When I was back east for the holidays last year, we took the usual trip through Philly on our way to see the Doting Grammy. As we passed near the abandoned industrial zone, with the skyscrapers in the distance, I kept thinking I was traveling through the remains of a lost civilization — as if we are a tribe inhabiting the ruins of an older, more advanced culture. The strip clubs and strip malls, condos and wine bars, all living, like hermit crabs, in the shells of something bigger and long dead.
We were under the massive span of the Benjamin Franklin bridge when I felt this staggering sense of loss. I realized I couldn’t imagine anyone building anything like this in the United States today. The idea of public works — especially a huge investment like this one — has become a relic of a different time. (Think of the amount of time, money and effort it has taken for basic improvements to existing infrastructure, like the Big Dig.)
I thought about that scene a lot while reading Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squid, And The Long Con That is Breaking America. The fact is, we are simply not the country that built those bridges, or the interstate highways, or created a massive industrial complex to fight World War II, and the proof is on every page. If you have any interest in finding out just how badly and repeatedly we all got screwed in the financial meltdown, then you have to read this book.
In 2009, Taibbi took his first in-depth look at the collapse of the economy with an article about Goldman Sachs, famously calling it a “vampire squid” stuck to the face of humanity. It kicked up a lot of dust, and he began looking deeper into the causes of the crisis. The result is Griftopia.
Griftopia expands on that first article, with side trips into the enablers of the greed-is-good ethos (Alan Greenspan, whom Taibbi calls “the biggest asshole in the universe”) and commodities trading (the first time I’ve ever been moved to any kind of emotion by the idea of trading corn futures). In each chapter, he nails down the ways in which our economy has turned into a Ponzi scheme. We’ve been sold complete bullshit for years, and Taibbi, God love him, is not afraid to say so.
(Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, has plenty of money to soothe its hurt feelings. Despite requiring $5.5 billion of taxpayer money in 2008 (and $12.9 billion in bailouts from the collapse of AIG), the bank posted $1.9 billion in profits in the past three months alone.)
Those expecting a left-wing polemic are going to be disappointed, however. Taibbi has scathing invective for everyone involved in this mess, and has an especially sharp analysis of the massive failure that is ObamaCare.
But politics, Taibbi says, is merely a sideshow, meant to distract the rubes from the real business of government — which is to hoover money from the many and deliver it to a select group of campaign contributors. Those who believe the elections a couple weeks ago will make any difference are living in a dreamland, and the people who actually run things in this country are happy to let them stay there. (Taibbi also reminds us that the name of the Tea Party actually came from Rick Santelli — a financial trader who lost his shit live on CNBC, not because of the billion-dollar bailouts for firms like Goldman, but by the idea that some people might get a break on their mortgage payments.)
There are those who challenge Taibbi, but none of them have landed a solid punch so far. I don’t pretend to be an expert on collateralized debt obligations, tranches, or interest rate swaps. Neither does Taibbi. But having worked with some truly great reporters, I recognize when someone has the goods, and Taibbi definitely owns this story. Most of his critics concentrate on the small things while leaving his main points untouched; many of them simply disagree philosophically with him — any alternatives to our current system are unimaginable.
Besides, it’s hard to argue with Taibbi when politicians are so short-sighted they are literally selling America off piece-by-piece. The great public works of the past are now up for sale. If I were to put that metaphor into a novel, I know it would never make it into the final draft — it’s just too perfectly sad and ironic to seem real. Unfortunately, this is where we live now. And it’s going to take more than Tea Parties or Sanity Rallies (or blogging, for that matter) to get us out of here.