Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi

NOTE: This article was originally published at In Mala Fide on August 2, 2011. I’m re-posting it here as the site is now defunct.

I’ve mentioned before that the defunct Moscow muckraking journal/gutter rag the eXile was one of my earliest intellectual influences. I’m still not sure whether I should be proud of that. I ran across the eXile sometime in high school under forgotten circumstances—probably just browsing the Internet aimlessly some school night—and it became my number one guilty pleasure. When nobody was looking, I was poring across the site’s articles with deer-in-headlights awe, amazed at the world that existed outside my safe and neutered America. Mark Ames’ descriptions of the non-stop orgy of Russian nightlife, Matt Taibbi’s exposure of the ruthless plutocrats plundering the country, John Dolan’s hilariously vicious book reviews, and later, Gary Brecher’s war analyses; it was beyond merely taking the red pill. It was like getting a injection of pure red, right in the main vein.

Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi were one of the greatest duos in the history of literary journalism. They complemented each other perfectly; Ames was always the superior polemicist and social critic, while Taibbi was the superior reporter and journalist. You can see this most clearly in The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia, the book they authored together: Taibbi’s chapters are exposes on the nefarious neoliberal Westerners that were colluding with the Kremlin to loot and rape Russia in the late nineties, while Ames’ chapters are about the piles of drugs he blew through and the piles of teenage girls who blew him. Ironically, ever since each left the eXile, they’ve each been trying to be like the other; Mark Ames has been trying to reinvent himself as a hard-hitting journalist with his imagining a Koch-led conspiracy around every corner, and Taibbi has been trying to position himself as the new Hunter Thompson with books like The Great Derangement taking aim at American society.

Which hasn’t worked. Being a writer in the Thompsonian vein requires a certain detachment from the world, the ability to closely observe others and mock them without pity or remorse. Ames can pull this off because he’s a deranged lunatic who doesn’t care about anyone but himself. If you doubt this, consider how he knocked up a teenage girl and threatened to kill her if she didn’t get an abortion, then wrote this about it:

Katya. For some reason, she still calls me. She tried pulling the oldest stunt in the book last spring. When a woman claims she can’t have an abortion because her alleged doctor allegedly told her that if she does, she’ll never have children again, call her bluff. Tell her you’ll fly to France, pick up an RU-486 pill, fly back, and pop it in her mouth over a nice dinner at Horse and Hound. You’ll accompany her to the toilet when Junior squirts out like a bowl of borscht; you’ll even flick Junior’s sardine eyes off her thighs, because U care.

That’s when she changes her tact-she tells you she can’t kill a living baby. “Kill what?!” you demand. “It’s not a baby-it’s a fucking larva!

“But at two months, it already has hands and feet,” she protests.

“And a tail!” you reply. “And sardine eyes!”

But she won’t give, so you’re left with no choice: you threaten to kill her. That’s what I did. And it worked. At 5:30 the next morning, Katya quietly got out of bed and left my apartment, acting like a martyr.

On a brighter note, Natasha, the 15-year-old pregnant girl who thought she’d had a miscarriage at the Duck a few weeks back, finally did the Right Thing. I guarantee that her fatherless child would have grown up to be one of those elevator rapists-he had the “really stupid criminal” icon written all over his translucent forehead; now, thanks to Natasha’s sage decision, his fetal membranes are getting boiled down in some sewage treatment plant on the outskirts of town, and believe me, folks, it’s better for all of us. I’d suggest sterilizing Natasha now, for the good of society, like what the Swedes used to do to their degenerates. As far as I’m concerned, this Women’s Day, Natasha deserves one of those cheap trophy cups with the inscription: “World’s Greatest Mom!” Signed, Junior.

In contrast, Taibbi is too human and too easily empathizes with his subjects. He lacks the ability to separate himself from his surroundings and pitilessly heap on the morons he so frequently surrounds himself with. This is what makes him a talented reporter, but it makes his social commentary weak compared to Ames’. Even during the darkest segments of The Great Derangement, where he infiltrated groups like the Cornerstone Church (the church of televangelist and George Bush butt-buddy John Hagee) and 9/11 Truther circles, he always kept from unloading his entire clip on the idiots.

But that was in the past. With the advent of the ongoing global financial crisis, Matt Taibbi has finally hit his stride. His reports in Rolling Stone have been the absolute best on the Second Great Depression, the banksters driving it, and the politicians earnestly helping them rob us all. Now, he’s released a new book, Griftopia, summarizing the “bubble economy” in just over 250 pages of reporting and analysis with a simple conclusion; we are all completely and utterly fucked:

Voters who throw their emotional weight into elections they know deep down inside won’t produce real change in their lives are also indulging in a kind of fantasy. That’s why voters still dream of politicians whose primary goal is to effectively govern and maintain a thriving first world society with great international ambitions. What voters don’t realize, or don’t want to realize, is that that dream was abandoned long ago by this country’s leaders, who know the more prosaic reality and are looking beyond the fantasy, into the future, at an America plummeted into third world status.

