Posts Tagged ‘Matt Taibbi’

Taibbi on how the news divides and misleads us

November 13, 2019

Last week I I read Matt Taibbi’s HATE INC.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another.  Of all the books I’ve read during the past 12 months or expect to read in the near future, this is the one I’d most recommend to anybody who wants to understand what’s going on in the USA..

It is about how and why the business model for the American press changed from the seeking of a broad, noncontroversial consensus to the promotion of conflict.  It also is about why the conflict so seldom involves fundamental issues.

Noam Chomsky famously said that the way to preserve the illusion of freedom of the press is to allow vigorous debate, but only within certain prescribed bounds.

There is extreme polarization for and against Donald Trump.  Some say we’re on the verge of a new civil war.   But the debate remains within limits, and is focused on personalities.

We the public are encouraged to think that there is a deep and permanent conflict of ideas between Democratic liberals such as Rachel Maddow and Republican conservatives such as Sean Hannity, but also that there are no ideas worth considering beyond the limits of what they say.

Neither side questions ever-increasing military budgets, everlasting wars, ever-expanding surveillance, ever-growing bailouts of tax breaks for and and handouts to the most powerful corporations.

The current $716 billion military appropriations bill for the coming fiscal year contained a $165 billion increase—in itself more than the entire military budget of Russia or China, and more than the entire cost of the Iraq war in 2003 or 2004.   Large majorities of both parties in both houses of Congress supported it.

The press coverage of the bill focused not on its contents, but on whether President Trump was disrespectful of Senator John McCain, the sponsor, by not mentioning his name during the signing ceremony.

In the old days, the CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite sought to appeal to a broad, bland consensus.  The feeling he tried to project was reassurance—that all was right with the world.  Other broadcasters were the same way.

They also were limited by the government’s Fairness Doctrine.  If they broadcast anything controversial, they had to provide free air time for the other side.

Newspapers followed a similar path.  Most had local monopolies.  All had secure revenue streams based on classified advertising (job listings, legal notices) and as the main source of information for stock prices and the like.

I got started in journalism at the end of the old era.  The ideal in reporting in that era was objectivity and impersonality.  Reporters strove to write in a way that nobody could guess their personal opinions.  Routine newspaper articles lacked bylines because it shouldn’t matter who wrote them.

Then the Reagan administration repealed the Fairness Doctrine.  Opinion no longer had to be balanced.  CNN introduced the 24-hour news cycle.  The easiest way to fill time was with commentary and opinion.

The Internet, especially Facebook and Twitter, provided a way to segment the readership individually.  No longer did a newspaper or TV broadcast have to appeal to the whole family.  Each person could have their own news, tailored algorithmically to their own desires and viewpoint.

Fox News, and also talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, took advantage of the new business model.  They realized they didn’t have to have universal appeal to make money.  All they needed to do was to target a segment of the viewers or listeners and tailor things to their interests.

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Russiagate result is an indictment of the press

March 23, 2019

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The main thing that the Russiagate investigation revealed was credulity of the bulk of the Washington press corps.

By compromising standards in order to bring down Donald Trump, they only discredited themselves, made President Trump stronger and ensured that any future accusation against Trump will be automatically disbelieved by a large segment of the public.

One of those who wasn’t taken in was Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, whose professionalism gives him the right to say “I told you so.”

LINKS

Attorney-General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report.  [Added 3/26/2019]

It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD by Matt Taibbi

As Mueller Probe Ends, New Russiagate Myths Begin by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone [Added 3/26/2019]

Russiagate Happened Because We Refused to Face Up to Why Trump Won by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone [Added 3/30/2019]

The Media Must Face Up to Its Role in Inflaming a Frenzy Over Russiagate by Branko Marcetic for In These Times [Added 4/9/2019]

The Scarlet Letter Club by Matt Taibbi.  About misreporting of the Iraq WMD claim.

Matt Taibbi on Trump the destroyer

March 23, 2017

Trump the Destroyer: Trump has stuffed his cabinet with tyrants, zealots and imbeciles—all bent on destroying our government from within by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.   Highly recommended.

