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.
The Vampire Nation brings in $7 billion, the equivalent of a small country’s GDP.
My former colleague John Dougherty dodged a bullet; he ran in a crowded primary with almost no money, and he still nearly became John McCain’s opponent for Arizona’s Senate race in November. If he keeps this up, he’s going to be in office before he knows it…
On the shelf:
METHLAND by Nick Reding: A gripping chronicle of the sad decline of small-town America, and how it’s inextricably tied to meth. Reding spent four years interviewing and researching this book, largely set in Oelwein, Iowa, which had meth brewers on its main street, mixing up the drug in two-liter soda bottles. He talks to the town’s physician, prosecutor, and leading cautionary example: a meth-head who blew up his mother’s house, and melted his skin off in the resulting fire. Although Oelwein seems on its way to recovery at the end of the book, it’s hard to imagine meth, and the problems it represents, is going away any time soon.
THE BREACH by Patrick Lee: I read this in roughly three hours. An awesome debut featuring a tough loner who stumbles into a conspiracy involving secret government agencies and futuristic weaponry with terrifying applications. Lee’s tightly stitched prose makes the unbelievable plausible, and the action relentless. Seriously, I wish I’d thought of half of the stuff he came up with. His next book, Ghost Country, should be out soon. Already pre-ordered it.
KRAKEN by China Mieville: A wonderful, labyrinthine tale of a secret London ruled by a kind of street-level magic. Mieville comes up with more high concepts in a paragraph than most writers manage to put in an entire novel: a crime boss who only exists as a tattoo on the back of a helpless host; two Apocalypses running into a scheduling conflict; occult labor disputes;and at the center of it all, sloshing in a massive tank of preservative, a dead giant squid that might bring about the end of the world.
Karasu Gyala, a fan of BLOOD OATH, shared this sketch of her concept of Dr. Johann Konrad with me. Pretty much how I saw him. Including the blood.
More than ten percent of Americans rely on food stamps. Tina Contraeras is one of them: “Unemployed and on disability benefits, Contraeras, 45, has custody of her grandchildren, ages 2 and 3. She has resorted to circling the first of the month on her calendar so that when her grandchildren are hungry, she can count down the days until they can return to the grocery store.
‘I have to make a game out of it for the kids,’ she said.” (Via The Awl.)
Condolences to Wall Street’s finest. The huge cash bonuses they have longed for and savored are history.Goldman Sachs Group (GS), the profit king of the securities business, has made sure of that. Goldman last week said its 30 top executives will get their traditional year-end bonuses in stock instead of cash — and the shares have serious restrictions…
Bonuses per se aren’t dead. Goldman and rivals Morgan Stanley(MS) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM). will dish out $29.7 billion in 2009 bonuses, analysts estimate. Some of that should be in cash, and the stock handed out will, with luck, be worth a nice sum years from now. (Via BusinessWeek.)
Yes, it’s going to be tough all over this Christmas.
From the Wall Street Journal:
Vampire Flick ‘New Moon’ Posts Biggest Opening Weekend of 2009
The vampire and werewolf movie “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” posted the biggest opening of the year, taking in $140.7 million in North America — but fell short of the all-time crown.
The Summit Entertainment film’s box office take was the third-largest on record for a movie in its opening weekend. It bested all of the “Harry Potter” films, and only Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight” ($158.4 million) and Sony’s “Spider-Man 3″ ($151.1 million), have made more in a single weekend in North America.
What amuses me about this is remembering what someone in the entertainment industry told me two years ago: “Vampires are over. Nobody wants to see them anymore.”
Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing has a great mini-review of a new book I now want to pick up: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.
Cheapness, argues Shell, has ruined just about everything. Main streets, with knowledgeable clerks and friendly service, have been decimated by discount stores like Wal-Mart staffed with ignorant employees who don’t give a damn. Customer service has all but vanished (A sign on the entrance of IKEA stores reads, “No One Will Bother You”). Factory outlets have become the “fastest growing segment of not only the retail industry but also the travel industry.” Jobs were lost when manufacturers moved their factories overseas and used cheap labor to produce mountains of cheap junk. Products now come in two categories: stratospherically priced luxury objects or slipshod discount crap, with few mid-priced, well-crafted objects available, because craftsmanship can’t compete in the mass market.
As my long-suffering wife will tell you, this is one of my repeated, grumpy-old-man rants: it shouldn’t be cheaper to buy a new toaster than to get the old one fixed — particularly when the old one barely lasts six months before breaking. One reason I love Apple products — even though they fall into the category of super-expensive luxury items — is that they last. They’re not only attractive and well-designed, they’re usually very well-built.
Terry Pratchett points out in his Discworld series that rich people have antiques because they bought stuff that was made to last. It’s one reason they stay rich — they don’t have to continually buy more cheap crap. I used to love Gap T-shirts because they were relatively inexpensive and lasted forever. (Seriously, I had one that nearly made it ten years. A T-shirt.) Now they’re often rags after a single season’s wear. And yet, I still buy them, because I have some kind of mental block that will not allow me to pay more than twenty bucks for a T-shirt. f
Maybe this will all snap back once China stops subsidizing our wages with cheap loans and cheap labor. Or when it becomes more expensive to ship toys and clothes from overseas than to make them here in the U.S. But until then, we’re stuck with new stuff that’s basically pre-garbage.