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Michael Woods

Michael Woods

Posted: November 30, 2010 01:52 PM

First things first, let me be explicit about the purpose of this piece, and my own leanings. This is a plug, pure and simple, for the new book by Matt Taibbi, called Griftopia.

I happen to think Taibbi is his generation's Hunter S. Thompson, without the brain draining whiskey/coke/psychedelic addiction. His fearlessness in poking his notebook into the dark places, and sharing the horrors of our nation's sad slide into its current state, where wholesale larceny by the corporate overlords who pull the strings of power is so common it is dismissed by a jaded and/or hoodwinked populace; where pathetic docility and/or willful complicity in the destruction of the middle class in our elected officials is their status quo, alternately tortures me and gives me hope.

Reading Taibbi makes the blood pressure of this proudly fire-breathing liberal/progressive spike, because he lays out the villains and their doings... but it also gives me hope that we still have guys like him who are moved to action because they are disgusted with the conduct of those in power.

Some are turned off by Taibbi, and point to his usage of profanity. I suspect that many of these critics seek to dismiss the messenger, so they don't have to ponder the message. In fact, my own brother tells me Taibbi isn't for him, because he thinks "that language" needn't be employed in journalism, that points can be made without eff bombs.

I say that more eff bombs are needed. Great big clusters of eff bombs.

Because if you aren't pissed off at the state of the nation, wars under false pretenses, record income inequality, propaganda factories masquerading as "news" organizations, and that doesn't move you to drop an eff bomb in disgust, then I must wonder: what do you get angry about?

What, if anything, does move you to lividity?

Taibbi was kind enough to do a Q 'n' A with me. I urge you all to buy this book, hell, one for yourself, and a couple to give out to friends and family for the holidays. Because we need to keep this guy in business, and help him sell books, because this nation has a shortage of truth tellers, and we can't have him defaulting on his mortgage, because his book tanks, and then see him join the enemy, the Goldman Gang. Actually, I'm pretty certain he'd rather commit hara-kiri with a butter knife than go play for the bad guys, but you get my point...

This is Part I of the Q 'n' A. I will post one every week of the holidays.

Q) MICHAEL WOODS: Hi Matt. I had to read, and then re-read, and re-re-read some passages in Griftopia. Not because you aren't a clear communicator, far from that. It is because the terms you use, some of them, and the descriptions of their utilization, are hard for me to grasp. Now, it may be because I'm a bit dense. But I don't think so; I like to think I am a tick or two above average on the IQ ladder. "Collateralized mortgage obligations," "collateralized debt obligations," interest rate swaps, all that shit...my brain isn't made to digest that stuff. Can I safely say the same for John Q. Public, and I dare say, maybe 98% of the elected officials in our federal government?

A) MATT TAIBBI: I would say that's accurate. Maybe the percentage is a little better than you think, but there are very few politicians who are even partially literate in the new financial instruments. Another factor here is that few people even on Wall Street are experts on all of these markets. A commodities trader may not know much about mortgages or interest rate swaps, for instance, so to find anyone, much less a politician, who has general knowledge of all of it is rare. Elizabeth Warren, Ted Kaufman, and Eliot Spitzer are a few who come to mind who are literate in most all of these issues.

WOODS: Can you give some insight into how you choose this subject matter, and your difficulty, if that's the right word, in mastering the terminology, the culture, the players? I see it as an laudable choice for you to slog through it, because you've admitted it doesn't come naturally. Yet you put in the time, because you realize the importance
of comprehending the material, because the size of the larceny is so humongous, that it'll impact the world for decades, perhaps. Is that fair to say?

TAIBBI: When I was covering politics and doing campaign trail reporting, and listening to politicians give the same dumb speeches over and over again, I was constantly thinking to myself: "This job can't be this stupid. There has to be more to it than this." I always felt there was some vast and difficult maze of political calculations underneath the dumb surface somewhere, and I was very relieved almost to find that the financial services industry was it. Once I got into it (and what started me going down that road was an interest in finding out what was causing the gas price spike in the summer of 2008, a major Obama-McCain campaign issue), I realized that learning about high finance was a prerequisite for understanding American politics. I no longer believe you can really do the campaign-trail job without plunging into all of this crap. Also, I find it fascinating, sort of like a very complex detective story, so even though it was hard, it wasn't like I wasn't enjoying the learning process, although it's very depressing as well.

WOODS: Do the vast majority of the press just simply get a failing grade, because they don't do their homework, dig deep into the intricacies, read page 525 of the proposed bill that contains the loophole that the insurance companies lawyers will find, so they can continue to rake in their bloody money? Why are you one of like three people who actually combines the reporting chops with the completely appropriate level of disgust?

TAIBBI: I think there are many other reporters who are starting to come to a similar realization. It's just taking a while. As for the outrage question, I've always felt that if you cover something outrageous and you write it up without outrage, then you're lying to your readers somewhere. Journalistic tone is a subtle thing and very important, I think, in this story. Even the act of writing up the financial crisis as a series of unfortunate and perhaps catastrophic but still normal economic events, as opposed to a monstrous international fraud scheme, signals something very important to readers. You are making an editorial judgment about the culpability of your article subjects when you elect not to bring torches and pitchforks to your literary treatment of them. Of course, reporters for many newspapers do not have the freedom to alter their tone very much in this way, which to me is part of how propaganda works, i.e. most of our press institutions are stylistically not geared toward an outraged treatment of, say, the major banks on Wall Street.

WOODS: Did these architects of the con -- can we just refer to them hereon as the "Goldmans," for purposes of simplicity? -- did the Goldmans deliberately make the instruments complicated, so most everyone couldn't figure them out, identify their species, label their parts, and thus, they were free to wield the instruments as they saw fit, because nobody but them could decipher their ways?

TAIBBI: I think the complexity of these instruments is an essential part of the con. It's a way of keeping outsiders from coming into the tent and it also confers upon the people on the inside an exclusive magical power to use these tools. They are like the old pre-Lutheran priests who kept the Bible from the people by making sure it was not published in a vernacular translation. The incomprehensibility of these instruments also allowed the banks to hoodwink even would-be sophisticated investors, who were shown, for instance, mortgage-backed securities with AAA ratings and asked to buy them on the strength of elaborate probability calculations that only the Indian math geniuses in charge of the banks' derivative desks could understand.

End Part I