Matt Taibbi on the political problem

June 2, 2016

America … is a place where a huge plurality of the population is underemployed, pissed off, in debt and barely keeping their heads above water.  A good 15 percent or so are not even doing that well, sitting below the poverty line, living in homes without adequate heat, sanitation or food.  That portion of America doesn’t appear anywhere in campaign coverage, not even as background.

It would have made more sense to have different labels.  If there was a Poor Peoples’ Party, a Disappearing Middle Class Party, and a Minimum Six-Figure Income Party, and all of them were described as legitimate and reasonable options in the press, people would have no problem pulling levers for the candidates who actually represented them.

Source: Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone

What did Hillary Clinton say to the plutocrats?

February 7, 2016
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Hillary Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiatives meeting in 2014

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Hillary Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiatives meeting in 2014

Source: POLITICO

What did Hillary Clinton say in her three 2013 speeches for Goldman Sachs that was worth $675,000 to hear?

So far she has refused to release the transcripts, but reporters for POLITICO interviewed members of the Goldman audience on what she said.

Clinton offered a message that the collected plutocrats found reassuring, according to accounts offered by several attendees, declaring that the banker-bashing so popular within both political parties was unproductive and indeed foolish.

Striking a soothing note on the global financial crisis, she told the audience, in effect: We all got into this mess together, and we’re all going to have to work together to get out of it. What the bankers heard her to say was just what they would hope for from a prospective presidential candidate: Beating up the finance industry isn’t going to improve the economy—it needs to stop.

Source: POLITICO

The crooked financial dealings of Goldman Sachs were an important factor in the financial crash of 2008.  The company wrote sub-prime mortgages its brokers knew could not be paid off, repackaged them to seem like secure investments and then after unloading them on gullible customers, made financial bets that they would become worthless.  Many people lost their homes and savings.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone summed up the situation well.

The Clintons … have by now taken so much money that when they stand in a room full of millionaires and billionaires, they can use the word “we” and not have it sound odd.  The money has irrevocably moved them to that side of the rope line.  On that side of the line, public anger isn’t legitimate, but something to be managed and waited out … .

Source: Rolling Stone

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What we knew back then about Saddam

May 18, 2015

Matt Taibbi thinks it is silly to question Jeb Bush about what should have been done about Iraq “in the light of what we know now.”  Any sensible American knew enough then to realize what a bad idea invading Iraq was, he wrote.

The Iraq invasion was always an insane exercise in brainless jingoism that could only be intellectually justified after accepting a series of ludicrous suppositions.

dick-quizFirst you had to accept a fictional implied connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. Then you had to buy that this heavily-sanctioned secular dictator (and confirmed enemy of Islamic radicals) would be a likely sponsor of radical Islamic terror. Then after that you had to accept that Saddam even had the capability of supplying terrorists with weapons that could hurt us (the Bush administration’s analysts famously squinted so hard their faces turned inside out trying to see that one).

And then, after all that, you still had to buy that all of these factors together added up to a threat so imminent that it justified the immediate mass sacrifice of American and Iraqi lives.

It was absurd, a whole bunch of maybes piled on top of a perhaps and a theoretically possible or two. O.J.’s lawyers would have been embarrassed by it.

via Rolling Stone.

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Matt Taibbi on political journalism

April 30, 2015

We’re conditioned to believe that the candidate who has the early assent of a handful of executives on Wall Street and in Hollywood and Silicon Valley is the “serious” politician, while the one who is merely the favorite of large numbers of human beings is an irritating novelty act whose only possible goal could be to cut into the numbers of the real players.

via Rolling Stone.

Matt Taibbi’s USA-Russia Venn diagram

December 18, 2014

1035x775-usarussia2-1

Matt Taibbi, who reports on Wall Street for the Rolling Stone, once lived in Moscow and wrote for an uninhibited English-language magazine called The eXile.   A reader asked him for a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the USA and Russia, and the chart abovew is what he came up with.

He also had this to say.

Back when I lived in Russia, I knew lots of reporters who really did risk their lives and had enemies who really did violently attempt to silence them.

