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   Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi provides a consistent and compelling narrative about what is really wrong with America, why the Democratic and Republican parties are an irrelevant side show provided for our entertainment, and how we got in this handbasket on a road paved with good intentions, headed to Hell.

   The Tea Party may be tools of Big Money pulling their strings, but they're not entirely wrong to be angry at government.  The No Labels group may be sincere in their belief that an end to partisanship and a return to getting things done is the way to go forward - but they too are living in the past.

   As the DC freak show heads to the end of season cliff hanger, as the remaining money in the U.S. gets handed over to the rich, read Griftopia ASAP if you want to know why.

Navigating the Archipelago

  Matt Taibbi has been around for a while, writing books that build on the reporting he's been doing for Rolling Stone,  where he blogs upon occasion.  Taibbi writes in a very readable style, with a gift for explaining complex matters in a clear way. He also has a refreshing lack of the Serious People celebrity worship afflicting the Lamestream Media these days; New York magazine has a quiz where you can try to match the Taibbi insult to the Public Figure. (It's a hoot.)  

   If strong language offends you, you will have problems with Taibbi's writing - but if you read Griftopia, the odds are pretty good you will be using strong language of your own when you discover the long descent to serfdom Taibbi lays out in seven chapters and an epilogue.  I haven't seen Inside Job yet, so I can't say just how far back the movie goes - but Taibbi picks up on critical events going back to Reagan and before which have greased the slippery slope to the 'free market' paradise we live in today - and the broken political system that serves it instead of us. This is the kind of book you need to read with a highlighter handy, and post-it notes to mark relevant pages. Time after time you'll find something that stops you in your tracks.

      Griftopia isn’t linear - the seven chapters and epilogue work almost on a stand alone basis as Taibbi examines different islands in the Grifter Archipelago.  There’s some common themes and recurring characters though - the book could easily become the basis of a mini-series documentary or a study guide for a course exploring the con game we’re caught up in.  I’m essentially going to summarize the chapters in part 2 of this review - which in no way is a substitute for reading the book. I would rate Griftopia as one of the books on the MUST READ list for anyone who is serious about being a progressive and turning this country around.
   And in case you’re wondering what “Griftopia” means, it’s Taibbi’s word to sum up an America in which the government and the economy is largely in the hands of grifters - con artists who have turned the government into a giant scam where the vast majority of citizens are nothing but marks being ripped off and the political parties are little more than a false front covering up the real operators.  Chapter 1 lays out the basic con that all the rest builds on.

CHAPTER 1: The Grifter Archipelago, or Why The Tea Party Doesn’t Matter

 This chapter begins with an epiphany Taibbi had while covering Palin the night she got the Vice Presidential nod. Listening to her talk, analyzing her speech and appeal to the base cheering her on, he realized the disconnect between what was happening on stage, and what's happening to America. It's the organizing message for this book. Taibbi put an excerpt up at Kos: here's a snippet.

Our world isn’t about ideology anymore. It’s about complexity. We live in a complex bureaucratic state with complex laws and complex business practices, and the few organizations with the corporate will power to master these complexities will inevitably own the political power. On the other hand, movements like the Tea Party more than anything else reflect a widespread longing for simpler times and simple solutions—just throw the U.S. Constitution at the whole mess and everything will be jake. For immigration, build a big fence. Abolish the Federal Reserve, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education. At times the overt longing for simple answers that you get from Tea Party leaders is so earnest and touching, it almost makes you forget how insane most of them are.

emphasis added

       Since the publication of Griftopia, two recent events demonstrate the irrelevance of government and our politicians to the needs of everyone except the Grifter class. Obama’s  hostage deal with the GOP to continue the tax breaks for the rich in exchange for continuing unemployment benefits and a tax cut which opens the door to destroying Social Security is one. The second is the recent White House meeting with 20 CEOs in which the President essentially begged these people who’ve seen record profits in the past year to throw some crumbs to the millions of Americans who are struggling.
      Let me highlight that -  the President of the United States is openly conceding that they are in control of the situation - not him.

Still missing was any commitment by the business leaders to launch new hiring initiatives while demand remains weak and the economic future remains uncertain. Obama asked the CEOs to spend some of the cash sitting on the sidelines — more than $900 billion by some of the largest U.S. companies. They didn't bite — yet.

emphasis added

Compare and contrast with the tone of the meeting where the President met two days later withleaders of groups representing millions of American workers.

