Mailbag: Corporate Overthrow, Finance Convictions and Salty Writing

Matt Taibbi answers your questions on everything from Obama renewing the Bush tax cuts to his resemblance to Charles Barkley

Greetings from snowbound metro NYC. The weather is so bad, my not-at-all-small dog disappeared into a snowbank mid-dump this morning.

So from now on I’m going to be publishing a mailbag once a week or so, most likely every Monday. I’m trying to get to as many as possible. I should note that I get many different versions of one particular question, which goes like this: “Your book/articles paint a really depressing picture of America and in fact make me want to immolate myself. What are your suggestions for improving things so that I don’t have to make orphans of my children?” I’ll take maybe one of those a week, I guess, but here’s an advance warning: I suck at that question. So just in general, we’re all going to get along a lot better if you ask me questions that have depressing answers.

Anyway, without further ado:

Hi Matt,
Can you think of any way that we, your readers, can help to overthrow the corporate propaganda/lobbyist machine, which, as you have said, has "an awesome ability to create its own reality?" Should we all start contributing to some foundation for the building of a progressive media empire-- rather than contributing to political campaigns, or what? As long as the majority of folks end up watching & listening to their entertainment station, that feeds them lies & distractions 24/7, rather than to the truth, I don't see how we get anywhere in this country.
Thanks.
Jill

Jill,
On the media front, things I think are looking up! The commercial media isn’t monolithically bad — as much as I’ve ragged on the New York Times over the years, just look at what Gretchen Morgensen has done in the last few years — and there’s quite a lot of good independent media now. Think about how a site like Zero Hedge moved the whole high-frequency trading story. Half of Wall Street is reading that site now. The lobbyist/money in Washington issue is much more serious. The more I think about it, getting to some kind of publicly funded election system has to be the first thing. You watch a guy like Ted Kaufman, who never had to raise money to run for office, and you see that it’s not a coincidence that he was great on all the Wall Street reform issues. He didn’t take Wall Street money, therefore he didn’t suck. My guess is fewer members of congress would suck if they didn’t need to pay for election campaigns.

Matt,
As a Knicks fan, I hate the Celtics, Bulls and Magic; and just as a decent human being I hate the Lakers. However, I find myself rooting for these teams when they face the Heat, just because, what the hell, the Knicks aren't really a contender and I would have to have a severe personality disorder (or be from Miami, but those two are basically one in the same) to root for the Heat. My question: what happens for you, as a Boston fan, when you see the Lakers (or other teams) face the Heat? Do you root for your mortal enemies? Do you find yourself just seething in hate for both sides? Or do you quietly hope that LA wins but laugh it off when they don't with a statement like, "We had no problem dealing with their zone?”
Paul Leszczynski

Paul,
Okay, here it is. In any game that involves hated teams, there should be no such thing as a hate-neutral approach, i.e. “seething in hate for both sides.” With rare exceptions (this year’s early Jets vs. Favre contest was like that for me) there should always be one team you hate more. In my case, I absolutely hate Miami more than L.A. and guiltlessly rooted for Kobe Bryant against Lebron on Christmas. I’m beginning to see signs of Lebron embracing the whole villain thing, though, which takes some of the fun out of it for me — it was much more fun watching him struggle with the lack of unconditional worship/drying up of narcissistic supplies. If Lebron rights himself and continues handling the pressure well, that’s going to leave us all to root against weak link Chris Bosh, which is frankly kind of lame. So this is an important time for anti-Heat fans. We need for them to stay vulnerable and confused for as long as possible.

Matt,
I wrote to President Obama and my state Senator Dick Durbin with the following question: Since President Bush passed tax cuts in both 2001 and 2003 through the use of budget reconciliation, since he did not have the necessary votes, why are Obama and the democrats not using budget reconciliation to pass tax cuts for middle and lower income taxpayers only?
I never once heard this mentioned by either the press or politicians. To date I have no response from Obama and Durbin sent me a form letter that never addressed my question. Unless I am completely ignorant and budget reconciliation is a tool that can’t be used, I would have to suspect that Obama lied when he said that this compromise was necessary. Why would he lie unless he is secretly behind the rich and powerful to the detriment of the common people whom he claims to represent and to whom he made promises.
So Matt, my question is : Was budget reconciliation an available tool or method that could have been used? If so why wasn’t it used or even discussed?
Martin DiPietro

Martin,
I didn’t know the answer to this question so I asked my friend David Sirota, who of course used to work on the Hill. Here’s his take:

My understanding is that the standard answer to this question is that budget reconciliation is only allowed once per budget year and Democrats used it for health care. But, sure, they could have done this the year before on taxes, knowing the Bush tax cuts were going to expire. They decided not to because … they suck.

Matt,
I have a completely bland, banal question for you, though I really want to know the answer. You've listed Gogol, Saki, Mencken, and Heller as some of your favorite writers, all of which I'm also a fan of, but I don't think you've mentioned many others. Do you have some more you could list, maybe including a little bit on what you like about them?
Erik

Erik,
Not banal at all, I love that question. Most of my favorite writers growing up were Russians – that’s why I learned Russian and moved there. Besides Gogol I really loved Tolstoy (especially Anna Karenina — I also loved The Kreutzer Sonata) and also Bulgakov (obviously liking Master and Margarita but I may actually have enjoyed Heart of a Dog more), Sergei Dovlatov (highly recommend The Suitcase), Turgenev (I once tried, and failed, to adapt a screenplay version of Spring Torrents), and some others. I didn’t read Solzhenitsyn until I was much older but I now read the Gulag books over and over again. Also love Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales (I have a thing for Gulag books in general — one of my favorite non-fiction books is something called The Long Walk, about a crew that broke out of a Siberian camp and walked all the way across the Gobi desert and the Himalayas to India, a book I’m shocked has never been made into a movie). I loved Lolita. Some friends turned me on to Evelyn Waugh books like Scoop (the best book ever written about journalists) and Decline and Fall when I was older. The Red and the Black is another book I reread a lot. Same with Raymond Chandler’s novels. Gulliver’s Travels and Candide are two more I read every few years. All of Woody Allen’s books. American Psycho I loved. Could go on. Gotta say, on the sportswriting front, Drew Magary is hilarious. Highly recommend Men With Balls.