I had one Russian reporter friend who wrote something about a bank connected to one of Yeltsin’s advisers, and two days later a thug in a ski mask literally jumped through his bedroom window and bopped him over the head with a crowbar.

I vaguely knew people like Anna Politkovskaya and Yuri Sheckochikhin, famed reporters who were literally murdered because of their work.

Even I had to skip Moscow once, after a certain mob-connected pimp had a bit of a sense of humor failure about a thing we’d published in the eXile.

But in America, nobody needs to silence journalists, particularly if you’re talking about just one journalist, and more particularly if it’s just one print journalist.

Ignoring such people is easier and way more effective. You just let the reporter throw whatever hissy-fit he/she has decided to throw, and five seconds later the main audience will be back porn-surfing and watching football and “Wives With Knives” and so on.

The notion of the dangerous dissident who so threatens the corrupt state that he or she must be physically eliminated is unfortunately an old-fashioned fantasy that no longer fits our sophisticated dystopia.  Or anyway, even if such a person did exist, it would be someone with better sources than me.

via Taibbi Mailbag | Rolling Stone.

A predatory business model based on lawbreaking

August 28, 2014

Predatory local governments are emerging in the USA, which get a large part of their revenues from fines and confiscations.   The law allows confiscation of property used in drug crime even if the property is not owned by the criminal and nobody has been convicted of a crime.  Other local governments make a practice extracting money from poor and vulnerable people for trivial offenses.  Evidently Ferguson, Missouri, is one of them.

They have a parallel in predatory corporations.   Credit card issuers, for example, get more profit from fees and penalties than they do from straight interest, event though interest rates are high.  The problem with this, as with predatory law enforcement, is that it is impossible to do this on a mass basis, and still follow due process of law.  If this was done, the courts would be overwhelmed.

The law says that if somebody owes you money, you have to get a judgement from a judge before you have the right to collect.  Before you get a judgment, you have to let your debtor know you’re going to court so they can present their side of the case.

If credit card companies and debt collection agencies actually did that, courts would be overwhelmed.   So they usually don’t.

The.Divide.Matt.TaibbiMatt Taibbi described the process in a chapter in his book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.  It is a counterpoint to his chapter on mass arrests of young black men on New York City, another high-volume business that would overwhelm the courts if police and prosecutors followed the law.

Most credit card companies, after a certain point, sell their bad debts to collection agencies for a few cents on the dollar.  The debt includes not only accumulated interest, but fees and penalties for late payment, and an extra penalty payment to the collection agency for its trouble.  But this only works if the collection agency can keep its expenses down.

Commonly collection agncies use “gutter service”.  Or they mail a postcard to an old address than may or may not be valid.  The going rate for process servers is $4 a notice, so they can’t be expected to put in much effort to track down the person.

It doesn’t matter to them if the notice is properly served or not.  If the debtor doesn’t appear in court, the creditor gets a default judgment.  Once the judgment is served, the collection agency has free rein to attach the person’s wages, seize their property and so on.

Taibbi’s chapter on credit card debt told a remarkable story about JP Morgan Chase’s sale of 23,000 court judgments to collection agencies.  A debt in which a court judgment already has been made is more valuable than just an IOU.  All the owner of the judgment has to do is to find you, and then collect.

The problem was that a lot of alleged judgments that weren’t valid—the judgment had been made, but later reversed, or the decision was pending, or, in a couple of cases, the court had ruled in favor of the debtor.  It’s Chase’s duty to have responsible bank officers check the documents and sign notarized statements that all is in order, but this wasn’t done.  Chase assigned hourly employees as “robo-signers” and they were later notarized by people who hadn’t witnessed the signing.

A compliance officer named Linda Almonte fired when she called this to management’s attention.  She was ignored when she called the problem to the attention of the SEC.   The judgments were sold to a company called DebtOne and went to courts all over the USA to be executed.

Only one judge, Philip Straniere of the Richmond County (NY) Civil Court on Staten Island (a Republican, by the way) bothered to look at the papers to make sure they were in order.   He vacated the 133 judgments, not because he was aware of any of the basic problems, but simply because the paperwork was so sloppy that it was impossible to tell whether they were valid or not.

