Working into it

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I promised you a rant and I’ve failed to produce one. Mea culpa, perhaps later in the week. I had a few fire drills to tend to here in the Pea Patch and a good ‘mad’ requires attention, the ability to rip and shred without hurting oneself and a purpose. Mine is ever and always to encourage and motivate — it will take more time and effort.

Still, there are things worth noting out there in cyberspace, a few really good books out … and hey! the one produced by our Dubby is a pip, full of self-justification, stuff and nonsense. Be sure and take note of the quotes as they trickle out — that kind of delusion will get you warmed up for the next two years.

There’s a new book out by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi called Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con. You’ll find a review below and an interview — I agree with Matt’s projection on what happens next, by the way. Spot on and frustrating. There’s enough anger in his quotes to get us warmed up for a nice disgruntled moment.

I’ll keep working on the snit — I mean, it’s not like there aren’t a whole list of provocations every day, now, beginning to gather into a knot. I just want to do it justice. A good snit is more than mere bitching, it’s a purge point and helps clear the air … and the decks … for what comes next.

Here’s reads on Matt Taibbi — and as a ‘forgive me’ gift, a new posting by Helen Philpott of Helen and Margaret fame. She’s a hoot!


Oh Happy Day
Helen Philpot, Margaret and Helen
November 3, 2010

Margaret, happy days are here again. The skies above are blue again. It really is just too good to be true. The Republican gains delivered by the Tea Party are almost more than I could hope for. I only wish that lovely Witch in Delaware could have come along for the party as well.

Now let’s see. Where do I begin? Our taxes will soon be about zero percent so let’s start spending today to get this economy back on track. The government will shrink to a size somewhat equal to the size of our military which means Social Security has to go. Those of us who were smart enough to save for a rainy day will be high and dry… for at least a few months. And I got a good check-up from my doctor recently so I don’t need my Medicare… for at least a few months.

Now about that black man in the Oval Office. It will take a few days to get impeachment hearings underway, but until then I hear they are moving him out of the White House and into that little room at the top of the Washington Monument so he can’t cause any more trouble. Oh and Ms. Pelosi is out too. How dare she take on the Health Insurance Industry. Didn’t she realize people own stock in those companies?

Gays are no more. They all left, presumably to join the French Army. And teen pregnancies are a thing of the past. Teens will no longer have sex. Except the Palins. The Palins will abandon teen pregnancies as easily as a camel will pass through the eye of an early pregnancy test stick. No. The Palins will continue to give birth to abstinence only babies. That we know for sure.

Abortion? Well everyone knows that was just a luxury American women really couldn’t afford anyway. And government will now be small enough to actually fit inside a woman’s uterus, so all women with unwanted pregnancies have left, presumably to join the French Army.

Sarah Palin has a clear path to the Presidency in 2012… which means we’ll have another presidential election in 2014 when she quits. No problems though. Michele Bachmann has been talking to God and he assures her that the two years as Vice President will fly by and she will be in the Oval Office before she knows it. Let’s all start a prayer group for her now.

I found it interesting that John Boehner declared that Washington has been put on notice. Considering how long he’s been a part of Washington, I say Politician heal thyself. Yes. Washington has been put on notice indeed. It’s been put on notice that Americans have the attention span of a gnat.

If there is one thing we learned last night, it is not that Americans are mad at their government. It’s not that Americans want lower taxes. It’s not even that Tea Party Americans who voted for McCain don’t like Barack Obama. We knew all that. What we learned last night is something we really should have known all along. Americans want what we don’t have. And once we have it, we no longer want it. 2012 will be here before we know it, and I wonder how we will feel then about what we have now.

No worries Margaret. Nothing changes quickly in Washington. And that is probably the best thing about our system of government. Time is on our side. Eventually Americans realized that slavery was unacceptable. Eventually Americans realized that women should be given the right to vote. Eventually Americans realized that Senior Citizens needed a little help at the end of their lives and those living in poverty needed a little leg up from time to time. Eventually we even realized that healthcare should be available for anyone who needs it…. errr. Well, it takes time. That’s my point.

