It’s been a long time since we’ve had a political reporter with as much brio as Matt Tabbi, and as much disregard for the polite formalities of Washington-based journalism. Taibbi’s strength—as he demonstrated in The Great Derangement (2008)—is his biting contempt for those who pervert democratic mechanisms for personal and ideological gains. In Griftopia, he lashes out at the Wall Street financial elite, with hard swipes at Sarah Palin and other Tea Party luminaries, Alan Greenspan (“the biggest asshole in the universe”), the Robert Rubin/Lawrence Summers/Timothy Geithner trio (Time magazine ludicrously called them “The Committee to Save the World”), and Goldman Sachs (which Taibbi blames for being behind all the great financial disasters of the twentieth century, including a role in the Great Depression).
Taibbi succeeds in demystifying Wall Street, revealing how the financial and political elites have collaborated over thirty years of deregulation to inflate one bubble after another to enrich themselves and impoverish workers. He opens, appropriately, with Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican convention, noting her use of the classic language of resentment. The Tea Partiers’ explanation for the financial collapse gets it upside down by blaming poor people for overextending themselves, rather than blaming the shenanigans of Wall Street.
When he describes the mortgage scam, Taibbi does it with enough gusto to enliven the now-familiar story of credit default swaps and other newfangled securities. The rot extended from the very bottom to the very top, no one ever having the moral integrity to expose the Ponzi scheme. His explanation of the oil price hike is also convincing—he blames not demand from China, the favorite media explanation, but manipulation in the deregulated commodities market, particularly by Goldman Sachs. Municipalities across America are selling off public assets—such as Chicago’s parking meters, in a dirt-cheap seventy-five-year lease—to sovereign wealth funds (the investment vehicles of nation-states) without much transparency. He argues that Obamacare is a cynical move to enrich pharmaceutical companies and the health care industry, and was never motivated by idealism. Even if we’re familiar with the details of these policy struggles, Taibbi’s narrative of open corruption fires up righteous progressive anger.
Alan Greenspan—the clueless attention-grabber who intentionally inflated bubbles—and Goldman Sachs—which hugely benefited from the financial collapse as dumber banks were collapsing all around it—come in for special recrimination. Taibbi pins blame on specific individuals and companies, so as not to diffuse criticism. Griftopia is more than anything an indictment of the established media for not bothering to explain the crisis after the fact, let alone anticipating it.
Still, Taibbi has taken his brand of reportage as far as it can go. We know who to blame and how they did it. But the question of why—ever the bane of political reportage—is the crucial one. Greed is insufficient as an explanation. Only the Marxists these days offer a structural analysis: bubbles are created since there aren’t enough productive venues for surplus capital. But this is tautological. Why aren’t there productive investments?
Nation-centric reporters lacking a truly globalized imagination are unable to offer convincing explanations for economic trends. If America is declining, someone else is benefiting—and if we feel too badly about it, we give away our parochiality. Wasn’t the rallying cry of progressives for many generations the depredations of neocolonialism?
One explanation of the financial crisis, which eludes Taibbi, is that globalization succeeded too well. The pupils learned from the masters wholeheartedly; many emerging economies didn’t fare badly in the financial collapse. If the Chicago mayor is dumb enough to sell off parking meters for a pittance, don’t we want our capitalist-trainee countries like Abu Dhabi to take full advantage? How else does global capitalism—and global liberalism—work?
If it weren’t Goldman Sachs, it would be some other investment bank manipulating the markets. If it weren’t Greenspan, it would be some other time-serving bureaucrat dancing to Wall Street’s tune—like the present Treasury Secretary and Federal Reserve chairman. Such explanations also let the man on the street—often labeled as the victim—too easily off the hook. Consumers don’t have to fall for every trick the financial geniuses come up with. The kind of moral decadence that exceeds economics and reaches into the dark heart of empire eludes Taibbi.
Political reportage in this country, even at its most pessimistic, is tainted by a uniquely American optimism; if only the people were informed of the complex back-room deals, they would not vote against their own material interests—by supporting the Tea Party, for instance. The midterm elections offered no empirical evidence that this is the case.
Houston writer Anis Shivani’s forthcoming book of criticism is Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (Texas Review Press, 2011).