In his new book, Griftopia, Matt Taibbi tries to portray America as a thieve’s paradise, where foreign and domestic moneyed interests fleece the rest of us in the open and we are powerless to resist. Taibbi covers politics and, more recently, the financial crisis for Rolling Stone, and Griftopia is primarily a compilation of his recent feature stories. It’s an entertaining but ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying read, long on adjectives and invective but sorely lacking depth of analysis or reporting. Ultimately, Taibbi undermines himself: his assertions of fact, even regarding core points, often are colored past reality and occasionally are simply, provably wrong, discrediting the wild-eyed conclusions he reaches based on them.
Prior to the financial crisis, some of Taibbi’s best-known work, collected in previous books, involved politics and campaigns. This work, in tone as much as subject matter, implicitly invokes that of Hunter S. Thompson, who famously covered politics for Rolling Stone during the Nixon years, although Taibbi’s book on the 2004 campaign, Spanking the Donkey, pales in comparison to Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, probably the high point of Thompson’s career. Thompson’s stories often were filled with foul-mouthed, fractured and impossibly weird or vile allegations regarding its subjects, expanding or exploding reality to reflect some otherwise-inaccessible greater Truth. There doesn’t seem to be any greater Truth beyond the paranoia of Taibbi’s furious language, but in these Glenn Beck and Stephen Colbert days, what does it matter? Fear sells.
The emotional core of the book lies in a rant that closes a chapter describing the creation and progression of the mortgage crisis:
At the tail end of all this frantic lying, cheating, and scamming on all sides, … the final result is that we all ended up picking up the tab, subsidizing all this crime and dishonesty and pessimism as a matter of national policy.
We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country — and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.
But we didn’t do that, and we didn’t spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why? For a very good reason. Because we’re no good any more at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We’re shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing.
What are we good at? Robbing what’s left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer.
Well, if he’s right, then America is truly Fucked. Time to hit the road, bub. Luckily for us, however, Taibbi is dead wrong about the $13 trillion figure, and, as a result, America may not be hopeless after all.
Sure, it’s been reported that the total potential cost of the bailouts is $12.8 trillion, true, but the crucial word there is “potential.” $12.8 trillion is the potential total cost if every dollar the government pledged or loaned were actually paid out and never paid back.
But that’s not what’s happening. Much of the money loaned already has been repaid, and on some of the constituent “bailouts,” the government actually may make a profit. And, likewise, much of the money used to guarantee assets will never be tapped. This is a good thing for America. And it’s also a distinction that a professional reporter who has been knee-deep in the financial crisis should have recognized before proclaiming the moral bankruptcy of the country. It would be a devastating passage if it weren’t fundamentally untrue.
Look, I agree with Taibbi, at least in spirit, on some issues he raises, but if you’re going to be caustic and depressing and a brutal buzzkill I think you have a responsibility to make sure your facts are correct, especially a fact that forms the crux of both the chapter it ends and of the central depressing accusations of the entire book. And because the subjects Taibbi covers – securitized mortgage instruments, the commodity markets, etc., — are hyper-complex, I had trouble putting any faith in Taibbi’s understanding and descriptions of the details once I noticed that he whiffed on a few of those that I already understood.
Taibbi carries his populist flag throughout the book, and in the final chapter acknowledges proudly that class warfare is one of his goals while asserting that those who panned his Goldman Sachs article were with Them in this great battle, and not Us, claiming that the criticisms of his piece amounted to nothing more than a defense of “class privilege.” Like so much else in Griftopia, this is fun and entertaining, sure, but lazy. Had Taibbi’s article been about “class privilege” and seriously wrestled with the structure and institutions of the American economy that led to the problems he identified, it explicitly or implicitly would have suggested solutions. Instead, Taibbi aims for the fattened ducks operating the levers of power rather than the levers themselves: he seems quite proud, for example, of publicly calling Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein a “motherfucker.”
Griftopia portrays America as a ghetto being looted by evil drug lords, but a simpler explanation of the financial crisis, to me at least, seems to be the economics of laziness and arrogance. Laziness in entering a trade that is working (here, seemingly safe mortgage bonds) not because it makes sense but because it is easy and arrogance in assuming that you will know precisely when to get out. And the evidence from the last bubble (and the tech bubble before that) seems to be that as good as these Wall Street folks may have been at riding a massive wave to shore, few knew how to pull off before the wave broke.
On Griftopia’s back cover, Taibbi’s publishers praise him via pull quote as supplanting Michael Lewis as the “King Writer of Wall Street.” Not so fast. Lewis’s most recent book, The Big Short, walks the reader through the last few years of economic crisis with a level head and enough detail to allow a reader to understand how decisions that almost brought down the world could have seemed so common sense at the time to those who made them. Lewis’s book handles the complexity of the financial world with both grace and precision. Taibbi’s approach is closer to a drunken swagger: seemingly smooth, but not necessarily precise.