Now go have some pie and take some time to enjoy your day. I mean it. Really. ++

tristero, Hullabaloo

I just finished reading Matt Taibbi’s newest book, Griftopia, and it’s wonderful. Taibbi has a bloggy sense of outrage and a Heifetz-level virtuosity in the proper employment of profanity to advance an argument. He is also, despite his occasional digs (most well-deserved) – a liberal. He is mostly, though, one helluva talented reporter. Matt’s political/cultural beat for Rolling Stone has given him an opportunity to write in a thoroughly cynical voice but to do so, oddly enough, with an utterly sincere astonishment. Not too many people can pull off something as contradictory as that and make it seem perfectly natural – it really does take a kind of genius.

Here is an extraordinarily succinct – and outraged, and thoroughly entertaining – summary of the housing crisis:

    …Almost everyone who touched that mountain turned out to be a crook of some kind. The mortgage brokers systematically falsified information on loan applications in order to secure bigger loans and hawked explosive option-ARM mortgages to people who either didn’t understand them or, worse, did understand them and simply never intended to pay. The loan originators cranked out massive volumes of loans with plainly doctored applications, not giving a shit about whether or not the borrowers could pay, in a desperate search for short-term rebates and fees. The securitizers used harebrained math to turn crap mortgages into AAA-rated investments; the ratings agencies slgned off on that harebrained math and handed out those AAA ratings in order to keep the fees coming in and the bonuses for their executives high. But even the ratings agencies were blindsided by scammers who advertised and sold, openly, help in rigging FICO scores to make broke and busted borrowers look like good credit risks. The corrupt ratings agencies were undone by ratings corrupters!

    Meanwhile, investment banks tried to stick pensioners and insurance companies with their toxic investments, or else they held on to their toxic investments and tried to rip off idiots like [AIG sleazeball] Joe Cassano by sticking him with the liability of default. But they were undone by the fact that Joe Cassano probably never even intended to pay off, just like the thousands of homeowners who bought too-big houses with optionARM mortgages and never intended to pay. And at the tail end of all this frantic lying, cheating, and scamming on all sides, during which time no good jobs were created and nothing except a few now-empty houses (good for nothing except depressing future home prices) got built, the final result is that we all ended up picking up the tab, subsidizing all this crime and dishonesty and pessimism as a matter of national policy.

    We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, We could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country-and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

    But we didn’t do that, and we didn’t spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why? For a very good reason. Because we’re no good anymore at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We’re shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing.

    What are we good at? Robbing what’s left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer. And when it came time to design the bailouts, a monster collective project spanning two presidential administrations that was every bit as vast and far-reaching (only not into the future but the past)) as Kennedy’s trip to the moon, we showed It.

Taibbi’s attitude towards the political landscape of America in the Third Millenium is, in some ways, similar to Thomas Frank’s, that there’s a bait and switch being pulled, that the real action is not the social issues – it never is – but rather the money. The looting of America by the Biggest, Ballsiest Crooks Ever is the only genuinely important story. For Taibbi, the teabaggers’ racism, sexism, xenophobia, libertarianism, and other extremisms seem to serve much the same function as geologists see for trees and grass: sure, it’s striking sometimes, but ultimately, it’s merely hair that covers the bald truth about the world. I’m not sure I entirely agree – but damn, when you read Matt describe what’s really been going on, without any sugar coating or euphemisms, and with that throat-slittingly sharp style… damn if Taibbi doesn’t have a point:

    Here’s the real punch line. After playing an intimate role in three historic bubble catastrophes, after helping $5 trillion in wealth disappear from the NASDAQ in the early part of the 2000s, after pawning off thousands of toxic mortgages on pensioners and cities, after helping drive the price of gas up above $4.60 a gallon for half a year, and helping 100 million new people around the world join the ranks of the hungry, and securing tens of billions of taxpayer dollars through a series of bailouts, what did Goldman Sachs give back to the people of the United States in the year 2008?

