Whether Matt Taibbi’s lambasting former Fed head Alan Greenspan as “the biggest asshole in the universe” or dispelling the fog surrounding the subprime mortgage racket, the Rolling Stone contributing editor has emerged as the poet laureate of the disenfranchised and duped masses grappling with the fallout of our economic end times. His latest book, Griftopia, is broiling with outrage and suspense, with more than a few pop-culture references thrown in for good measure. Readers will be enlightened—and entertained—as the author tackles the major aspects of the global financial crisis one sector, one scam, one story at a time. Taibbi unravels the web of confusion, hysteria and economic doublespeak the majority of Americans have been caught up in since the dawn of the economic meltdown. Recently, Taibbi spoke with Kirkus about the failures of the financial press and the system in general.
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Tell Kirkus briefly about Griftopia.
I’ve been covering the financial crisis for Rolling Stone for a couple of years now. What I’m trying to do, really, with Griftopia is provide a primer for people who don’t know anything about finance or Wall Street so that they can understand a lot of the complex scams that went on for the last decade or so. I’ve kind of written this like a true crime book…These are immensely complicated [issues]. Some of it is intentional. People on Wall Street have very little interest in the rest of the country understanding what they’re doing. That provides a lot of cover if no one understands what you’re doing—the widespread fraud, the Ponzi schemes. There’s an intentional aspect to this. That’s why they speak in their own language, use a ton of jargon. You almost need to go through a college course to understand this stuff.
Is that why people still remain so uninformed about the economy?
That’s one of the reasons. The people who are supposed to cover this on a daily basis, the financial press, are a very small, insular, incestuous group of people. Many of whom either come from the financial services industry or want to work in the industry. Historically, the financial press has been for people who work in the industry, not for anyone else. The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, CNBC—these are not geared to the average viewer but to people who are familiar with the industry.
Other people, such as political journalists, don’t generally have the background to cover a story like this. I was on the campaign trail covering McCain and Obama when things like the spike in gas prices came up. And no one knew what was happening. There’s a lot of incompetence in our business that goes on with this particular topic. Especially with campaign journalists, who have things arranged so that they’re working a job you can do without turning on your brain at all. They feed you five press releases a day [on the campaign trail]. A chimp can do that job. Most people who do that job are not asked to go beneath the surface of things. So when something like the financial crisis happens, most of us don’t know what to do. It’s not ingrained in us to make that next step.
Have you noticed any improvement in the media coverage of this issue since then?
I think that there’s a small cottage industry in investigative high finance journalism that’s cropping up…but I don’t see an appreciable difference in the mainstream coverage of this topic.
Is anybody doing a good job?
There are a lot of people who are. Even some places I didn’t expect to be at the forefront of this kind of reporting. Like Gretchen Morgenson at the New York Times. She’s done a really great job, broken a lot of big stories. And there have also been a lot of smaller independent websites. The Accidental Hunt Brothers, which is run by a hedge fund guy named Mike Masters, that explains the commodities business. You really have to be an expert to cover this stuff. Most of the people I go to as media sources are working in the business and have their own websites and newsletters.
What about you?
I did a bunch of stories in Rolling Stone about the economic crisis, and they received a tremendous response. I was originally only going to write one story on Wall Street. But after we published that story, there was such a response, I ended up doing nine or 10 of them. What I found is that if you can take this issue, put it in language that’s accessible, people do want it. there’s a huge appetite for this kind of thing.
So how do you change public perception?
I hope it’s books like this. But I think that people are finding out about this stuff now because they are personally going through some dispute with the financial-services industry. All over the country, I’m seeing people who are getting into conflict with this world. They are so many people who are coming up against problems with credit cards, mortgages, taxes. That’s how they’re finding out about this stuff. They’re going into court, arbitration. Their pensions are getting destroyed. How do you find out what mortgage backed securities are? You look at your pension and watch it disappear.
Check out Taibbi's previous book on war, politics and religion, The Great Derangement.
Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America
Spiegel & Grau / Nov. 2, 2010 / 9780385529952 / $26.00