Taibbi wrote that there are three ways a credit card collection case can turn out.   (1)  The debtor doesn’t respond, and the judgment is executed.  (2)  The debt admits the debt and pays it.  (3)  The debtor challenges the debt, in which case the collection agency usually backs off.  It is rate that the collection agency has the documentation to prove its case, or that the case is worth going to court to win.

I think credit card companies should cease promiscuously distributing credit cards to everyone and his dog (credit cards have been issued to dogs) and restrict them to borrowers who are solvent and good credit risks.  But if they’re not willing to do this, they should write off minor credit card losses as a cost of doing business.

Why don’t they do that?  Because the biggest profits to credit card companies come not from interest, but from fees and penalties.  A poor credit risk may generate more profit than a good credit risk.  Even if the debt is sold in the end for a few cents on the dollar, it will have generated a lot of profit in the meantime.

It is common to speak of abuse of government power and abuse of corporate power as if they were two different kinds of things.  Not so.  Abuse of government power for monetary gain, and abuse of corporate power backed by government, are two examples of the same thing.

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The incentives to ignore due process of law

August 12, 2014

Matt Taibbi said he started researching his new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, in order to discover the solution to a mystery:

Why is it that, during the past 30 or so years in the United States, poverty went up, crime went down and the prison population doubled?

What his book reveals is that the rising number of arrests and jail sentences are responses not to crime, but to political and financial incentives.

The primary job of police in New York City (and no doubt other places) no longer is to respond to reports of crime.  Their job is to maximize arrests.  They have arrest quotas.

us-incarceration-and-crime-ratesThey go around looking for people to arrest.  Taibbi reported a woman going home from work who was charged with soliciting for prostitution because she allegedly makes eye contact with undercover police in a van.  He reported two young black men arrested on suspicion of being drug dealers because they were in an expensive car.

He told how police vans cruise poor, majority-black or majority-Hispanic neighborhoods, arresting people more or less at random.  Some turn out to have outstanding warrants.   Some turn out to have drugs [1] or weapons in their possession.  But many are innocent of anything that any reasonable person would regard as a crime.

Rather than admit a mistake and let them go, police often charge the others with loitering or obstructing traffic (which can consist of standing on a street corner) or failing to obey the lawful order of a police officer (which can consist of talking back or being too slow to obey).

They’re held overnight, and, if they can’t post bail—and many are too poor to post a small amount of bail—they’re kept in jail for trail.  Prosecutors ask for a guilty plea in return for a sentence limited to time served.  Which sounds like a good deal at that point, but then they have permanent criminal records.

Although there are quotas for making arrests, there are no penalties for false arrests, according to Taibbi.  Even if the City of New York is successfully sued for false arrest, the police officer who makes the arrest is not penalized, and may not even know about the lawsuit.

The more the rate of serious crime—killing, assault, rape, theft—goes down, the more effort New York police have to devote to finding reasons to arrest other reasons to arrest people.

The system of stop-and-frisk and mass arrests can only work because most people caught up in it waive their constitutional right to a fair trial.   If they ever stopped doing this, the system would grind to a halt, and police and prosecutors would have to focus on serious crime.

[Note 9/22/14.  This may be out of date so far as New York City is concerned.]

[Note 10/10/14.  Or maybe not.] 

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Matt Taibbi on impunity for rich criminals

August 11, 2014

I can tell you, just from forty thousand feet, that some of the most damaging behavior on Wall Street, some of the least ethical behavior on Wall Street, wasn’t illegal.  That’s exactly why we have to change the laws.
        ==President Barack Obama, in 2011

Financial crimes are not victimless crimes.   Subprime mortgage fraud affected the financial solvency of thousands of municipalities and pension funds.   Many an American is paying higher taxes or facing retirement without a pension because of criminal activity on Wall Street.

Fraud is not necessarily something that is subtle or mysterious.   When someone misrepresents the value of what they sell, when they falsify financial documents, when they pledge the same collateral to several different lenders, you don’t need a law degree to understand that this is a crime.

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi, in his new book, The Divide, has a chapter about how all these things were done by Lehman Brothers, yet nobody in Lehman has ever been prosecuted.

