Happy five-year anniversary of the financial crash and its attendant economic calamities, everyone! Where my class warriors at?
Let's look back to 2008 and briefly tally up the score: No one has been sent to jail, lots of you are still out of work, very few of the errors that led to the collapse have been corrected, and I'm guessing that most of you haven't even gotten a thank-you card for that time you donated $4.7 trillion of your own wealth to save the world. A lot of that money, by the way, went to gigantic banker bonuses, and bankrolled an army of lobbyists who have tirelessly worked to ensure that loose regulation, grotesque leverage ratios, and anemic oversight remains the order of the day.
Nobody's sorry about anything, and the idiots whose screwups led to the meteoric destruction of most of your (and your loved ones') futures are, by and large, still in charge and running the show -- instead of being tossed down a deep hole filled with dead crows, as they deserve. And you've probably been told why that is: "Oh, you don't get it. The modern financial system is so complicated! You really have to be well-versed in the details and eccentricities of the 21st-century financial industry to tend to the machinery. Just trust us, we're experts!"
The thing is, this isn't 100% bollocks. The simple fact of the matter is that by the time Wall Street's weird whirligig of illusory wealth and AAA-rated synthetic bad-loan-and-debt puree burritos threw its mainspring and collapsed in a heap, everything had gotten insanely complicated. Wall Street, once a haven for the well-connected, gentlemen-C-earning alpha-males, had come to be dominated by MIT quants and hyperdrive computer models -- and enough people had become so convinced that they'd eliminated the entire idea of risk from capitalism's highest promontories that the old-guard intuition that one served as that nagging reminder of risk's existence became limp and dessicated.
Nevertheless, if it falls to you and me to be the Night's Watch, eternally guarding against a repeat of recent misfortunes, then we have to close those knowledge gaps and start obtaining fresh ideas. And so, I present to you the "Official Eat The Press Crisis-Retro Reader," in which you will find the material you need to defend your livelihoods and your country.
On this list you'll find many of the best books on the subject. Some will help you close the distance between what you know now about the financial system and what "the experts" deem necessary before you start forming opinions. Some will provide rich historical background on how the financial system changed over time. Some will provide strategies for a world with a widening gap of income inequality. Others will connect you with the real people who bore the brunt of the disaster, and their stories. I've thrown a few films in there for good measure. And because we always need a helping of ice cream to go with the broccoli, I've included some works of fiction that I've found to be particularly energizing reads, which could only have been written in the world we now know.
Hope this helps, or at least doesn't hurt! And if you've got stuff to add, please do so in the comments.
13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, by Simon Johnson and James Kwak
The title of the book refers to a famous pre-crisis inflection point -- the phone call that Commodity Futures Trading Commission head Brooksley Born received from Larry Summers, who had thirteen bankers in his office jerking him around by the back of his boxer briefs over Born's suggestion that, you know, maybe the derivatives market should be regulated? But Johnson and Kwak offer up the complete origin story of the financial crisis, tracing the rise of the new American oligarchy from Thomas Jefferson's days to the here and now. It's an excellent jumping-off point if you want all of the gory historical details.
A People's History of the Great Recession, by Arthur Delaney
The Huffington Post's own Arthur Delaney undertook a mission that few in the media seemed interesting in pursuing -- putting actual flesh and blood on the story of the economic collapse. Culled from hundreds of interviews with the actual working- and middle-class people that no one on cable news actually cares about, Delaney chronicles how the old rules for obtaining economic security no longer apply to the majority of Americans, and how they've been largely left to fend for themselves in the unholy new terrain of joblessness, homelessness, and debt.
Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street, by Neil Barofsky
In 2008, President George W. Bush appointed NYC Southern District Prosecutor Neil Barofsky to serve as the special inspector general over the Troubled Asset Relief Program. But when Barofsky got to Washington, he found a rancid political culture, a broken system of oversight, staggering managerial incompetence, and a Treasury Department that undermined him at every turn and ostentatiously favored the interests of Wall Street elites over the taxpayers who sacrificed their wealth to save them.
