On the heels of Jon Stewart’s call for civil discourse, some might find Matt Taibbi’s rousing and confrontational new book a bit uncouth. It’s actually more than a bit uncouth - it’s positively rude, and all the better for it. Taibbi’s outrage shines through on every page, and were he dealing with less important matters, it might seem gratuitous. However, in the face of what he convincingly characterizes as some of the worst corporate behavior in history, in-your-face outrage seems necessary just to get people to pay attention.
Taibbi’s tirades are designed to raise eyebrows and make the reader say to herself, “You better be able to justify calling Alan Greenspan ‘The Biggest Asshole in the Universe.’” Nine times out of ten, Taibbi’s literary lambasting is more than justified. Sometimes I was left searching for even stronger language.
Griftopia ties together articles and research Taibbi has been doing for Rolling Stone since 2008, all of them dealing with what he sees as the underlying crimes and causes that led to the economic collapse. He moves with angry aplomb from Alan Greenspan to AIG to Goldman Sachs, with plenty of well-placed venom for CNBC, Wall Street, and politicians from both sides of the aisle.
Taibbi has done a lot of real, old-fashioned reporting here, interviewing insiders, sitting through committee hearings, and digging through archives. As he points out, his critics have gone after him for his tone and his conclusions, but he’s rarely if ever been challenged on his facts. Griftopia is strongest when Taibbi spends time carefully laying out those facts of his case against the corporatist con artists. He has a knack for explaining complicated financial scheming without losing the reader’s attention. It’s no mean feat, and clearly comes after many hundreds of hours spent deeply immersed in financial crisis minutiae.
The main weakness with Griftopia is the same one Taibbi’s last book, The Great Derangement, had: the framework that ties the individual chapters together often strains under the weight of Taibbi’s central thesis. He excels at the well-researched, engagingly written long form magazine article, which is of course his job as a Rolling Stone correspondent. When it comes time to gather these great pieces into a single book, however,either he or his editor seems compelled to graft on some central justification for why the pieces are all in one place. With The Great Derangement, it was a simplistic, “people on the left and right sure can be nutty assholes” approach, which really didn’t hold up. Griftopia’s conceit is stronger, since everything centers around the financial crisis and the crimes and lies that both created it and continue to insulate some of its worst offenders from real consequence.
Even so, Taibbi often seems to strain to wrangle individual crimes into a cohesive con game. The chapter on the recent health care debate suffers most from this flaw. Taibbi does a great job laying out the details of political machinations between the Obama administration and the insurance industry. He also gives a strong indictment of the insurance companies in general, but he takes it as an obvious given fact that a mandate to buy healthcare is a terrible idea because the insurance companies are bastards. Maybe it is a terrible idea, although many countries have similar mandates that work well, but Taibbi never makes the case for why it’s terrible beyond the fact that insurance companies want it. There’s every chance it will turn out to be as terrible as he warns, but as written, it feels like he was trying to cram the facts of the debate into his overall thesis and didn’t quite have all the evidence needed to pull it off.
These critiques are in the vein of nitpicks. The vast majority of Griftopia consists of fascinating sections that combine lots of researched facts and strong opinions. As an introduction to the many, many sins of the financial industry, it works wonderfully. Taibbi’s outrage is likely to inspire similar feelings in his readers, who will, hopefully, then start to engage these issues in a more critical way. The book is a great way to raise your blood pressure—and prompt you to really care and think about the underlying issues with America’s economic system. For some that will be worth the price alone, but I imagine others will follow in Taibbi’s footsteps and dig into these issues and educate themselves. Either that, or dig a whole in the ground to bury their heads in, not to come out ‘til things magically get better.