Why don’t we prosecute financial crime?  Part of the reason is social.  Crooked Wall Street bankers come from the same social class as judges.

It is hard for judges to imagine people who might be their friends and neighbors as criminals, or to throw them into prison with violent common criminals.  But there are other, systemic reasons as well.

One is the doctrine of “collateral consequences,” first promulagated in a memo by Eric Holder, while a low-level Justice Department in the Clinton administration.  It is the principle that when deciding whether to prosecute corporations, you should take into consideration the side effects on innocent employees and the economy as a whole.

As an example, the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson Inc. was charged criminally by the Bush administration for helping Enron falsify its books.   Immediately afterward the company collapsed, and 28,000 jobs people, most of whom had done nothing wrong, were thrown out work.  That was sad, but the blame rests not with prosecutors, but with the dishonest Anderson management.

monopoly16The solution to such cases, it seems to Taibbi and also to me, is to prosecute individuals and not the corporation.  Justice would be served, the corporation itself would continue to exist and innocent individuals would not suffer.   Anyhow if a company really is too big to prosecute without damage to the economy as a whole, that is a reason to enforce the anti-trust laws and break it up.

Attorney-General Eric Holder and other members of the Obama administration don’t do this.  They content themselves with levying billion-dollar fines, which seem large to people like me and probably you, but are really small in relation to the overall size of the companies.  Prison is the real deterrent, and nobody in the “criminal rich class” (Theodore Roosevelt’s words) goes to prison anymore.

Another deterrent to prosecution, Taibbi says, is the fact that the largest companies have the best legal talent, and it is possible to have a good case and still lose by making some minor mistake.  The Obama administration is highly risk-averse and concentrates on cases they are sure they can win, which cases against smaller companies.  This is an explicit policy.  Taibbi quotes a Justice Department memo to this effect.

The problem is not only that rich criminals go free.  It is that honest bankers and financiers are penalized.  In a well-ordered capitalist system, the purpose of banking and finance is to turn savings into capital, to be invested in ways that contribute to the wealth and well-being of individuals and society as a whole.

Instead of rescuing banks and investment firms from the follies and crimes of their managers, the  government should indict criminals for their crimes, liquidate failed companies instead of bailing them out, and sell their assets at bargain rates to firms with honest and competent management.

§§§

But, as Taibbi wrote, the problem is not just leniency for high-level crime.  It is the contrast between the administration of justice to people at the top of society and those at the bottom.   This will be the subject of my next post.

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Above the law and below it in the USA

August 11, 2014

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
==The Magna Carta

The basic principle of a free society is the rule of law.  That is the principle that laws are the same for everybody.   Nobody, however rich or powerful, is above obedience to the law.  Nobody, however poor or humble is below protection of the law.

The.Divide.Matt.TaibbiI recently finished reading a new book, THE DIVIDE: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi which shows how far the United States has gotten from that ideal.  There is a class of powerful rich people who can commit financial crimes with impunity, and there are classes of people—poor young black men in big cities, unauthorized immigrants, welfare recipients—for whom due process of law does not exist.

Taibbi is a smart and fearless investigator, a brilliant and readable writer and, above all, a great explainer.   His specialty has been reporting on finance for Rolling Stone magazine.  In this book he combines accounts of high-level crime and low-level injustice, and the combination will make any normal person’s blood boil.

In New York City, under the stop-and-frisk policy, police stop young black men and ask them to turn out their pockets, ostensibly in search of illegal handguns [1].  It is legal to have a small amount of marijuana in your pocket provided you aren’t trying to sell it.  But the minute you take it out of your pocket, you are in violation.  Thousands of harmless people are charged in this way every year.

Taibbi told the story of a hardworking, law-abiding black man who was arrested for “obstructing pedestrian traffic” by standing in the doorway of his own apartment building at 1 o’clock in the morning when nobody else was on the street.

It wasn’t the first time this particular person was arrested for virtually nothing.  He in fact had a hard time figuring out what to do in order not to be arrested.  But in this case, he decided to fight the case.  What’s striking is how nobody involved in the process—prosecutor, public defender, judge—could get their minds around the idea that somebody would plead “not guilty” simply because they were, in fact, not guilty.

