A treat for the senses! Sure it is purple prose and puffed up outrage, but there is a heart of gold inside with a concern for the real American down inside that text. It does draw a picture of America that people need to wake up and think through.

A New York Times Sunday Book Review by Peter S. Goodman can be found here:
In “Griftopia,” a relentlessly disturbing, penetrating exploration of the root causes of the trauma that upended economic security in millions of American homes, Taibbi argues that what unfolded was far from accidental. Rather, the nation suffered the equivalent of a hostile takeover of key areas of its commercial life by investment banking houses, while regulators and members of Congress abdicated their responsibilities either because they were influenced by campaign cash or because they believed the fairy tale that unsupervised markets always work best. The result, Taibbi asserts, was a thieves’ paradise — Griftopia.


In Taibbi’s telling, contemporary finance has perverted markets that once served important functions, turning them into frontier-style betting parlors. Futures markets, for example, were created to allow farmers to hedge themselves against fluctuations in crop prices, and were traditionally regulated to prevent investors from amassing holdings large enough to manipulate prices. But over the last two decades, the federal government, at Wall Street’s behest, pared down its rules, allowing speculators to dominate commodities markets. Wall Street then steered pension funds into commodities. This, Taibbi claims, was the real cause of the commodities bubble that sent oil prices soaring to ludicrous heights in the summer of 2008. And now, with many local authorities hurting for cash, Wall Street is increasingly brokering deals that turn municipal facilities like Chicago’s parking meters into investment vehicles controlled by overseas governments — deals that Taibbi presents as a taxpayer rip-off.


Taibbi is a skilled and often entertaining writer. He is determined to help the reader make sense of complex issues that frequently cloak political and economic power, and he adroitly demystifies much of the jargon that lards financial writing. But he is too enamored of his own style. His prose wrestles for attention with the story itself, and his predilection for shock imagery and profanity tends to undermine the points he is trying to make. The vampire squid metaphor was deadly, yet Taibbi can’t resist trying to duplicate that feat on just about every other page, as if laboring to justify his perch at the same magazine that once employed Hunter S. Thompson.
Ah... but I'm a fan of over-the-top especially for worldly affairs that are themselves over-the-top. You need prose lurid enough to make the muck visceral as you force the reader to wade through blood and gore of a nation and society gutted by greed.

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