To be fair, Griftopia and The Big Short serve different audiences. Taibbi’s book will be of greatest utility to those who know exactly what they think but aren’t quite sure why. Lewis’s book well serves everyone else.
Bonus Link: Stockholm Syndrome: Two Books on High Finance
I’ve never been shy about my love for long form journalism – my love for the New Yorker is based on it – so I was intrigued to hear about a pair of books that collect some recent stand-out examples of the work from two other venerable magazines: New York and Harper’s. The former is represented in New York Stories and the latter in Submersion Journalism Both were reviewed a few weeks back in the LA Times. I was particularly intrigued by Submersion Journalism which includes work by Wells Tower, an excellent but not terribly well-known journalist who contributes to Harper’s, The Believer, Washington Post Magazine and others. We wrote about him a while back in an “Ask a Book Question” post. Unfortunately, a bunch of comments from readers listing several of Tower’s pieces were lost in the Great Comments Purge of 2006, but the post nonetheless provides some background.Tower is best known for the remarkable Harper’s piece “Bird-Dogging the Bush Vote,” for which he, as the LA Times puts it “embeds himself with some Bush boosters in Florida during the 2004 campaign in order to know thine enemy.” The article is, unfortunately, not available online for free, but it is included in Submersion Journalism. I’ve read it, and I think it rates up there with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail as a piece of tragicomic political journalism.Stepping back, it’s always exciting to see collections like these come out, if only for the fact that they highlight some of the best, most entertaining journalism ever written. I concur with reviewer Marc Weingarten in the LA Times who writes, “The Web is clearly where the media is headed. But long, well-informed literary journalism like the stories found in these books is still the province of print. If readers forsake this stuff, well, shame on all of us.”See Also: The New New Journalists
As Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon opens on Broadway, I find myself free-associating, as is my habit… in this case, on the subject of presidential fiction.Frank Langella, the actor who portrays Nixon in the play, has spoken in several interviews about the odd empathy he feels for our 37th president, who was by all accounts a psychological mess. The closest I’ve ever come to feeling empathy for Nixon was reading Robert Coover’s The Public Burning. Starring Tricky Dick in his vice-presidential incarnation, this novel about the Rosenberg trial is one of the high-water marks of postmodern fiction. Hell, even JFranz likes it. (I’m joking, Mr. Franzen. Joking.) Aside from its idiom, the book’s major achievement is its main character, who grows more ingratiating as he grows more loathsome. Potential libel suits stalled publication, according to the introduction by William H. Gass. We can only be grateful that they did not prevent it.Nixon’s belief in history as a pageant starring himself seems crucial to the development of a subgenre I’ve been calling, pace Matthew Sharpe, “historical fantasia.” (See recent works by Mark Binelli, Chris Bachelder, and Lydia Millet, for examples). If The Public Burning is a foundational text, Philip Roth’s Nixon novel Our Gang is a minor addition to the canon. Amusing stuff, and interesting as historical artifact, but inessential. Still, it further expanded the range of approaches the contemporary writer may take to historical figures.Straddling the line between fiction and journalism, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 harnessed a Roth-like fury to a more revealing analysis of the mechanisms of power. On celluloid, Oliver Stone’s Nixon (IMDb) attempted to get behind the mask, with mixed results. More recently, back in the world of letters, Gerald Reilly’s O. Henry Award-winning story “Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree” was said to explore the life of…an actor getting ready to play Nixon. Which brings us full circle to Frost/Nixon.And what of the other presidents? Gore Vidal had some success with Lincoln, David Foster Wallace notched an early triumph with “Lyndon,” (in Girl with Curious Hair) and DeLillo achieved a then-career-best with his reconstruction of the Kennedy assassination (Libra). I even recall a lovely A.M. Homes story about The Gipper.But the cast of characters in what is arguably the worst administration since Nixon’s strikes me as devoid of literary interest. Practically the only enduring contribution of this crew to America’s writers is its patented brand of cant. George Saunders has mastered the idiom. Hart Seely managed to turn Rumsfeld’s arrogant evasions into a book of poems. I myself, if you’ll forgive the plug, published a monologue called “The Love Song of Ari Fleischer” in 2004. But behind the words lurk people who have, for seven years, refused to grant room for ambiguity, complexity, and doubt – preconditions for the moral universe in which modern literature is possible. Instead, we get a stilted reduction whose protagonists, depending on who’s reading, are either simply Good, or simply Wicked. We get Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint. We get “Stuff Happens” and “Guantanamo” – bracing theatrical experiences, but not dramas per se. A mark of the current administration’s moral failure, and perhaps of its artistic triumph, is that it has sterilized many of the avenues for protest against itself. It brings out the worst in us, and has, by its relentless aestheticization of every aspect of American life, made the aesthetic feel insufficient. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps some artist or press secretary somewhere is even now working up a giant masterwork that illuminates W as a tragic hero caught on the horns of history. Somehow, though, I’m not convinced such a work would ring true. Anyway, I’m not holding my breath.See Also: HST on the Campaign Trail, Kennedy’s favorite fiction, Clinton’s favorite books.