Griftopia, by Matt Taibbi


Griftopia was published before the “Occupy” movement, but it’s all about how the 1% is acquiring unimaginable wealth for itself by manipulating and deceiving the 99%. (Or really it’s more like a fraction of 1% sticking it to over 99%.)

Taibbi is the sort of hip writer who curses and engages in a lot of frank insults and name-calling. I like his style more than not, but he maybe strains a little too much to be shocking and offensive, like he knows this is important, potentially enraging material, yet also in some ways complex and boring stuff, and he’s trying to get people’s attention and get them to react to it any way he can.

The writing is over the top at times, and I’m sure there are places I’d have toned down the anger, but far better this than the kind of mainstream media pussyfooting language where, unlike Taibbi, they will not say someone is an idiot or a liar when they are an idiot or a liar. In “respectable” journalism, truth must be compromised in favor of a decorum that functions to protect those in the news who happen to be doing the most egregious things.

As Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times put it: “You can’t just say the President is lying” (even if he is, and even if the evidence that he is is as strong as the evidence that he’s wearing a brown suit). Taibbi would not only say he’s lying, but that he’s a lying criminal asshole.

I think the ideally objective description lies somewhere in between what the mainstream media is willing to say and what Taibbi would say, probably closer to the latter.

One of his main points is that most of what people argue about in political campaigns is enormously less important (in terms of the ultimate impact on people’s lives) than the—often crooked—things that go on in the economy that determine who will get to be fabulously rich and at whose expense. This is because, one, that’s the way the crooks at the top want it, and they have enormous influence on such matters, and, two, a lot of the economic stuff is extraordinarily complex and/or mind-numbingly boring, such that not only are most regular people unable to understand it, but neither are most of the people running for public office, most of the people in the media, etc.

And it’s true that a lot of the things that are most important to know about how the economy works are very hard to grasp. I could generally follow Taibbi’s examples and explanations about these matters, but then again it’s not like I could now provide any more than a grossly oversimplified description of the convoluted derivatives that were in part responsible for devastating the economy in 2008.

I mean, I get the gist of it: Most of the people with the most power and money amorally use their power and money to get even more power and money, routinely in ways that are dishonest, and often against the law (which is quite a feat, since they use their influence to shape the laws to favor them to begin with), and that render democracy nearly meaningless. The specifics of it I maybe get a little bit better after reading a book like this, but not to where I feel a high level of confidence in my understanding of such details.

Taibbi is frank about just how stupid and sheeplike a large number of voters are. It’s really not that hard to trick them into voting against their self-interest. He has plenty of entertainingly insulting things to say about people like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and their dim-witted supporters.

Yet he doesn’t think that all voters who in effect support the evil machinations of the 1% are wrong about everything, but more that their sometimes legitimate grievances are twisted so that they’ll enter into a de facto alliance with the super rich.

For example, the typical white, churchgoing, gun owning, middle class or working class man is probably directly or indirectly getting screwed over by a whole host of forces. These include, sometimes, “big” government, affirmative action and other race-conscious policies, welfare cheats, etc. He’s probably focused on those, and furious about those, and inclined to vote for candidates who stoke his anger about those, but he’s missing the fact that the 1% are sticking it to him to a much, much greater degree.

But some of those things he is focused on he’s justified to be indignant about (and some he’s not). Taibbi gives the example of a town that failed to “check a box” on one of the forms in the “mountain of paperwork” necessary to apply for a HUD grant. (He may be exaggerating just how trivial an oversight it was, but never mind.) In so doing, they failed to fulfill a requirement that the grant be shown to not have the likely effect of increasing segregation, or something like that. A liberal nonprofit group spotted the omission and sued, and the town—i.e., the local taxpayers—ended up having to pay an enormous settlement, much of which went into the pockets of the various lawyers on both sides, and little if any of which ended up somehow lessening segregation or racism.

Taibbi’s point is that people have experienced in their own lives the onerous paperwork and regulations that small businesses must endure, the encroachment of the federal government on state and local self-determination, nuisance lawsuits based on laws purporting to combat racism and sexism, and so on, and that therefore they are predisposed to oppose government. Since the political defenders of the big banks and multinational corporations and such present themselves as anti-government, ironically many people whose interests are squarely in opposition to those big banks and multinational corporations find themselves allied with them, with the common enemy being the supposedly bloated government wanting to trample freedom for the sake of misguided social engineering or wealth redistribution.

He makes a good point that just because some law or government policy is intended to, or claimed to, move the country in a positive direction by helping the poor, minorities, women, working people, the elderly, the environment, whatever, it doesn’t mean it’ll actually do that, and it especially doesn’t mean it’ll do it without causing some injustice to others along the way.

Regardless of how well-intentioned they are, laws and policies create openings for mischief. People find a way to exploit them to make money, justify expanding their little corner of the bureaucracy, or what have you.