    Fourteen million dollars.

    That is what the firm paid in taxes in 2008: an effective tax rate of exactly 1, read it, one, percent. The bank paid out $10 billion in compensation and bonuses that year and made a profit above $2 billion, and yet it paid the government less than a third of what it paid Lloyd Blankfein, who made $42.9 million in 2008.

    How is this possible? According to its annual report, the low taxes are due in large part to changes in the bank’s “geographic earnings mix.” In other words, the bank moved its money around so that all of it earnings took place in foreign countries with low tax rates. Thanks to our completely fucked corporate tax system, companies like Goldman can ship their revenues offshore and defer taxes on those revenues indefinitely, even while they claim deductions up front on that same untaxed income. This is why any corporation with an at least occasionally sober accountant can usually find a way to pay no taxes at all. A Government Accountability Office report, in fact, found that between 1998 and 2005, two-thirds of all corporations operating in the United States paid no taxes at all.

    This should be a pitchfork-level outrage- but somehow, when Goldman released its postbailout tax profile, barely anyone said a word: Congressman LLoyd Doggett of Texas was one of the few to remark upon the obscenity. “With the right hand begging for bailout money,” he said, “the left is hiding it offshore.”

Finally, I thought I’d leave you with Taibbi’s inspiring conclusion. It’s as pure an expression of the unshakeable faith Matt Taibbi has in the capability of America’s citizens to dig itself out of the mess the Biggest Assholes In The Universe created as ever we are likely to read:

    …a country whose citizens purport to be mad as hell about growing government influence has still said little to nothing about that bizarre sequence of events in which the entire economy was rebuilt via this series of back-alley state-brokered mergers, which left fInancial power in America in the hands of just a few mostly unaccountable actors on Wall Street. We still know very little about what really went on during this period, who was calling whom, what bank was promised what. We need to see phone records, e-mails, correspondence, the minutes of meetings to know what the likes of Paulson and Geithner and Bernanke were doing during those key stretches of 2008.

    But we probably never will, because the country increasingly is forgetting that any of this took place. The ability of its citizens to lose focus so quickly and to be distracted by everything from Lebronamania to the immigration debate is part of what makes America so ripe for this particular type of corporate crime. We have voters who don’t pay attention, a news !media that ignores key subjects or willfully misunderstands them, and a regulatory environment that bends easily to lobbying and campaign financing efforts, And we’ve got a superpower’s worth of accumulated wealth for the taking,You put that all together, and what you get is a thieves’ paradise – a Griftopia.


It’s Morning In Griftopia: A Q+A With Author Matt Taibbi
In his new book about “the long con that is breaking America,” the Rolling Stone reporter chronicles the bizarre sight of a nation about to reward—lavishly—the very same Wall Street titans, DC politicians, and shady power brokers who brought us low

Aaron Lake Smith, GQ
October 2010

Matt Taibbi, the profane, provocative reporter for Rolling Stone, is a larger-than-life figure in modern political journalism. That’s both literally true (he’s a big guy: he once played for the MBA—that’s the Mongolian Basketball Association) and figuratively true: he writes in a scorching, contemptuous style that gives the best of his work a cast of fire-breathing grandeur. Known primarily for blaspheming the Pope, labeling Goldman Sachs a “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”, and more recently, slinging a mug of hot coffee in the face of a Vanity Fair reporter, Taibbi is clearly a man of outsized emotions.

His new book Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con that Is Breaking America [Spiegel & Grau] is a stinging new history of the financial crisis that heralds a return of Mencken-esque, dirt-under-the-fingernails American journalism. Griftopia delves into the shadowy world of collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps and sovereign wealth funds, but he navigates the turgid money stuff with soaring sentences like “Greenspan’s rise is…a tale of a gerbilish mirror-gazer who flattered and bullshitted his way up the Matterhorn of American power, and then, once he got to the top, feverishly jacked himself off to the attentions of Wall Street for twenty consecutive years.” No one is spared. GQ caught up with Taibbi in a dark corner of a downtown Manhattan café to discuss the new book, the Great Recession, the upcoming midterm elections and what lies beyond.


