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America for Sale: An Exclusive Excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s New Book on the Economic Meltdown

Our cash-strapped country is auctioning off its highways, ports and even parking meters, finding eager buyers in the Middle East

December 1, 2010 1:30 PM ET
America for Sale: An Exclusive Excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s New Book on the Economic Meltdown

Matt Taibbi's unsparing and authoritative reporting on the financial crisis has produced a series of memorable Rolling Stone features. He showed us how Goldman Sachs, that "great vampire squid", played a central role in creating not only the housing bubble but four other big speculative booms that filled its coffers while wrecking the American economy. He explained how Wall Street banks cooked up schemes that helped decimate municipal budgets and cost countless jobs, and how Wall Street lobbying led to a financial reform bill that won't prevent another meltdown. Taibbi builds on that eye-opening work in his new book, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That is Breaking America, due out from Spiegel & Grau on November 2. In this exclusive excerpt, he describes how our cash-strapped country is auctioning off its highways, ports and even parking meters at fire sale prices — and finding eager buyers in the unregulated sovereign wealth funds of oil-rich Middle Eastern countries.

In the summer of 2009 I got a call from an acquaintance who worked in the Middle East. He was a young American who worked for something called a sovereign wealth fund, a giant state-owned pile of money that swims around the world in search of things to buy.

Sovereign wealth funds, or SWFs, are huge in the Middle East. Most of the bigger oil-producing states have massive SWFs that act as cash repositories (with holdings often kept in dollars) for the revenues generated by, for instance, state-owned oil companies. Unlike the central banks of most Western countries, whose main function is to accumulate reserves in an attempt to stabilize the domestic currency, most SWFs have a mission to invest aggressively and generate huge long-term returns. Imagine the biggest and most aggressive hedge fund on Wall Street, then imagine that that same fund is fifty or sixty times bigger and outside the reach of the SEC or any other major regulatory authority, and you've got a pretty good idea of what an SWF is.

My buddy was a young guy who'd come up working on the derivatives desk of one of the more dastardly American investment banks. After a few years of that he decided to take a step up morally and flee to the Middle East to go to work advising a bunch of sheiks on how to spend their oil billions.

Aside from the hot weather, it wasn't such a bad gig. But on one of his trips home, we met in a restaurant and he mentioned that the work had gotten a little, well, weird.

"I was in a meeting where a bunch of American investment bankers were trying to sell us the Pennsylvania Turnpike," he said. "They even had a slide show. They were showing these Arabs what a nice highway we had for sale, what the toll booths looked like . . ."

I dropped my fork. "The Pennsylvania Turnpike is for sale?"

He nodded. "Yeah," he said. "We didn't do the deal, though. But, you know, there are some other deals that have gotten done. Or didn't you know about this?"

As it turns out, the Pennsylvania Turnpike deal almost went through, only to be killed by the state legislature, but there were others just like it that did go through, most notably the sale of all the parking meters in Chicago to a consortium that included the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, from the United Arab Emirates.

There were others: A toll highway in Indiana. The Chicago Skyway. A stretch of highway in Florida. Parking meters in Nashville, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and other cities. A port in Virginia. And a whole bevy of Californian public infrastructure projects, all either already leased or set to be leased for fifty or seventy-five years or more in exchange for one-off lump sum payments of a few billion bucks at best, usually just to help patch a hole or two in a single budget year.

America is quite literally for sale, at rock-bottom prices, and the buyers increasingly are the very people who scored big in the oil bubble. Thanks to Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and the other investment banks that artificially jacked up the price of gasoline over the course of the last decade, Americans delivered a lot of their excess cash into the coffers of sovereign wealth funds like the Qatar Investment Authority, the Libyan Investment Authority, Saudi Arabia's SAMA Foreign Holdings, and the UAE's Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

Here's yet another diabolic cycle for ordinary Americans, engineered by the grifter class. A Pennsylvanian like Robert Lukens sees his business decline thanks to soaring oil prices that have been jacked up by a handful of banks that paid off a few politicians to hand them the right to manipulate the market. Lukens has no say in this; he pays what he has to pay. Some of that money of his goes into the pockets of the banks that disenfranchise him politically, and the rest of it goes increasingly into the pockets of Middle Eastern oil companies. And since he's making less money now, Lukens is paying less in taxes to the state of Pennsylvania, leaving the state in a budget shortfall. Next thing you know, Governor Ed Rendell is traveling to the Middle East, trying to sell the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the same oil states who've been pocketing Bob Lukens's gas dollars. It's an almost frictionless machine for stripping wealth out of the heart of the country, one that perfectly encapsulates where we are as a nation.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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