These leaders are like the drug lords who ruled America’s ghettos in the crack age, men (and some women) interested in just two things: staying in power, and hoovering up enough of what’s left of the cash on their blocks to drive around in an Escalade or 633i for however long they have left. Our leaders know we’re turning into a giant ghetto and they are taking every last hubcap they can get their hands on before the rest of us wake up and realize what’s happened.

I bought Griftopia back in January, but despite its short length, I’ve only been able to read it in fits and spurts because it’s an utterly infuriating book. It’s one thing to say that the world is fucked up beyond all repair. But to read page after page detailing, in non-technical, workmanlike prose why the world is fucked up, covering every angle conceivable, every obscure piece of legislation going back decades; it’s a recipe for alcoholism and puking on your shoes. Taibbi’s book demonstrates that the rot in American society and government is so deep, so entrenched within the system, that nothing short of a revolution will get it out. And the fact that the closest thing we can muster to a revolution is the Tea Party movement—a collection of corporate cocksuckers and mean old farts trying to steal all the gubmint bullion before they die—makes me sick.

And part of the reason why Griftopia is required reading is because Taibbi articulates what few have: our political ideologies are effectively obsolete. For all of conservatives hysteria’ about how Obama is trying to destroy the American capitalist way of life, the fact of the matter is that America is already a post-capitalist society. While conservatives and liberals engage in an endless war over whether corporations or the government is more evil, at the highest echelons, the two have merged into a horrific monster busy stealing everything, including the kitchen sink, from everyone in the country. And to keep their scam going, they’ve created a two-tiered regime; one for themselves, and one for the little people (i.e. us):

There are really two Americas, one for the grifter class, and one for everybody else. In everybody-else land, the world of small businesses and wage-earning employees, the government is something to be avoided, an overwhelming, all-powerful entity whose attentions usually presage some kind of financial setback, if not complete ruin. In the grifter world, however, the government is a slavish lapdog that the financial companies that will be the major players in this book use as a tool for making money.

The grifter class depends on these two positions getting confused in the minds of everybody else. They want the average American to believe that what government is to him, it is also to JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. To sustain this confusion, predatory banks launch expensive lobbying campaigns against even the mildest laws reining in their behavior and rely on carefully cultivated allies in that effort, like the Rick Santellis on networks like CNBC. In the narrative pushed by the Santellis, bankers are decent businessmen-citizens just trying to make an honest buck who are being chiseled by an overweening state, just like the small-town hardware-store owner forced to pay a fine for a crack in the sidewalk outside his shop.

Although Taibbi never uses the term, what he’s talking about is “anarcho-tyranny”: anarchy for the people at the top, tyranny for everyone else. Free-market capitalism for the unwashed masses, welfare state socialism for the rich. Who actually runs the government is irrelevant: whether it’s Democrats or Republicans in Congress or the White House, the true power rests with the bankers and their bootlickers, unelected star chambers like the Federal Reserve. The confusion this has engendered in the minds of ordinary Americans lies at the heart of the Tea Party, which Taibbi summarizes in his opening chapter as “fifteen million pissed-off white people sent chasing after Mexicans on Medicaid by the small handful of banks and investment companies who advertise on Fox and CNBC.”

Like most leftists, Matt Taibbi is not a fan of the Tea Partiers—in a now-famous article for Rolling Stone published around the time Griftopia came out, he described them as being “full of shit”—but unlike most leftists, he empathizes with the Tea Partiers to a certain extent, describing the frustration with the government that many harbor as a result of what they’ve personally experienced. In the opening chapter, titled “The Grifter Archipelago; or, Why the Tea Party Doesn’t Matter,” he reports on the formation of a Tea Party chapter in Westchester County after the county was sued by the Obama administration for purportedly violating a mandate that municipalities receiving federal housing dollars to ensure that their populations were racially integrated:

This is how you get middle-class Americans pushing deregulation for rich bankers. Your average working American looks around and sees evidence of government power over his life everywhere. He pays high taxes and can’t sell a house or buy a car without paying all sorts of fees. If he owns a business, inspectors come to his workplace once a year to gouge him for something whether he’s in compliance or not. If he wants to build a shed in his backyard, he needs a permit from some local thief in the city clerk’s office.