Here we are, two years into the Great Recession—most Americans are by now worn out and hopelessly confused by the financial crisis. Your new book starts out at a Sarah Palin campaign rally in 2008 and takes us back through the vortex.

When I first started covering the financial crisis I would go around the country and ask people about this stuff and nobody knew anything. Now, one out of five people understands what’s going on. It’s slowly getting there. But on the other hand, if you look at the foreclosure crisis and the way that’s being covered, there’s literally the same mis-coverage that we saw two years ago. There was a story in the Wall Street Journal last week where they’re basically blaming the lawyers who are working on behalf of people who don’t want to pay their mortgages for causing the foreclosure crisis. People believe this stuff. The problem with the mortgage crisis is that: you hear the word ‘mortgage’ and you don’t even want to listen. The Republicans were the only ones who were really loud about this: they said the reason everybody got a mortgage is because the government was forcing banks to lend to people. That wasn’t the real explanation. The real explanation was that the banks had figured out a way to take these subprime mortgages, chop them up into little bits, and then repackage them as AAA-rated investments and sell them to people who didn’t know what they were. It’s basically like selling oregano as weed. What’s the first thing you do when you find out you can get away with that? You go out and buy or grow more oregano.

In a recent Rolling Stone piece, you wrote about the Tea Party: “their desire to withdraw from the brutally complex global economic system that is an irrevocable fact of our modern life and get back to a simpler world that no longer exists is so intense, it breaks your heart.”

What are they withdrawing to?

While I was working on the Tea Party story, I interviewed a guy who was talking about how we need to reform Wall Street because they’ve gone into every corner of life, how we deal with them fifty times a day when we’re buying gasoline or whatever. He said, “I don’t need to use gasoline. I can burn wood at home.” But commodities prices affect food. Are you going to not buy food? “Well, I can grow my own food,” he said. People don’t realize the extent to which all this shit snakes out into every corner of our existence. They don’t want to have to deal with it, it’s just too complicated. They want to retreat. The big lesson I want people to get from this book is that you can’t retreat. We’ve entered this new world of bureaucratic complexity. Your political future is now determined by how much of this shit you’re going to be able to understand. There’s no going back—it’s here. The problem with the Tea Party is that it’s been used in a way that scares people into supporting an agenda that’s counter to their own interests.

Why are Americans so squeamish about going after the wealthy?

In other countries they have histories with revolutions and class movements. In America, people don’t like to think of themselves like being in a lower class. They all like to think of themselves as potential millionaires. So when these politicians get up and say “We need business and the producers to be free, in order to create jobs for everybody”—people think of themselves as being on the side of the rich guy. They don’t think of themselves in being in that other group. That’s the genius of the Tea Party—you take these people who are all themselves middle class or below, and you make them focus on poor minorities so they think they’re above somebody else.

It seems like when class is discussed in the US, the discussion is limited to op-ed columns and academia, couched in soft terms like ‘inequality’.

You’ve read A Tale of Two Cities—you don’t get that kind of burning, the-rich-are-real-assholes take on wealth in this country. We love wealth and we hate poor people. I know people who work in TV news who have actually been told to do stand-ups rather than put interviews with poor people on the air. We physically don’t want to look at them.

In your book, the second chapter is on Alan Greenspan and his mentor Ayn Rand—it’s called ‘The Biggest Asshole in the Universe.’ Do you see their dream of pure, unregulated capitalism as an impossible Garden of Eden?

Our state and our economy are so unbelievably intertwined at this point, that to even talk about separating the two out is almost an academic debate. It’s used as an argument by Wall Street when they want to deregulate—whenever they don’t want the government on their backs about something, they say ‘Freedom from government interference! Free and unfettered!’ The reality is they’re all completely dependent on the state whether they’re getting money at 0% interest from the Fed or whether they’re getting bailed out. The book lists about 90 or 100 different ways that these guys make money off of state influence.