"Bloodbuzz, Ohio," by The National
"I still owe money to the money to the money I owe," sings Matt Berninger, lead vocalist for Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati band The National. This track, which appeared on their 2010 album High Violet, is arguably the closest thing that American rock has produced in terms of a post-crash anthem, if not the most poetic.
Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, by Ron Suskind
Suskind reports on the efforts made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors, tasked with creating something that looked like an economic recovery. This is basically the book that tells the story of how impossible it was to work with Larry Summers.
Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager, by Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager
n+1's Keith Gessen began an ongoing dialogue with Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager before the financial crisis began to loom large, and stuck with him through the tragedies that ensued, from Bear Stearns to Bernie Madoff and beyond. The result is a nervy, real-time account of that troubled period and one if its closest observers.
Dignity, by Ken Layne
It took the wrack and ruin visited upon America's underclass for Layne to envision this dystopian future, in which America's middle class has utterly collapsed, and the simple desire to have any meaningful quality of life marks you as a dangerous revolutionary.
ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism, by Yves Smith
Yves Smith's "Naked Capitalism" blog is a perennial must-read, but her key contribution here is this book, which examines the tangled nexus of economists and policymakers, and what happened when the soft-science of economics got sucked into the Beltway hard-consensus/no-nuance machine.
The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It, by Timothy Noah
Now that the financial crisis has left America with an economically polarized population, what's to be done about it? Noah provides an accessible history of The Great Divergence, provides a sane plan for stemming the tide, and urgently contends against the notion that our current state has to be the new normal. "The worst thing we could do to the Great Divergence," he writes, "is get used to it."
Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, by Matt Taibbi
ICYMI, this is the Matt Taibbi book that contains his much ballyhooed "Goldman Sachs is a vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity" essay. Come for that, but stay for the stories on how sovereign wealth funds are shaking down your city, the dorm-room Randians that took over the world, and the ever-humming engine of corruption that quietly ruins your life.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
This is basically a mega-hit young adult novel that takes place in a future America where Paul Ryan had managed to become president. Lots of cool fight scenes!
"Inside Job" (film), by Charles Ferguson
Charles Ferguson's documentary traces the origin story of the financial crisis from the mid-20th century to the aftermath of collapse, documenting the way Wall Street and government and academia form an iron triangle of systemic corruption. Many of the idiots who destroyed the world refused to be interviewed for this movie. Those that do get rightly filleted. At minimum, this is a cautionary tale for future corrupt bastards to not do what Columbia Business School Dean Glen Hubbard did, which was dare the documentarians to "take your best shot."
IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, by John Lanchester
At some point in the past few years, you may have thought to yourself, "Credit default swaps, what are those again? How does a collateralized debt obligation work?" This is the book for you. Lanchester lays out the complicated flora and fauna of the pre-crash jungle in a way that's witty and accessible for the layperson.
Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne
Novelist Teddy Wayne, who has one of the keenest eyes for the cultural detail that informs our modern life, tells the story of a young Qatari Muslim named Karim who comes to the States in 1999 to pursue whatever fortune and glory his insanely brilliant quant mind can achieve in corporate America. The complication? He's just as driven to make human connections and do right by people. This all takes on enormous resonance as you gaze back on this tale through your post-crash and post-9/11 prisms.
"Margin Call" (film), written and directed by J.C. Chandor
"Margin Call" depicts 36 hours in the tumultuous life of a fictional Wall Street investment bank as the discovery of a looming leverage crisis touches off a chaotic chain of events. Will the firm rally the troop? Can they dump all their junk assets on an unsuspecting rube before the jig is up? Will they find some high-ranking woman in the boardroom to throw under the bus? Netflix this bad boy and find out. Featuring the deadly-sexy Paul Bettany playing what is essentially a supermodel for a particularly amoral line of menswear.
Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland
Have you ever wondered how it's possible for the people who reside in the top 1% of the economy to complain so loudly about how poor they are? Well, consider this: The Joneses they are trying to keep up with, who reside in the top .01%, really do make them look like garbage people. Former Reuters Managing Director (and one of the dead-on coolest women on the face the earth) Chrystia Freeland goes deep inside the world of the ultra-elite who better have a private helicopter waiting for them at Davos, lest they have to take a limousine like a common dirt-farmer.
The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz
Another very good book about income inequality and how it endangers democracy in myriad ways, this pairs well with Tim Noah's book, and will leave you wondering why on earth Stiglitz wasn't tapped as Obama's top economic advisor.
Rich People Things, by Chris Lehmann
After you real Freeland's book about the ultra-elite, allow The Baffler's Chris Lehmann to lampoon them with this encyclopedic guide to "the fortifications that shelter the opulent from the resentments of the hoi polloi." Also, this book has my favorite book trailer ever:
Ride a Cockhorse, by Raymond Kennedy and Katherine A. Powers
Originally published in 1991 in the wake of the savings and loans crises, this novel -- which tells the story of a middle-aged loan officer at a small New England bank who unexpectedly goes nuts and begins an epic greed/power trip -- got a second lease on life in the post-crash years. You'd never know it was meant for any other time, as the story of how amoral psychopaths can ascend to power and celebrity still rings true.
Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression, by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson
Back in 1995, Maharidge and Williamson published Journey to Nowhere, which chronicled the lives of working-class Americans. After the financial crisis, the pair retraced those steps, following up with old contacts and making the acquaintance of a newer, grimmer economic reality. Reviewing the book for The New Yorker, George Packer hit the nail on the head like so: "There's something doggedly heroic in this commitment to one of journalism's least glamorous, least remunerative subjects."
Too Big to Fail, by Andrew Ross Sorkin
Too Big to Fail does for the financial crash what Game Change did for the 2008 election season -- cheapen and trivialize it. But look: Even though the book is nigh upon interminable and clearly written with the intention of getting as many of the hapless cock-ups who destroyed the economy as possible to attend the book party (mission accomplished), it will offer up all the important players and all the obligatory plot points. Just don't make the mistake I made and order the e-book version -- if you get the book in brick-sized treeware form, you'll at least have something substantial to wing at Jamie Dimon's head.
"Two American Families" (film), by FRONTLINE, produced by Bill Moyers
Back in 1991, Bill Moyers made the acquaintance of two Milwaukee families for a documentary titled "Minimum Wages: The New Economy." How are they doing, two decades hence? As you might expect, many of the struggles these families were facing back in the 1990s ended up defeating them. Alex Pareene does a better job talking about this film than I can.
Union Atlantic, by Adam Haslett
Haslett's novel, which tells the story of a retired history teacher (whose brother happens to be the president of the New York Fed) trying to defend the world around her from the predations of a greedy banker living next door, was actually written before the crash. But his prescience was remarkable. As Haslett told NPR: "It was an uncanny experience ... the week I finished the manuscript and sent it off was the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed. And so I walked in and read the headlines and started reading about these meetings at the Fed in New York with the bankers and I thought to myself, 'Oh yeah, I wrote that scene a year ago.'"
Very Recent History, by Choire Sicha
It had to have been challenging for Sicha -- whose natural writing style (as seen at The Awl) typically brims with sparkly punch and acidic asides -- to adopt the android-drollery of Very Recent History's omnisicent narrator as his own voice. But the resulting tone of seriocomic disaffection is perfect for this true story of a group of friend(ish) people trying to mine what few sensual kicks they can from a wheezing, winded, circa-2009 New York City. There is a general sense that a once-great party has unexpectedly concluded, and darker hints of a serious economic reckoning looming in the near-distance.
"The Warning" (film), by FRONTLINE, produced by Michael Kirk
And so we end where we began, with Brooksley Born on the phone with Larry Summers, and his thirteen pimp-bankers haranguing him to curtail her desire to keep some sense of sanity in the derivatives market. In "The Warning," Born breaks her silence on a war that went on behind the scenes during the Clinton administration, and the great error that eventually disordered the universe. For his part, Clinton has admitted that he picked the wrong side.
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