And, who knows, he might live in a sleepy suburb like Greenburgh where the federal government has decided to install a halfway house and a bus route leading to it, so that newly released prisoners can have all their old accomplices come visit them from the city, leave condom wrappers on lawns and sidewalks, maybe commit the odd B and E or rape/murder.

This stuff happens. It’s not paranoia. There are a lot of well-meaning laws that can be manipulated, or go wrong over time, or become captive to corrupt lawyers and bureaucrats who fight not to fix the targeted social problems, but to retain their budgetary turf. Tea Party grievances against the issues are entirely legitimate and shouldn’t be dismissed. The problem is that they think the same dynamic they see locally or in their own lives – an overbearing, interventionist government that seeks to control, tax, and regulate everything it can get its hands on – operates the same everywhere.

This failure to acknowledge the “anarcho-” part of anarcho-tyranny is why the Tea Party is at best a distraction from the real issues, and at worst part of the problem. They all live in a fantasy world where it’s still 1920 and America’s movers and shakers are industrialists and business owners who create actual value. Conservatives and libertarians put on powdered wigs and paint Ayn Rand quotes on their protest signs, but they don’t realize that the players in the bubble economy are already hardcore Randroids, most notably Alan Greenspan, who Taibbi cheerfully labels “The Biggest Asshole in the Universe” and in an entire chapter, blames him for “[making] America the dissembling mess that it is today.” (And before one of you Randtards claims, “But Matt, Greenspan isn’t a real Objectivist, he got disowned by Rand and everything,” I don’t want to fucking hear it. We judge philosophies and ideologies by their real-world effects, and the evidence is that the Ayn Rand cult has been a total disaster for America.)

Unlike The Great Derangement, Taibbi’s previous book, Griftopia is light on expository narrative and heavy on reporting and research, which suits both his writing style and the subject matter. Being an outsider to economics (he freely admits in the first chapter that “[he didn’t] know a damn thing about high finance” prior to the economic meltdown in 2008), his prose is direct, clear and low on jargon, meaning anyone with a college education can pick this book up and understand it from beginning to end. Taibbi swears a lot, but if you can stand me, you’ll be able to take his dirty mouth just fine. And frankly, the sheer depth of the chicanery going on on Wall Street should be making everyone angry enough to curse out the gods.

Take chapter four, on the commodities bubble. The sudden spike in oil prices in mid-2008 fit perfectly into the narratives of the left and right; the left’s belief that Americans consume too much, and the right’s belief that environmentalist whackos are obstructing the supply of oil by blocking drilling for more oil offshore and in ANWR. Peak Oil cultists were having a field day, with their all-knowing swami Jim Kunstler furiously beating himself off to the collapse of American suburbia. Sino-supremacists were pounding their usual drum of “oh well, the Chinese are consuming more oil, so the rest of us will have to live with higher prices.” All of them were completely wrong: as Taibbi writes, the high price of gas and oil has nothing to do with supply or demand and everything to do with the deregulation of commodities markets in the nineties, enabling Wall Street speculators to drive up prices:

…the whole concept of taking money from pension funds and dumping it long-term into the commodities market went completely against the spirit of the delicate physical hedger/speculator balance as envisioned by the 1936 law [the Commodity Exchange Act]. The speculator was there, remember, to serve traders on both sides. He was supposed to buy corn from the grower when the cereal company wasn’t buying that day and sell corn to the cereal company when the farmer lost his crop to bugs or drought or whatever. In market language, he was supposed to “provide liquidity.”

The one thing he was not supposed to do was buy buttloads of corn and sit on it for twenty years at a time. This is not “providing liquidity.” This is actually the opposite of that. It’s hoarding.

The other problem with index investing is that it’s “long only.” In the stock market, there are people betting both for and against stocks. But in commodities, nobody invests in prices going down. “Index speculators lean only in one direction – long – and they lean with all their might,” says Masters. Meaning they push prices only in one direction: up.

The other problem with index investing is that it brings tons of money into a market where people traditionally are extremely sensitive to the prices of individual goods. When you have ten cocoa growers and ten chocolate companies buying and selling back and forth a total of half a million dollars on the commodities markets, you’re going to get a pretty accurate price for cocoa. But if you add to the money put in by these twenty real traders $10 million from index speculators, it queers the whole deal, because the speculators don’t really give a shit what the price is. They just want to buy $10 million worth of cocoa contracts and wait to see if the price goes up.

What this all means is that when money from index speculators pours into the commodities markets, it makes prices go up. In the stock markets, where again there is betting both for and against stocks (long and short betting), this would probably be a good thing. But in commodities, where almost all speculative money is betting long, betting on prices to go up, this is not a good thing – unless you’re one of the speculators…

Do you conservatives and libertarians still think that financial deregulation is a good thing? You think it’s perfectly acceptable for the Koch brothers to hoard massive amounts of oil to drive up prices? Hope you suckers enjoy paying $5.00 for a gallon of gas!