For instance, a law intended to partly compensate Indians for their shitty treatment by giving them some leeway to create gambling establishments that would otherwise not be allowed, ends up giving certain people who are 1/16 Indian, or who add a token Indian as a partial owner or front person, an opportunity to get rich that is unavailable to most folks.

It’s natural when you’re politically leftist to automatically support anything that purports to be on the correct side of the issues you care about, but some of this stuff really isn’t even liberal. It’s just a power grab or money grab by people well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunities it opens up. Defending it is rather like the misguided Christian who gets defensive when it’s proven that some fundamentalist faith healer is a scam artist. The faith healer’s actions are not those of a true Christian, and those criticizing him are not thereby anti-Christian, yet the believer feels compelled to side with the crook.

Similarly, some purportedly liberal measures are not really liberal in their consequences, but function more as jobs programs for lawyers, lobbyists, and bureaucrats. And not everyone on the ground who feels aggrieved by these measures is wrong to feel that way.

But they are wrong to focus on those things more than they focus on the things that are hurting them a lot more. The woman who is fired for legitimate reasons, but dishonestly squeezes settlement money out of a company to avoid a nuisance discrimination lawsuit, is a loathsome parasite, but the indirect damage people like her do to you (through higher prices, higher taxes, whatever) is infinitesimal compared to the damage you’ll endure at the hands of your phony political “allies” who provoke your fury over government regulation while they use their campaign contributions and lobbyists to make sure the credit card laws are written so as to enable them to milk every penny they can from you and their other naïve credit card customers.

I’m reminded of seeing Christopher Hitchens make the point on TV a long time ago that whatever the sins of the Left, there’s a sense in which what it stands for is still right and admirable. As he noted, it’s plausible to condemn a Stalin or a Mao not as a communist, but as someone who perverted communism and behaved totally contrary to the ideals of communism to achieve his aims, whereas it would not be plausible to say Hitler similarly perverted Nazism and was not true to Nazism. The most objectionable elements of Nazism are its essence; the kinds of things Stalin did are not the essence of communism.

Similarly, folks like the aforementioned hypothetical parasite who exploits anti-discrimination laws for her ill-gotten gain are execrable people, but they don’t thereby render liberalism wrong to oppose sexism. They’re crooked faux liberals, like the phony faith healers are faux Christians.

Whereas people on the Right—in the 1%—who behave in greedy, dishonest, manipulative, unjust ways aren’t somehow betraying the principles of conservatism; they’re living by them in true Ayn Randian fashion.

The Left allows opportunities for unscrupulous people to unjustly benefit as an unfortunate byproduct of seeking good ends in an imperfect world; the Right’s very essence is to create opportunities for unscrupulous people to unjustly benefit.

The book has plenty of juicy details about bad people doing bad things. Take for example the selling off of public assets for private gain, which epitomizes contemporary politics.

It’s generally not a question of direct bribery, where some corporation delivers bags of cash to enough members of Congress to get them to vote to sell it Yellowstone for $1 an acre. No, it’s typically more convoluted, and probably not quite illegal, but just as corrupt.

Taibbi uses the example of towns that sell off the right to make money from parking meters.

Let’s say you’re a mayor or on the town council, and you’re facing a pretty bad budget shortfall. Along come some lobbyists who offer to give you a lump sum of millions of dollars if you’ll permanently turn over to them all the town parking meters and the right to collect the money from them.

Objectively the deal is probably a poor one for your town. Like a musician who pawns his guitar, you get some short term relief to deal with your present crisis, but you screw yourself long term by relinquishing your moneymaker.

But you’re not going to be around long term—you’re a lot more concerned about the next election, or about bettering your chances for higher office by establishing your reputation as the guy who balanced the town budget—so the short term benefit is pretty tempting.

Furthermore, you come from and will ultimately return to that same corporate world—you know, the “real world” as conservatives would say—as the lobbyists you’re negotiating with, plus the bulk of the money spent to get you elected to your present office and the bulk of the money that will be spent to get you potentially elected to other offices in the future comes from that world. So really your allegiance is as much or more with those on the other side of the bargaining table as with your constituents. You may not be hired by this specific corporation if you cut them a sweetheart deal while you’re in government (though you very well might), but you can be sure that by playing ball you’ll be smiled upon in the future by other corporations like them, and you’ll never have to worry about making a very good living, perhaps even as a lobbyist convincing other towns to privatize their parking meters or other revenue streams.

The big bad government that’s supposedly choking the “job creators” with high taxes and endless unnecessary regulations is in fact largely in collusion with those very corporate whiners pretending they are being oppressed by it.

The “little guy” is tricked into thinking it’s him and Exxon versus the government, whereas in reality Exxon and the government are more often on the same side, victimizing that little guy.

Griftopia is certainly a worthwhile book if you want to better understand some of the ways we’re being screwed.


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