Matt,
Given that there has been (and still is) systemic fraud throughout the “financial services” industry, what are the chances that anyone will ever be indicted, let alone, convicted? (I, for one, do not see the watered-down Dodd-Frank “reform” act as doing much more than making cosmetic adjustments, and it’s obvious that the Mega-Zombies are, for all practical purposes, insolvent. [And thanks FASB, SEC, etal for enabling smoke-and-mirrors financial reporting by the Mega-Zombies.])
So there ya go.
Dwain E. Lowther, CPA

Dwain,
Since you’re an accountant, I’ll repeat something I wrote last week — I think this suit involving Ernst and Young potentially is the beginning of a series of investigations. It may not lead to jail terms (I seriously doubt that there will be real criminal investigations of any of the major actors), but there’s an awful lot of action out there on the civil front and I think a lot of those suits have the potential to cripple some very big companies. E&Y may disappear and I’d bet just about anything that one or more of the big banks — Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, etc. — will be ruined or near-ruined by class-action lawsuits brought either by foreclosure plaintiffs or by MBS investors (there are a number of these lawsuits in the pipe now). The first ruling that declares one of these banks liable for the losses suffered by investors who bought these banks’ fraudulently-packaged mortgage-backed securities is going to send shock waves through the industry. Additionally I hear rumors of more cases like the Goldman-Paulson civil case, in which Goldman and hedge fund bigwig John Paulson packaged crappy securities to sell to foreign banks. There’s apparently at least one more such major civil case in the pipe, only it doesn’t involve Goldman.

Hi Matt,
Do you think your salty writing style marginalizes the effect the content of your reporting has on the public? I love your style, because you write like most of us talk. Even the Vampire Squid line was like something that might pop out of a friend's mouth when trying to describe some well-known asshole. But does the fact that your articles contain a bunch of swear words keep you out of the mainstream?
Ben Bochner

Ben,
I use profanity less and less as I become more and more a married forty year-old living in the New Jersey suburbs for whom words like “horsefucked” are increasingly like the leather pants on an aging hipster who hasn’t caught on yet that he’s too old for the club. On the other hand, there are times when the only word that makes sense is “asshole” or even “galactic asshole,” particularly with the kind of people I’m writing about. So it’s tough. I’m sure I will learn the answer to this difficult philosophical paradox in the afterlife.

Matt,
Have you responded to Janeane's request to have your hand in marriage?
Howard Martin

Howard,
I actually had sort of a crush on Janeane after The Truth About Cats and Dogs and quietly disliked Ben Chaplin for years afterward. How could she like a guy with that voice? I am, of course, happily married now.

Matt,
I was wondering on what your take on global warming ever since your piece on how cap and trade will profit Goldman Sachs. Most of what I read about it makes me think the IPCC is too conservative and is low-balling most of the dangers, which in turn gets ignored or sidelined by the mainstream media. Do you think that global warming is only "maybe" a danger or do you agree with what the majority of climate scientists and other science bodies say about it? Do you support a direct tax on gas?
Jeff Querner

Jeff,
My problem with cap and trade isn’t that I don’t believe in global warming — I do — but that cap and trade is basically a carbon tax, except that instead of simply collecting the tax the government plans on privatizing the effort into the hands of a bunch of financial companies who have long records of manipulating exactly the kinds of commodities markets the carbon-credit market will be modeled after. It’ll be a massive financial subsidy to companies like Goldman and Morgan Stanley, as if they needed another one.

Matt,
Do you know of a lobbying group that is fighting against the too big to fail banks and is there anything your readers can do to support them?
Warmest regards and keep up the good fight,
Gary Rhoades

Gary,
The main group is Americans for Financial Reform and they could certainly use donations. During the Dodd-Frank debate they were really the only lobbying group countering the thousands of industry lobbyists (AFR told me they had 60 lobbyists, all volunteers, countering about 1500-2000 Wall Street lobbyists). What they’ve done in a relatively short time is find progressive experts in all the various arcane corners of the financial regulatory universe — not an easy task, since there aren’t a lot of people who know about things like derivatives and clearing and HFT who are on the right side — and recruited them to coordinate the opposition, write memos and legislative proposals, and educate journalists like me.

Matt,
I'm watching the Ken Burns Unforgivable Blackness documentary, which is a poor substitute for the Geoffrey Ward novel and I just realized (this is projecting 10 years in the future) you are a body-double for Jim Jeffries, so you have that going for you! Love the writing, keep it up, sports and Wall St. is a combo that is bound to win!
Scott Grant

Scott,
The other one I get a lot is Charles Barkley, who fits more on the pattern-baldness side of things. I think my minor-celebrity math would go something like Jeffries times (Barkley-10) over the teeth of Steve Buscemi.

Post your questions in the comments below, or email Matt at asktaibbi@rollingstone.com.

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