Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Book Recommendation

I've certainly made no secret of the fact that I don't really understand high finance. Understand or trust. I've long suspected that the complexity of financial matters is an intentional thing, an obfuscation which encourages schmoes like me to disengage and which provides cover for guys who are gaming the system to make themselves very rich. I suppose it's not unwise to look with some skepticism at my own suspicions, as I'm an outsider to this world, but that's what I've come to: a suspicion that the explosions and implosions of markets in the past 30 years have been carefully crafted and manipulated to benefit a very small group of people. Right or wrong, I distrust the world of finance and markets profoundly.

The 2008 collapse of the economy is yet another mystery to me. All the talk of derivatives and credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations tends to make my eyes glaze over, but even without this stuff I grasped that the markets were inflated quite unrealistically; the value of the markets in 2000 was not representative of anything real. And when THAT wealth-generation avenue seemed to fall apart after 9/11, these people accustomed to making ridiculous return on their "investments" turned their genius to housing, trying to extract their now-expected billions from that slice of the economic pie. All of this current morass seems to flow from this. But likely I'm a financial idiot; the more salient point, I think, is that the most all the rest of us have no clue about what's going on either. People have various strong feelings about the crash, but I'd venture it's a rare person who really understands the mess.

Matt Taibbi is a columnist for Rolling Stone, and he's made it his mission in the past couple of years to dig into the financial mess and put the byzantine, obscurantist mess into plain (and colorful) English. (He became an overnight sensation for referring to the giant banking house Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.") His book Griftopia (2010) is an expansion on a series of columns about the meltdown from Taibbi's blog. Taibbi began this endeavor as a person knowing nothing about finance, and the book is written for non-finance people. It's the best, most lucid explanation I've seen about exactly what is behind the ongoing implosion of our economy.

And we should be beyond livid.

This is one of these books that is hard for me to summarize, as the whole thing reads like a 300 page summary of a much bigger, more detailed phenomenon--every summary leaves out vital stuff. I find I've highlighted about 70% of the text, such that it will be very difficult to find any given passage without, well, rereading it (which I feel like I ought to do). And while I'm generally distrustful of apocalypticism, Taibbi is expanding on what I've already suspected from some years' observation, and in any case he supports himself well enough that no apology is needed. (The only criticisms I've come across to Taibbi's book all relate to his "tone" and not to the substance of his claims.)

Anyway, I will attempt to summarize (I would put in quotes, as Taibbi is endlessly quotable, but this already-too-long post would get waaaay longer. Just buy the book):

The 2008 financial meltdown was not a normal market correction or part of the normal cycling of a market economy; it was fraud. It involved the contrivance, with malice aforethought, of arcane financial "instruments" whose sole purpose was to extract money from the markets without the progenitors having to actually risk anything of their own. The instruments, invented and handily test-driven on these guys' personal bank accounts, were then sold for MORE profit to other banking institutions, who in turn leveraged themselves to an obviously unwise and reckless degree in order to tap into this seemingly free stream of endless wealth. And all of it built on absolutely nothing. Everybody knew it was a fraud, that it would eventually come crashing down and very likely threaten our entire economy when it did, but nobody gave a shit so long as they were themselves getting big payoffs from the scheme (longtime Fed Chief Alan Greenspan spearheaded numerous schemes to keep sand in the government's eyes, earning him Taibbi's title of "Biggest asshole in the universe.")

Eventually this fraud involved so many too-big-to-fail banks and such huge sums of money that the crash when it came could only be prevented from tanking the entire economy by the federal government stepping in. With our money. The same government that had abdicated its responsibility for oversight and regulation that might have prevented a relatively small group of guys enriching themselves on an economy-wrecking Ponzi scheme then put all of us into hock to keep the banks from pulling the trigger of the gun the same government had helped raise to the nation's temple.

Though Taibbi has written with delicious barb and wit about the idiocy of the Tea-Baggers and the risible nutcases like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman, he calls the bullshit where he sees it; and there is plenty to go around from both parties. He finds that the abandonment of government oversight of the financial services industry continued just as much under the Clinton administration as under the Reagan and Bush 1 administrations (and, of course, continued with abandon under Bush 2)--that is, Clinton was not any kind of counter force to the destructive Reaganomic tide that was frantically dismantling government oversight in everything.