Several of the leaders were miffed at the president’s support for a revised U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement and his compromise deal with Republicans on taxes. Almost all of them are frustrated that Obama did not deliver on more of his promises to labor while Democrats enjoyed substantial majorities in both the House and the Senate. And all are fearful that Republicans will launch an assault on labor-backed gains once they take over the House next month.

    What this demonstrates is that the Federal Government is no longer the center of power - and who comes first in its priorities. It gets its marching orders from those CEOs and the rest of the MOTUs (Masters of the Universe). Sure, there's foreign policy and military adventures, and the occasional hot-button social issue - but behind it all the MOTU agenda will be served sooner or later. The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, as Tabbi puts it is this: the Republicans give them 100% of what they want while the Democrats give them 90%. The government exists to serve them at their pleasure - and it’s the tool by which they are draining every last bit of wealth out of the country.
   As Taibbi explicitly lays it out,

“If American Politics made any sense at all, we wouldn’t have two giant poltical parties of roughly equal size perpetually fighting over the same 5-10 percent swatch of undecided voters, blues versus reds. Instead the parties should be broken down into haves and have-nots - a couple of obnoxious bankers on the Upper East Side running for office against 280 million pissed-off credit card and mortgage customers.”

This is the problem troubling the No Labels group. (Well the sincere ones anyway.) They still have this idea that they go to Washington to represent their constituencies and get things done. They can't understand why neither party seems to be able to do anything about the destruction of the middle class, the deficits, etc. etc. They still have the idea that they...matter somehow. Frank Rich has a scathing take down of their fecklessness. Rush Limbaugh was ridiculing them at length the other day.

What Taibbi offers is the premise that the two major political parties are now essentially just entertainment for the masses, like two rival sports franchises. (The Frank Rich column does an excellent job laying out Taibbi's thesis in real time.) Every so often we get an election with months of diverting (in several senses) spectacle where the candidates strut, preen and promise and the fans/voters get the illusion that they will be getting a say in what the government will do.

And then the election is over and things settle down to business as usual for most people. We know who won  the White House in 2008. Does anyone remember who won the Superbowl in 2008, or the World Series, and did either change anything all that much? Aside from t-shirt and sports jersey sales, has there been a lasting effect on either the sports world or politics?  The rich continue to get a LOT richer and the rest of us wonder what happened.

For those jumping up and down yelling about Health Care Reform, two points: it’s still not fully implemented meaning we don’t know what the final product will look like, but one thing we DO know is that an awful lot of effort went into making sure corporations will still be making money. DADT? A real accomplishment - but what do the MOTUs care? Doesn't affect their bottom line much, aside from increasing the available cannon fodder  for their wars. Financial reform? HAH! The Department of Justice crack down on Wall Street crooks turns out to be a fraud, a play to amuse the marks into thinking something is being done. And the crowd coming into DC doesn't even try to hide who they work for.

But it keeps getting worse. Just this week, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who is poised to become chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, announced, "In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks."

emphasis added

Welcome to Griftopia

The Long Con

Where the Tea Party gets it wrong is in their conviction that all problems will be solved if they can just get government under control and cut down to size.  Taibbi’s critique is that they’re looking for simple answers in a world that has become very complex - and they’re going after the wrong target. The role of the Tea Party is as a safety valve to redirect populist anger away from the MOTUs pulling the strings and throw it against the government. And they’re not entirely wrong.

For many ordinary people, the government DOES seem like the enemy. Anyone trying to run a small business can tell tales of endless permitting processes, and other bureaucratic nonsense. School taxes, trash collection fees, sales tax hikes...big government coming in with lawyers telling communities what they can and can’t do about God, Guns, Gays...poor people living in luxury on their tax dollars, lazy slackers living on unemployment instead of looking for work....

This is how many people think about government (helped by a vast corporate-funded media machine) and they think it’s that way for everyone. This is how you get people to support deregulation of huge corporations and the banks, tax cuts for the rich, and destruction of the social safety net. And  they don’t realize they’re being played for suckers because government does NOT work that way for the Grifter Class, who’ve decided America is a lost cause and their only goal is to suck the corpse dry. Government has become their tool.

“There are really two Americas, one for the grifter class, and one for everybody else. In everybody-else land, the world of small businesses and wage-earning employees, the government  is something to be avoided, an overwhelming, all-powerful entity whose attentions usually presage some kind of financial setback, if not complete ruin. In the grifter world, however, government is a slavish lapdog that the financial companies that will be major players in this book use as a tool for making money.”

Chapter 1 lays out the base narrative and the key insights that make the Grifter Archipelago possible. The rest of Griftopia is about the players in this con game, and the ways they’ve rigged it so they win while everybody else loses.  The lamestream media won’t tell you these things because A) many of them don't have a clue, B) their owners wouldn't permit it, and c) it’s not a simple thing that can be easily broken into soundbites - though we desperately need to.

As Taibbi notes:

“America’s dirty little secret is that for this small group of plugged-in bubble lords, the political system works just fine not just without elections, but without any political input from any people at all outside the Manhattan. In bubble economics, actual human beings have just a few legitimate roles: they’re either customers of the financial services industry (borrowers, investors, or depositors) or else they’re wage earners whose taxes are used to provide both implicit or explicit investment insurance for the big-casino banks pushing the bubble scam. People aren’t really needed for anything else in the Griftopia, but since Americans require the illusion of self-government, we have elections.

emphasis added

The Jeffersonian vision of ‘citizen farmers’ acting in informed self-interest through a government that serves their needs is a long way from a world of things like CDOs, high speed computerized trading, securitized mortgages, the McCarran-Ferguson Act, Ayn Rand, and Sovereign Wealth Funds. To be an informed citizen these days takes a lot of work - understanding this stuff is hard but vital to have even a bare hope of keeping control of one’s own fate. It’s something most people just can’t do. Taibbi again, from Chapter 4:

We live in an economy that is immensely complex and we are completely at the mercy of the small group of people who understand it - who incidentally often happen to be the same people who built these wildly complex economic systems. We have to trust those people to do the right thing, but we can’t, because, well they’re scum. Which is kind of a big problem when you think about it.

no way to add too much emphasis

The other side of the coin to the ordinary American floundering in a complicated world is the Grifter class sitting on top of a huge pile of money. They have access to the inside game, they can get the rules set up to fill their pockets, they can afford to have people working for their interests 24/7, they can afford to spend as much money as they need (chump change by their standards) to keep politicians compliant to their needs (you know, the people who were supposed to look out for us once upon a time) and they’re relentless.

They have no political allegience to anything except their own interests, there’s not enough money in the world to satisfy their greed for as much as they can get their hands on, as quickly as possible, regardless of the risks or consequences. That’s what we’re up against, and as Tabbi puts it with commendable economy:

....organized greed beats disorganized democracy every time.

DISCLAIMER:  This is only a start on reviewing Griftopia - Part 2 is going to look at the remaining chapters in which Taibbi spells out just how the Grifter class is ripping us all off. It's not for the faint of heart. It may take me several days to get to it, what with the holidays and travel. I'm not going to be able to respond to comments here until much later today.

Has Taibbi come up with a theory of everything? No - but what he does cover is more than enough. Does he oversimplify?  Not everything about politics takes place in the context of how it will affect the financial sector - there's plenty of other forces working to take America down for their own reasons. And - for every major villain Taibbi spotlights, there's always a vast supporting cast and contributing circumstances, without which they couldn't do as much damage. But considering how well they've managed to keep from getting dragged into the light and held up for their crimes for all to see, Taibbi has made a good start on rectifying that. This book touches on the core issues of so many diaries that have been coming up on Kos lately, it's been driving me nuts not to get the word out sooner for those who've managed to miss Griftopia so far.

Next Time: Find out who Taibbi nominates for the Biggest Asshole in the Universe. Marvel at the Incredible Disappearing Infrastructure and the Recolonization of America. Gasp at the Trillion Dollar Bandaid. Watch the amazing Bubble Machine suck up all the money that can be begged, borrowed, and stolen. Gasp in fear as the mysterious Commodities Market pushes gasoline prices ever higher. Confront the Ferocious Vampire Squid in all its appalling rapaciousness. Thrills and Chills for all!

UPDATE: Just checking in for a minute. Looks like some time between writing this up last night and giving it a last go-over before publishing this morning, the Tip Jar time limit tripped. Sorry 'bout that. I may toss in an Alternate Tip Jar below in comments. If you can (and would like to) please rec the diary so it doesn't sink without a trace. Thanks.

Reading about Griftopia,

  • I'm not buying it. 0%
  • It's just another conspiracy theory. 2%
  • Interesting - but not all that new. 11%
  • I hadn't really been paying attention to it - but now I think I'd better. 6%
  • Okay - this really starts to fill in the blanks for me. 7%
  • Damn - I think Taibbi may have nailed it. 68%
  • See my comment. 0%
  • 2%
116 votes