Friday, July 4, 2014

Matt Taibbi's "The Divide": Book Review

Certainly he's preaching to this choir member, and I'm glad (relatively speaking) to find Attorney General Eric Holder excoriated for his deeply embedded role in an "aggressive" style of prosecuting Wall Street in a "sophisticated" manner that backfired, allowing "banks too big to fail, too big to jail" to go off with negligible fines (often what a few hours' profit for firms accrued) or none at all. Matt Taibbi's simple thesis, over four-hundred pages, remains that "too-big-to-fail, meet small-enough-to-jail." (49)

He uses a small Chinese NYC bank, Abacus, to prove how the one bank that the government pursued suffered far out of proportion, given the time and money expended, to the Wall Street neighbors who, in Chase's case, used their bailout money to buy up WaMu at fire-sale rates, and to grab two jets at $60 million each and a hanger for $18 million as part of TARP's sweet deal. As their ads assure us, we are to assume all's all right simply because they paid back the money "we" were forced to lend.

The book see-saws back and forth between high- and low-profile case studies. It makes for uneven pacing and while Taibbi labors to make transitions and emphasize contrasts in the disparity of how justice is meted out, the details of the financial and governmental manipulations provide for those intrigued or outraged by this collusion plenty of material for study. While the book (this is a galley) needed an index, and an overview might have helped, as some of this feels like a series of related articles rather than a cohesive summation of what is admittedly, no matter the party in power, an ongoing collapse of our legal system.

He critiques the policing strategy of trolling as fishing boats do among the weak and vulnerable in high-crime areas: swooping all up, seeing who has committed and can be held on petty offenses for blocking a sidewalk, public urination, or fare evasion, to juke stats (he alludes as to how NYC's anti-"broken window" methods to increase those arrested and jailed inspired HBO's "The Wire" here). Matt Taibbi argues that crime-as-lifestyle entices many no matter what the offense, if the payoff is great enough for those so driven, and that the mass arrests only anger the innocent, and try to provoke them when detained into fighting back against the corrupt power. In turn, the system wears down the weak, so as with foreclosures, welfare fraud, credit card debt, and many other offenses, the harried give up, pay fines, acknowledge guilt, cop a deal, and therefore please the law-and-order ranks.

This accounts for the dramatic rise in statistics for arrests and jailings even as the crime rate declines. Meanwhile, Taibbi compares the way the powerful and richer among us get off much easier, even though individuals can be taken down no matter their status. The point is that money matters most, more than the clout of any one person, rich or poor, even if richer is better. HSBC bank funnels the Sinaloa drug cartel money and evades sanctions, while the US government and local authorities pursue minor drug offenses far out of proportion to the gains won, considering the massive costs. At least the police and courts are kept busy, so as to justify more federal and local funds coming in, to perpetuate wars on drugs and on crime that keep on giving.

I realize Taibbi has written lively pieces for Rolling Stone for years and made his reputation. This book is more serious than I expected, and while "overcaffeinated Jesuits" as a memorable term for old-school journalists' fashion sense and lack of style sticks, Taibbi in taking the side of the underdog takes some easy potshots when they don't seem necessary. He mocks two elderly public defenders as looking like the Muppets Stadler and Waldorf, while a Barclays CEO is introduced as a "lipless, pale-faced Irish Catholic from Concord, Massachusetts, who wears Coke-bottle glasses and appears in public wearing the pinched, joyless manner of a constipated nun." (154) Memorable again, sure, but it seems a cheap shot given Taibbi's steady championing of the poor and his sympathies for those "without the right papers" whom he classifies as "hardworking immigrants" while choosing not to address the unspoken situation that this contingent has chosen to break laws and overstay visas, too.

Molly Crabapple's illustrations match the tone of this book, distorting those in the system by caricature, but never those fighting it. This plays into a muckraking feel at times that may extend the tradition of advocacy journalism, on the other hand. I found George Packer's The Unwinding, about the aftermath of Chase's foreclosure and debt-driven robo-calls that Taibbi documents, a good match.

Taibbi's on more convincing ground in handling welfare fraud, admitting that abuses happen and acknowledging the need to investigate, even as he shows how much is exerted to trap the offenders vs. how little is done to rein in Wall Street's guilty. He shows how the system targets easy targets to nab among the vulnerable, while it, as people like Timothy Geithner, Lanny Breuer, and Eric Holder connive to go as far as to ask Wall Street what to do and whom to pursue before the Feds move in, tiptoeing about. Taibbi does not bring in all of the context of deregulated banks, for the pressure on the second Bush administration to loosen up loans to minority and low-income communities is not addressed, nor is the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act discussed in the detail I think it merits, in reference to the Glass-Steagall Act's partial repeal in 1999. But there is a lot of financial coverage overall.

The current White House administration encourages despite its rhetoric (as Obama's "60 Minutes' comment on ethics in typically slippery lawyerspeak is parsed by Taibbi to reveal its vacuum) deregulation and submission to the corporate domination of our nation's legal, judicial, law enforcement, and political establishments started with Reagan and sustained by Clinton and the Bushes. Here, Matt Taibbi connects the dots and singles out those who continue, as yet another election looms, to pretend they have the interests of the common people in mind instead of those with whom they consort and plot, to build what's now oligarchy. (Amazon US 5-31-14)

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