And for this almost unfathomable destruction of wealth and outright theft, there has been no accounting whatsoever. These guys basically suffered not at all for the almost unbelievable damage they've done to the country's and the world's economies. The US Government jumped in with some $700 billion in bailout money to guarantee the fraud payoffs, basically making good "investments" which no one thought were good in the first place. This amounts to over $2000 for every man, woman and child in the country just for this particular bailout of a few big banks and insurance agencies; the drain on government resources extends very far beyond this. It doesn't touch the losses in mortgage values, the losses of pension funds and home equity and all the savings and investments of normal folks, and the loss of tax revenues from the crashing of businesses and the widespread unemployment and underemployment of millions of people. Suicide and homelessness and pain and agony for millions, and these Wall St. fuckers were living the dream--as the film Inside Job makes clear, hookers and blow and multiple homes and jets and the works. Meanwhile working folks lost their houses and their jobs as business owners "optimized" profits by sending our manufacturing jobs to China and India--often with US taxpayer funding.

And that's just the mortgage scam. Taibbi goes on to explain similar large-scale ripoffs of the public--with government complicity or even insistence--from commodities bubbles (including the devastating effects of market speculation on petroleum) and wealth funds and health care reform. This latter is surprising to me, not because I didn't expect a big bill like health care to have dark corners but because I didn't expect it to be nothing but dark corners. Obama came to office by showing a pretty nuanced understanding of exactly what was wrong in our health care system, and he then more or less completely abandoned his pledges to reform and handed the insurance companies and big pharma a blank check. There has been furious right-wing opposition to health care reform, and in this case it turns out they are riding a stampede of lies and misinformation to a proper conclusion: they are right, though for all the wrong reasons.


All of this contributes to a sense I've had for years that we will only save ourselves from the gnashing jaws of the profit motive and big business and markets with some prudent regulation. We've seen clearly enough what markets will do when government looks the other way--the last 30 years have seen a transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes up to the very top (what Taibbi calls the "grifter class") that is unprecedented in history, while the shell of economy has appeared to hold station or recede even as its guts have been hollowed from within.

The idea that business is good and government is bad, that markets are good and regulation is bad, seems to be disproven in its purest form in the most painful way. And I'm tired of having the sanctity of markets and free enterprise thrown in my face continually at the mere suggestion of moderation. If government oversight of business and industry is "socialism," as we are hysterically told it is, then maybe we need to rehabilitate the term. Because we've tried the other way to a variety of degrees, and every further degree seems to bring more and more pain and misery to most of us to benefit a tiny oligarchic elite. Call me a utopian or a stooge for the workers' paradise, but I have to think the little folks of this world need to matter a whole lot more than just to promise them that one day they might have what we all know they never will.

But more than regulation, I think we need to re-examine what is supposed to underpin our democratic system. I can't imagine a much clearer demonstration that our government is now at the beck and call of business and moneyed concerns--this is where governmental power is centered now; it addresses the concerns of individual citizens only in a rhetorical and symbolic way. (Inside Job points out that the financial services industry has three times as many paid lobbyists as there are even legislators to lobby.)

It will be an ongoing task to figure out what to do. As an individual voter and consumer, I have an almost infinitesimal influence over anything--especially compared to international banks and national governments. And yet I have to believe that We, the People retain essential control over the government of our states and our country, that we still have the ability to effect that control.

We can start by trying to get corporate money out of politics, I think.


shrimplate said...

I read it a few months ago and I highly recommend it to everybody I see, particularly my friends across the political aisle who are to quick ti blame teacher's unions for all of our countries financial woes.

It astonishes me that it is Rolling Stone Magazine that leads the way in exposing this issue. The so-called mainstream media doesn't give it enough attention, to my mind.

wunelle said...

It is this movement's greatest triumph that they've maneuvered us into complying with their schemes--and even advocating for them, for benefits which will come out of our own hides and flow to them.

And I agree: why is it Rolling Stone and Comedy Central that are managing to reach people? Where is the fourth estate?