But we aren’t even halfway to America’s heart of darkness. The following chapter, “The Outsourced Highway,” reveals a truly sickening consequence of high commodities prices: the sale of America itself to “sovereign wealth funds,” most of which are based in Middle Eastern countries. The pattern goes like this:

  1. Commodities speculators like the Koch brothers artificially inflate the price of oil to make more monies.
  2. Joe Sixpack, hit with increasing gas and energy prices as a result, makes less money over the course of a year and subsequently pays less in taxes.
  3. Joe’s local and state governments, reliant on his tax dollars, are hit with budget shortfalls.
  4. To patch the holes in their budgets, said governments sell off vital parts of their infrastructure, such as highways, to sovereign wealth funds controlled by the same people laughing to the bank with Joe Sixpack’s gas money.

This is not a fucking joke. It’s happening all around you. In a notable example, several years ago, the city of Chicago sold off its parking meters to one of these sovereign wealth funds, giving up a guaranteed, continuous source of income for a paltry one-time lump sum that only lasted one budget year. Not long after, meter rates skyrocketed from $0.25 an hour to $1.20 an hour, and the meter schedule went from 9am – 6pm Mon. – Sat. to 8am – 9pm seven days a week. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was also very nearly sold to another sovereign wealth fund, but the deal died in the state legislature. Conservatives and libertarians, who love to remind us of how much they love America, are defending people partially responsible for the stripping of America’s sovereignty one stretch of interstate at a time.

And this isn’t even a quarter of the territory that Taibbi covers in Griftopia. Did you know, for instance, that Goldman Sachs almost intentionally caused a global economic meltdown three years ago during the infamous collapse of insurance giant AIG? That the bailout organized by the Bush administration was basically blood money offered after Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein threw a shit fit demanding back the money Goldman was owed by AIG? (By the way, Taibbi has offered up the best description of Goldman in the universe: “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”)

Or that Goldman was largely responsible for the dotcom bubble in the late 90′s, by knowingly taking worthless Internet startups public in violation of federal law, but got off with only a slap on the wrist?

Or that Obamacare did nothing to touch an obscure law passed in the 1940′s that allows insurance companies to screw over their clients with impunity, to the extent that when the houses of former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and former Democratic Congressman Gene Taylor were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, their insurance claims were denied because their houses were destroyed by winds and not flooding? And that they had literally no recourse aside from crying about it to Congress?

There’s more like that in Griftopia, way more. Have a bottle of Wild Turkey and a barf bucket close by when you read.

If you doubt Matt Taibbi’s prognosis that things are totally hopeless, ask yourself these questions: where do we go from here, and how do we get there? It’s obvious from Griftopia’s facts that conservatism and libertarianism are utterly worthless ideologies, whose proponents preach outdated solutions, oblivious to the ground that has shifted beneath their feet. But the flipside of conservatism, liberalism, is just as equally worthless, as Taibbi shows that so-called progressives have been effectively cowed by the Obama administration into rubber-stamping every corporate giveaway he’s done so far. It’s not unlike what Joe Bageant wrote in 2009: “one party has no heart, the other no spine.”

But there’s more to it than that. Capitalists and socialists purport to be polar opposites, but the relationship between them is more like a pair of combative siblings; they claim to hate each other, but they live under the same roof and came from the same parents. Both capitalism and socialism are products of the Industrial Revolution, predicated on the economic assumptions of that era. Socialism cannot exist without capitalism, as it feeds off of it like a barnacle, flooding in to solve the problems of poverty and suffering that it creates but its proponents refuse to acknowledge. Neither can be effectively adapted to a post-industrial age, where the bulk of wealth is not held by value creators but by glorified gamblers who play a never-ending game of roulette with peoples’ piggybanks, when even the proles are visibly divorced from the products of their labor.

For that matter, how are we supposed to fix the problem when EVERYONE from Wall Street to Washington is in on the scam? When the people who are being fucked up the ass everyday either don’t care or actually worship their rapists? What’s the point of pushing for more regulation when the supposed regulators are in bed with the people they’re supposed to be regulating? Who is the bigger degenerate, the cad doing the fucking, or the whore who lets herself be fucked?

There is no hope. America is beyond redemption. The only option is to cut your ties and get out before the excrement hits the oscillating blades. Or start learning how to work a guillotine, for the inevitable mass executions. If you haven’t already washed your hands of America, your life should be dedicated to freeing yourself before the end comes. And believe you me, it’s coming.

In the meantime, buy this book, now.

Click here to buy Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That is Breaking America.

Read Next: The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi