May 11, 2014

Robbing What's Left

Life as seen on the ground at 76th Street and 
Photograph courtesy Pak So and Anna Tan

Excerpts below from Griftopia by Matt Taibbi, published by Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperback Edition, 2011:

Voters who throw their emotional weight into elections they know deep down inside won't produce real change in their lives are also indulging in a kind of fantasy. That's why voters still dream of politicians whose primary goal is to effectively govern and maintain a thriving first world society with great international ambitions. What voters don't realize, or don't want to realize, is that that dream was abandoned long ago by this country's leaders, who know the more prosaic reality and are looking beyond the fantasy, into the future, at an America plummeted into third world status.

These leaders are like the drug lords who ruled America's ghettos in the crack age, men (and some women) interested in just two things: staying in power, and hoovering up enough of what's left of the cash on their blocks to drive around in an Escalade or a 633i for however long they have left. Our leaders know we're turning into a giant ghetto and they're taking every last hubcap they can get their hands on before the rest of us wake up and realize what's happened. ...

... In the new American Ghetto, the nightmare engine is bubble economics, a kind of high-tech casino scam that kills neighborhoods just like dope does, only the product is credit, not crack or heroin. It concentrates the money of the population in just a few hands with brutal efficiency, just like narco-business, and just as in narco-business the product itself, debt, steadily demoralizes the customer to the point where he's unable to prevent himself from being continually dominated.

In the ghetto, nobody gets real dreams. What they get are short-term rip-off versions of real dreams. You don't get real wealth, with a home, credit, a yard, money for your kids' college - you get a fake symbol of wealth, a gold chain, a Fendi bag, a tricked-out car you bought with cash. Nobody gets to be really rich for long, but you do get to be pretend rich, for a few days, weeks, maybe even a few months. It makes you feel better to wear that gold, but when real criminals drive by on the overpass, they laugh.

It's the same in our new ghetto. We don't get real political movements and real change; what we get, instead, are crass show-business manipulations whose followers' aspirations are every bit as laughable and desperate as the wealth dreams of the street hustler with his gold rope. What we get, in other words, are moderates who don't question the corporate consensus dressed up as revolutionary leaders, like Barack Obama, and wonderfully captive opposition diversions like the Tea Party - the latter a fake movement for real peasants that was born that night in St. Paul, when Sarah Palin addressed her We.

. . . . . . . .

The new America, instead, is fast becoming a vast ghetto in which all of us, conservatives and progressives, are being bled dry by a relatively tiny oligarchy of extremely clever financial criminals and their castrato henchmen in government, whose main job is to be good actors on TV and put on a good show. This invisible hive of high-class thieves stays in business because when we're not completely distracted and exhausted by our work and entertainments, we prefer not to ponder the dilemma of why gasoline went over four dollars a gallon, why our pension funds just lost 20 percent of their value, or why when we do the right thing by saving money, we keep being punished by interest rates that hover near zero, while banks that have been the opposite of prudent get rewarded with free billions. In reality political power is simply taken from most of us by a grubby kind of fiat, in little fractions of a percent here and there each and every day, through a thousand separate transactions that take place in fine print and in the margins of a vast social mechanism that most of us are simply not conscious of. ...

... America's dirty little secret is that for this small group of plugged-in bubble lords, the political system works fine not just without elections, but without any political input from any people at all outside Manhattan. In bubble economics, actual human beings have only 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 and 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.

To make sure those elections are effectively meaningless as far as Wall Street is concerned, two things end up being true. One is that voters on both sides of the aisle are gradually weaned off that habit of having real expectations for their politicians, consuming the voting process entirely as culture-war entertainment. The other is that millions of tenuously middle-class voters are conned into pushing Wall Street's own twisted greed ethos as though it were their own. The Tea Party, with its weirdly binary view of society as being split up cleanly into competing groups of producers and parasites - that's just a cultural echo of the insane greed-is-good belief system on Wall Street that's provided the foundation/excuse for a generation of brilliantly complex thievery. Those beliefs have trickled down to the ex-middle-class suckers struggling to stay on top of their mortgages and their credit card bills, and the real joke is that those voters listen to CNBC and Fox and they genuinely believe they're the producers in this binary narrative. They don't get that somewhere way up above, there's a group of people who've been living the Atlas dream for real - and building a self-dealing financial bureaucracy in their own insane image.

. . . . . . . . 

Two other things are striking about the mortgage-scam era. One was that nobody in this vast rogues' gallery of characters was really engaged in building anything. If Wall Street makes its profits by moving money around from place to place and taking a cut here and there, in a sense this whole mess was a kind of giant welfare program the financial services industry simply willed into being for itself. It invented a mountain of money in the form of a few trillion dollars' worth of bogus mortgages and rolled it forward for a few years, until reality intervened - and suddenly it was announced that We the Taxpayer had to buy it from them, at what they called face value, for the good of the country.

In the meantime, and this is the second thing that's so amazing, almost everyone who touched that mountain turned out to be a crook of some kind. ...

... We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country - and still have enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

But we didn't do that, and we didn't spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why? For a very good reason. Because we're no good anymore at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We're shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing.

What are we good at? Robbing what's left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer. ...