The Short Version: Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone reporter and closest thing we have to a gonzo journalist these days, famously called Goldman Sachs “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” in an RS article called “The Great American Bubble Machine”. In Griftopia, he expands on that article, looking into the causes and fallout of not just the 2008 crash but really just how f*cked our (humanity’s, that is) financial system is today, at home and abroad.
The Review: I am not an economist. I took a single econ class at BC and, despite the combination of a stuffy room and a boring professor and an attractive girl two rows ahead of me, I somehow managed to scrape out a B. I took this as a sign that while I should know about economics, I would be better off not paying to learn it / not putting my GPA at risk while doing so. But for the most part, I was being slipped radical Austrian economics texts by my Libertarian uncle and picking up a few articles here or there – not really the basis of understanding, by any means.
I bring this up because Taibbi, as in all things, isn’t going to wait up. There’s the damn good chance that if you know nothing about economics, you will nearly be capsized by the jargon in this book – and he dumbs it down, significantly. This is not a critique of Taibbi – it’s actually fantastic for the reader that he does as much as he does to make it understandable/palatable – but rather a warning: this is how convoluted our system is. One of our greatest working journalists (despite his sometimes overblown style) can barely parse it down to the point of being able to explain it to the masses – so what do you think your bank is doing?
As Taibbi points out in the paperback edition bonus material (two articles written after the book went to press for the hardcover), we finally did manage to turn the tide. Popular opinion did, in fact, swing against the banks and the finance people some time around 2010 or so. The Tea Party crazies aren’t totally crazy – I’ve gotta say, their rhetoric is probably largely what helped solidify that turn. It’s just that they were immediately co-opted by the Establishment Right and their message turned into… something else, about how our President is black and that’s a problem for them except they can’t say exactly that so we’ll say it’s about his birth certificate or who he went to college with. But that’s exactly the point: who’s still thinking about the banks? About the crisis that we are NOWHERE NEAR recovered from, despite the almost fanatical 24-news-cycle’s devotion to parsing jobs numbers and stock market fluctuations and telling us “otherwise”? Nobody. Nobody cares and as a result the banks just keep on doing their thing.
Taibbi’s writing can, at times, be bordering on histrionic. It turns a lot of people off, his unvarnished (except really rather well varnished) prose that’s spotted with curses and slang – a colleague of mine bemoaned that he actively didn’t want to like him in the same way that, no matter how much he might agree with what he’s saying, he didn’t want to like Michael Moore. And there is a similarity – except, here’s the rub: Taibbi isn’t being partisan. Not here, anyway – his previous book, The Great Derangement, definitely heaped a bit more scorn on the right than the left. Well, that’s also… he could’ve been a bit more excoriating of the Obama administration here (although I also get the sense that he’s got another book in his mind about such things).
I’m getting away from the point, though. The point is, if you don’t like Taibbi’s style, this book might be tough for you – especially considering the crazy amounts of financial-speak that you simply have to get through in order to understand the situation at hand. And that’s when it really gets scary: no matter how many “douchewad” sightings in this book made you giggle, the feeling at the end of this book is one of absolute terror. Anger, too. But really, terror: our financial system – the United States specifically but also (as we’ve seen, continually and increasingly) abroad – is just completely fucked. And we let it happen, because we (the people, who’re supposed to be ultimately the ones in charge here…) are stupid. This is a simplification but it’s true: we took what was being sold to us and believed it and as a result allowed the people selling it to do even more terrible things to us.
Taibbi walks us through the crisis from its earliest days – we get a few history lessons about some stuff that led to the Great Depression (stuff that’s not discussed in any high school US history class anywhere, I can almost guarantee it), we get a hilarious and scathing profile of “the biggest asshole in the universe”, former Fed chair Alan Greenspan. Who, as it turns out, is in fact exactly that – his rampant push for deregulation is what opened the door for these monsters to come creeping out. But then we get a look at how this was a bipartisan dismantling: it’s not just the Republicans, it’s not just the Democrats. Our system has been corrupted so thoroughly by what we misleadingly call “special interests” and which are, in fact, just banks and corporations with a shitpile of money that they use to buy their way. You want real change? The leaders of every “investment bank”, every single bank, every single mutual fund, and anyone who has dealt with economic policy in this country for the last 50 years should be brought up on fraud charges and thrown in jail for as long as possible. Take that sneering slimebucket Lloyd Blankfein – who I would in fact believe to be the Antichrist, if I were a person who believed in such things – and throw him in jail for several consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. Why? Because he – moreso than just about anybody else, although they all deserve to have the book thrown at them – and his team at Goldman (as Taibbi lays out very clearly) not only orchestrated the financial crash by recklessly making bad investments and playing out classic grifter get-rich-quick schemes, but then also orchestrated the government’s decision to bail them out and give them even more money because they were “too big to fail”… money they turned around and paid out to themselves, not to the people who needed it whose lives they had turned upside down with their relentless greed.
The thing is… This solution – of throwing the book at these fuckrats – will never happen. We continue to see bubbles come and go almost before we can pay attention to them – partially because, as Taibbi says, “we no longer have the attention span to deal with any twenty-first century crisis.” And public sentiment – which did turn against the banks, largely due to Taibbi’s brilliant “vampire squid” article – is (as he again puts it) “a financial irrelevancy.” THAT is what is scary: that we have, quite probably, passed the point of no return here. Our system is so corrupted and so hollowed out that we might very well have actually already lost everything – we bet our shirts, lost, borrowed from the casino a new shirt and lost that (to them, again), and then found out that the casino owners were running out the back door as the place burned to the ground around us. Leaving the handful of them on their yachts headed off to private islands while the rest of us stand around without any of the bare necessities – food, clothing, shelter – because there is literally nothing left.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. God is this book nearly impenetrable at times – imagine what it would be like if it was written in actual financial speak – but it’s so important. Crucially so. At the very least, if everyone in America read this book, maybe we’d get angry. We’d get off our asses and do something about it. But also? We tried that. We got angry – and then it got subsumed by something else. Misdirection – in the form of war, racism, entertainment. Nobody believes that Barack Obama is the knight in shining change he promised he’d be – Taibbi masks his disappointment pretty well but you get the sense that he, just like the rest of us, watched helplessly as we realized that O is just like everybody else who’s ever run for that office in the modern system: a politician, out to protect those who are protecting him, not really changing anything all that much. There’s a healthcare section in this book that I didn’t even get to – and that backs up my annoyance at my liberal crowd, because I knew that bill was shit when it came through and everyone said “yeah but we got something!” Fuck off, no we didn’t. We got sold another scam and we took it with a smile.
But what can we do?
I don’t know.
And that’s the scariest thing – for Taibbi, for me, for all of us.
Someday, I do genuinely think that people will look back and see Taibbi was one of the few who was not warning us but simply chronicling our fall as it happened – like Spider Jerusalem, holding out the slimmest hope that maybe (just maybe) the truth might win out after all.