I finished Matt Taibbi’s new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, which I was reading in the evening before I went to bed. I am surprised that I was not given to uneasy and violent dreams as a result.
In the book, Taibbi one again looks at the financial crisis of 2008, a topic he’s no stranger to. He continues to be justifiably outraged that miles of fraud, perjury, racketeering, money laundering, grift — and, in one bizarre story — outright harassment, resulted in absolutely zero arrests. Instead, when anyone decided something needed to be punished at all, the punishment was a cost-of-doing-business fine, not paid out of any one person’s pocket, which didn’t prevent anyone from getting a fat bonus at the end. Not only was nothing done to significantly prevent this from happening again, there was an audible shrug from the SEC and the White House that, eh, what can you do? The perpetrators were free and seemingly encouraged to have another go at it.
This is a familiar story and though it continues to be outrageous and baffling, it’s become all too clear that nothing is going to come of it, so why harp on it again? This time, though, Taibbi looks beyond the story to tie it into something even larger, if you can imagine a larger target. Taibbi contrasts the glorious life and adventures of the too-rich-to-jail set with the other side of the spectrum, those barely — or not — scraping by.
He alternates between worlds, at once talking about sociopathic hedge fund managers with the minds of 14-year-old boys jacked up on Mountain Dew and repeated watchings of “Wall Street” and then moving to people who have government workers and cops inspecting their underwear to determine if it’s too sexy for them to receive public assistance. You have one group who can’t get arrested even when committing outright fraud and another for whom standing in front of their home can get their heads bounced on the sidewalk.
The “two Americas” trope isn’t particularly fresh either, but this contrast is still eye-opening. On the one hand you have a guy getting knocked around, abused, framed, and more-or-less convicted for smoking what someone thought was a joint. On the other hand you have HSBC, a bank that knowingly laundered over $600 million worth of money for Mexican drug cartels, yet paid nothing but a $1.9 billion fine, equivalent to about a month’s profit. Taibbi ties this in to a greater divide in American culture, that there are winners and losers, and what we’re seeing now is the circle of winners growing smaller and more powerful. It’s not hard for someone like me, a straight white male with a pretty good job, a marriage, a house, money in the bank, to look at this and still know that as far as the machine is concerned, I would be a loser. Pretty much everyone reading this would be. And normally I wouldn’t care, except that the “winners” are writing the laws, funding the candidates, filling the court benches. They run the show and they don’t care about you or me, except that we might currently be holding on to some money that they want. And what’s worse is, they have other losers convinced that if they just appease the winners enough, they’ll be winners too, or at the very least spared the winners’ wrath. This is absurd because the winners don’t even see anyone who isn’t them. They will frack on your land and destroy your retirement and mistakenly foreclose on your house and remove your health care not because they don’t like you — don’t flatter yourself — but because it gives them some money. That’s all. Some money was there to be made and they made it and now they’ll stride off and do some other thing to make more money and spare not a thought to anyone who was in the way.
This isn’t class warfare, as previous “Two Americas” observations stated. It’s worse. It’s a more Lovecraftian disinterested evil that destroys you while not even comprehending that you’re a thing that exists at all.
Taibbi points out, too, that this isn’t a Republicans and Democrats thing. Most of this nonsense has happened under and been fueled by the socialist leftist Obama, who gave us this lovely quote:
Well, first on the issue of prosecutions on Wall Street, one of the biggest problems about the collapse of Lehmans and the subsequent financial crisis and the whole subprime lending fiasco is that a lot of that stuff wasn’t necessarily illegal, it was just immoral or inappropriate or reckless. That’s exactly why we needed to pass Dodd-Frank, to prohibit some of these practices.
The financial sector is very creative and they are always looking for ways to make money. That’s their job. And if there are loopholes and rules that can be bent and arbitrage to be had, they will take advantage of it. So without commenting on particular prosecutions — obviously that’s not my job; that’s the Attorney General’s job — I think part of people’s frustrations, part of my frustration, was a lot of practices that should not have been allowed weren’t necessarily against the law, but they had a huge destructive impact. And that’s why it was important for us to put in place financial rules that protect the American people from reckless decision-making and irresponsible behavior.
We can’t prosecute the banks because “a lot of” the things they did “weren’t necessarily against the law”. Never mind the things that were — money laundering, perjury, and fraud supposedly are — these people aren’t criminals, just “creative”. They found loopholes, bent rules, and made money. And in the one America, the only America that matters, they’re not crooks, they’re at worst mischievous scamps, and at best, goddamn titans of capitalism. The things they did which weren’t necessarily illegal still aren’t necessarily illegal, and the things they did that were are okay because if you throw someone in jail for losing 40% of the wealth in the world in a Ponzi scheme, it might hurt the economy. This is the President speaking, the far-left Communist who is destroying America, saying we simply have to accept our Winner overlords. What else can we possibly do? Say what you will about Bush, he at least prosecuted Enron.
It would be a mistake to simply note that the people on the other side of this story are minorities, though most “losers” are minorities and most minorities are “losers”. They’re the poor. And while their minority status can’t be overlooked in their poor status, I believe these days that it’s the lack of money instead of the abundance of pigment that dooms them. Taibbi looks at a system that exists to take poor people and run them through a grinder repeatedly until every possible nickel has been run out of them. After all, someone has to fill the private prisons. When they have no money, they can sit in a cell and create earnings for Corrections Corporation of America (CXW on NASDAQ). The system works to keep the people at that level at that level, and to push others towards it once their financial usefulness wears out. It’s a machine designed for one purpose: to draw money towards the top to be skimmed off by the winners. It’s the opposite of trickle-down. And it works, exactly as designed.
And the machine is working its way up. It’s just now starting on the middle-class. What little outrage over the economy we’ve seen has largely manifested in the form of white people angry at being treated the way non-whites have been treated for years. When we were grabbing your food stamps it was to teach you fiscal responsibility, but taking my social security is an outrage. When you were saddled with a debt spiral because you had to go to shady payday loan services, that was your poor management skills, but my student debt is a serious problem. You lost your house because “some people” are just not prepared for the responsibility of home ownership. I got foreclosed on because of some shifty bank doings. However you sell it to yourself, the result is the same. You have some money, they want it. And they’ll do whatever isn’t “necessarily illegal” to get it.
I’m now reading Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. It’s a look at what the authors call “sacrifice zones”, the places in the country that have been allowed to go to hell as a concession to boundless capitalism. The book was written in 2011 and came out in 2012, and the foreword says that originally they didn’t have much of anything hopeful to end on, but then the Occupy movement started and it seems like at last the American citizenry is ready to try and put an end to this nonsense. Taibbi’s book was written in 2013 and has no such note in it.