Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi examines the roots of America’s financial meltdown in ‘Griftopia’
By Carl Kozlowski 11/11/2010
As the American financial system spiraled into near-collapse in 2008, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi admits he was still distracted by the bells and whistles of a historic presidential campaign that was certain to put either an African American or a woman into the top levels of power for the first time ever. Caught up in the hoopla over Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, Taibbi — like virtually all American media and the public they are supposed to be watching out for — didn’t notice that decades worth of shady financial maneuvers were finally about to fall like a proverbial house of cards.
Two years later, Taibbi has more than made up for that lack of foresight by turning his eagle eyes and sharp wit on the mess that the unholy union between Washington and Wall Street wrought. Writing in the tradition of past Rolling Stone writer P.J. O’Rourke, who pointed out global problems with a vicious wit that made painful information palatable to average readers, if Taibbi hasn’t helped slaughter the sacred cows of the financial sector, he’s certainly stuck an enormous fork in them.
Taibbi has just released his fifth book, “Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America,” which he’ll be signing tonight, Nov. 11, at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena as part of a five-city tour. Speaking exclusively by phone with Pasadena Weekly, he explained some of the motivations behind the book as well as the motives behind the dark forces that have too much control of us all.
“Right now the biggest problem we have is that the companies I write about really are too big to fail,” says Taibbi. “They’re so concentrated and have such a reach into all the economy that it's true we can't let them go under, which puts us at the vulnerability of another collapse because we can't let these guys suffer the consequences of their actions.”
Taibbi, 39, grew up in Boston as the son of NBC newsman Mike Taibbi and engaged in a highly colorful series of career moves before finding fame at Rolling Stone. After graduating from Bard College in upstate New York, he moved to Russia to study at St. Petersburg Polytechnical University for a year before becoming an outfielder for a Russian pro baseball team and eventually a Mongolian professional basketball player.
He returned to the United States when a bout with severe pneumonia nearly killed him, but returned to Russia again as a journalist for English-language papers aimed at expatriate readers. He eventually returned to New York again, working his way through controversial stints at papers including the New York Press before landing at Rolling Stone in time to conduct gonzo-style coverage of the 2004 Democratic presidential campaigns. Yet he has found that the economic disasters he now covers make it difficult to inject humor in his work.
“It was hard. A lot of what I’d written previously had a lighter tone to it,” recalls Taibbi. “I used to put in slapstick but there’s no way to do it with this. My favorite book growing up was ‘Dead Souls’ by Gogol, a great Russian novel about a financial scam. I find this stuff grotesque and funny in a really, really dark way and I’m fascinated by the ingenuity of these scams. If I focus on that more than the overwhelming big picture, I can keep a sense of humor about it.”
Indeed, Taibbi finds great sport in explaining why former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan is “the biggest asshole in the universe,” dissecting the secret appeal of Sarah Palin, and spotlighting the ways in which the spike in gas prices has little to do with whether we “Drill baby, drill!” and much more to do with unethical speculation by powerful commodities brokers. Perhaps most frightening of all, he shows that dozens and perhaps even hundreds of major American infrastructure projects have been purchased and placed under the control of foreign financial interests.
“There's a lot of anger in the public about the economy but they haven't figured out who the real enemy is,” Taibbi says. “The tea party thinks the enemy is government, the left mentions Wall Street a little bit but they’ve not articulated it strongly. People need more time to figure out the connections but they're getting there. Almost everyone you know now has experience with modern financial services through losing pensions, houses, etc. They're getting an education but not getting together to create that movement that can really impact things yet.”