People don’t realize that it’s like strands of a rope at this point—there’s no way to separate the two out.

You also have a chapter in the book going after Obamacare, calling it a cynical political move.

We wanted to show how Congress worked and how insurance is a financial industry, and how that industry is protected. The key thing—a lot of what the book is about—is that financial services companies use the government to create a protected industry for themselves.

These brokerages and banks use the Fed as an insurance policy—if they blow themselves up in a speculative venture or bubble they can just borrow themselves back to health by getting cheap money from The Fed. The entire Obamacare effort was really a way for the Democrats to pass something they could call healthcare reform. The behavior of the Democrats in this process was—lets concede massively at the outset, and then beg for tiny concessions later. Instead of coming in with a strong hand and giving concessions to the industry, they give the concessions to the people and they surrendered to industry at the outset. So much of the stuff in the Healthcare bill was egregious—the deal they made with PhRMA where they gave up the right to negotiate bulk prices, reimport drugs from Canada in exchange for a bunch of money to fund their advertising.

A lot of your reporting, and these long, snarling pieces coming out in Rolling Stone feel like a return to an era when journalism had some teeth—Mencken, Sinclair, Bierce. What has happened to journalism elsewhere?

I grew up around journalists. In the 50s and 60s, Journalism wasn’t a profession. It wasn’t something you went to college for—it was really more of a trade. You had a lot of guys who came up working in newspapers at the copy desk, or delivery boys, and then they would somehow become reporters afterward and learn on the job. They tended to be working-class guys who had an attitude about power. They saw themselves as being working people, and they had an emotional mandate to stick-it-to-the-man. I remember those people—when I grew up there was this kind of iconoclastic attitude. There are still some people who are from that world—Seymour Hersh is a great example. The guy grew up in newspapers and still just fucking hates people, and works in this dirty little office in Washington—he doesn’t do fancy lunches. But somewhere along the line, in the 80s or 90s, after All The Presidents Men came out, journalism became this very fashionable profession, a thing for the Ivy League kids. If you go on the campaign trail, what you find is a lot of people who are really turned on by the experience of being near powerful people. They see themselves as being on the same team as the people that they’re covering. I think we saw this very clearly with the [Michael] Hastings thing—all these reporters were saying “how could you betray your source?” which is a crazy attitude for a journalist to have. You would have never seen that twenty or thirty years ago, and that’s kind of de rigueur now.

In one of my first days on the Obama plane, Obama came back and said hello to the journalists at one point. When he turned around, he was wearing jeans—all the female reporters on the plane were checking his ass out, and literally whistling. The walls of the whole back of the plane were covered with pictures of all the journalists, posing with Obama—it was like a high-school yearbook thing.

Meghan McArdle has called you ‘the Sarah Palin of journalism.’

Bill Belichick, coach of the Patriots, was once talking about somebody and said: the guy’s track record is about as accurate as a TV weatherman. If you look back in that article where she calls me that, there’s like nine predictions that she made that ended up not being true. She’s a pure Randian ideologue type, so she has a natural bent against all this stuff.

Rahm’s gone, midterms are here. How do you foresee the next two years of the Obama administration playing out?

The Republicans are going to win now and retake at least one house. What few reforms have been enacted, there’s going to be an effort to role those back. Nothing serious is going to get done now for at least two years. Obama’s going to win re-election in 2012. The Tea Party thing is now so big that there’s no way that the Republicans can nominate someone who’s not friendly to the Tea Party. But whomever they nominate is going to be nuts, so that person is not going to win the swing vote. Democrats will sweep through to victory and do nothing again for four years.

What’s next for Matt Taibbi?

I’m trying to write a screenplay with a friend of mine. A finance thing. Sort of like a finance version of The Wire. ++

“I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington … I’m asking you to believe in yours.”
~ Barack Obama

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