Thursday, March 24, 2011


Matt Taibbi was an old hand at documenting the rape of a national economy long before most of his current readership had ever heard of such exotica as Collateralized Debt Obligations and Credit Default Swaps. Spending most of the 90s in post-Soviet Russia watching a handful of well-positioned would-be oligarchs either collude with or just plain swindle the Russian government and the western "privatization experts" who swarmed to help in the full-scale conversion of the biggest experiment in command economies in history to a market economy.

His forehead-slapping account of that wholesale fraud, which left ordinary Russians going for month or years without receiving their salaries and, in the provinces "eating each other out of boredom" is colorfully recorded in his and Mark Ames' The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, a delightfully profane, entertaining and, above all, clear and comprehensible read if ever there was one.

I wonder if he suspected, as he and Ames penned that blood- and cash-soaked opus, that someday he'd more or less be writing the same story about his home country.

Griftopia is essentially a sequel to The Exile with further biographical details removed; Taibbi's a married man now and presumably doesn't spend his leisure hours in appalling dive-bars-cum-whorehouses like Moscow's infamous Hungry Duck. Presumably. What he has continued to do is exercise superhuman patience in unraveling fiendishly complicated legal and financial dealings and the backstories of the masterminds behind them and reweaving the threads into a fairly elegant tapestry that conveys a lot of information simply and extremely entertainingly.

My readers have probably figured out by now that I have a sort of sick fixation on reading about the various ways in which we are screwing ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be screwed. I've read a lot of books that essentially warned of the financial crisis we're currently still experiencing (the best of which is Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century), and some good ones that dissect and lay out what happened and how (Daniel Gross' Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation and Michael Lewis' The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine being two I would recommend to anyone, and would have called my favorites before Griftopia hit my Kindle). I feel decently informed but there's still always more to know, and Griftopia satisfied that need, but it also satisfied something else.

I can't imagine Kevin Phillips or Daniel Gross or Michael Lewis calling former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan "the world's biggest asshole," for instance, though they have and did highlight Greenspan's huge role in the systematic dismantling over most of my adult life of as much as possible of the legal and regulatory architecture that has sheltered us from the large-scale disaster we're all now experiencing. Regulation throttles progress, he and his "greed is good" followers insisted, managing in the process to persuade a huge swath of the middle class, the ordinary small businessmen of this country who should have stood with the little people through all of this that the kind of local red-tape crap that made it hard for them to do business was exactly the same as the anti-trust regulations and close monitoring of derivatives trading and prohibition of insider trading and needed to go! It's breathtaking, and it's still going on; the Tea Party and its allies, little people who think they're one plugged toilet or new refrigerator sale away from joining the millionaire's club, still side with the fat cats and even now hiss and spit at the slightest mention of regulation. It's revolting, and yes, I think Alan Greenspan may well be the world's biggest asshole, as Taibbi says.

It's amazing what a little deregulation can do, not just in the derivatives market, where the resulting follies are well-documented in those other books I've mentioned and are probably familiar by now to anyone with enough interest in what's happened to us to tune in to Planet Money or read a blog once in a while, but also, and this shocked me though it shouldn't have in hindsight, in the commodities market, where a speculative bubble just as bad as the more famous internet and housing ones, drove prices on vital stuffs like gasoline and food way, way up, and forced ordinary people to the brink of starvation. The ridciulous "health care reform" bill we know as ObamaCare, which reformed health care financing only in that it made it easier for insurance companies to make more money, also comes into Taibbi's crosshairs. I'm in danger of straying into paraphrasing and spoiling his arguments here, as of just hitting you with a lot of raw text from the book -- Taibbi is highly quotable on these subjects and more, in his pitchfork-waving way -- and doing so would spoil a lot of the fun of reading Griftopia (imagine that! A fun book about the financial crisis!).

Fun though this book is to read, though, it's fun in the way that I refer to as triggering John Trent laughter (John Trent is the protagonist of John Carpenter's H.P. Lovecraft-inspired In the Mouth of Madness, the final scene of which features Trent watching a film of himself experiencing all of the horrors he thought he'd escaped from; his laughter is bitter and despairing and wholly familiar to people who have been forced to contemplate how badly screwed we are). Taibbi quite rightly points out that modern electoral politics are an irrelevant and distracting side-show, two parties, both far more answerable to Wall Street (source of campaign war-chest money) and other corporate interests than to the actual voters, duking it out over pointless culture war crap like abortion and who is really patriotic and how unfair it is that we can't teach Christianity in public schools. He ends on that depressing note without even trying to propose a way out of the mess, but I won't.

I'm pretty sure my former U.S. Senator, the highly quotable (and also occasionally profane -- I like my public figures salty, I guess) Alan Simpson, was as guilty as anyone currently in office of serving his paymasters first and the voters who put him in a position to serve those paymasters second while he was in office, but in his emeritus years he has embraced a cause that is quite dear to my own heart, and that is public financing of campaigns. Probably too little, too late now that the Supreme Court (in Citizens United vs the Federal Election Commission) has joined the "hand everything over to corporations because some animals are more equal than others and corporations are the biggest animals on the farm" parade, but it may not be too late. Have a look at Common Cause just to humor me, why don't you. It may be the best idea we've got left, though it's perhaps a mistake to try to do this from the top down. For one thing, a reform this major to how we elect the President of the United States would have to go through Congress, and the corporate/financial industry interests who call Congress's tunes won't like the measure and will put up an ungodly fight. No, we might have to start doing this at the local level. An ordinance in your city, establishing a common fund for city council candidates and requiring them to use their allotment from it and no others in running for office could just be doable, some places. And successes can spread. Just maybe.

We allowed Griftopia to swallow our polity, but maybe we can yet administer an emetic. What have we got to lose in trying?

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