They were all annoyed with the defendant, not with the police officer who’d made a false charge.

The attitude of judges was exactly the opposite in the case of real criminals—a cabal of financial speculators who conspired to destroy a company, by means not only of spreading false information, but harassing the company officers and clients on the telephone and even, in one case, actually committing burglary, in order to make money by short sales of the company’s stock (essentially a bet the company’s stock price would fall.)

But when the victims brought a lawsuit, the judge dismissed the case, on the grounds that it was brought in New Jersey and not in New York.

Taibbi told the story of a law-abiding young musician who stopped on the street to roll some tobacco into a cigarette, and was, without warning, assaulted by strangers in leather jackets.  He thought he was being mugged until he was handcuffed and thrown in jail with a lot of desperate characters.

He found he had been charged with a drug offense, later reduced to a tampering-with-evidence offense.  Presumably the police thought he was smoking marijuana, and were doubly suspicious because he was white in a predominantly-black neighbor.   These may have been reasonable grounds for suspicion, but the point is that they didn’t bother to stop and see if their suspicions had any basis.

In contrast, HSBC, the large international bank, ran a money-laundering operation for the Mexican drug cartels.  The bank even had special windows in some of their branches for processing of large amounts of cash.   They served the interest of some of the world’s most brutal and murderous criminals, known for dismembering victims with chain saws.   But HSBC was let off with a fine, which was less than the profit earned from criminal activities.  Unlike with the musician, nobody spent any time in jail.

 Taibbi’s book is full of stories like this, true stories that make my blood boil, stories about a justice system that is harsh and merciless to harmless poor poor people, while granting every consideration to what Theodore Roosevelt called “the criminal rich class.”

Click on TruthOut to read an excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s The Divide.

Click on Democracy Now for an interview with Matt Taibbi.

[1]  This is an aspect of gun control that liberals should think about.

Matt Taibbi’s The Divide is the newest addition to my Books I Recommend page, which is a short list of readable books that provide a good understanding of current issues.

[Added 8/28/14]

Here are some of my other posts on Matt Taibbi’s The Divide

Matt Taibbi on impunity for rich criminals

The incentives to ignore due process of law

A predatory business model based on lawbreaking

Who goes to jail? America’s injustice gap

April 17, 2014

In an interview with Democracy Now, Matt Taibbi talked about the contrast between the refusal of the federal government to investigate and prosecute corporate crime with the increasingly arbitrary and brutal treatment of ordinary citizens by police and prosecutors.   This is the topic of his new book, The Divide.

How can it be, he asked, that somebody can go to prison for having half a marijuana cigarette in his pocket, yet no executive of HSBC has been indicted for laundering billions of dollars for the Mexican and Colombian drug cartels?

Or that a black man can be charged with obstructing pedestrian traffic, just for standing in front of his home at 1 a.m. when nobody is on the street, yet the federal government lets Wall Street bankers off the hook for the financial fraud that led to the 2008 market crash?

Good questions, and I think we all know the answers.

For a transcript of the interview, click on the following link.

http://www.democracynow.org/2014/4/15/who_goes_to_jail_matt_taibbi

For more about Taibbi’s book, click on the following links:

http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2014/4/14/read_matt_taibbi_on_the_divide?

http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/the_divide_20140418  [added 4/19/14]

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/books/review/the-divide-by-matt-taibbi.html?_r=0

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-divide-american-injustice-in-the-age-of-the-wealth-gap-by-matt-taibbi/2014/04/11/66a1e7c8-b291-11e3-8cb6-284052554d74_story.html

[Added 8/28/14]

Here are some of my later posts of Matt Taibbi’s The Divide

Above the law and below it in the USA

Matt Taibbi on impunity for rich criminals

The incentives to ignore due process of law

A predatory business model based on lawbreaking

The looting of public pension funds

September 27, 2013

Private pensions are becoming a thing of the past.  Very few young Americans enjoy a secure retirement as I do, based on Social Security, a company pension and personal savings.  Now public employee pensions are going the same way as private pensions.  Matt Taibbi has an excellent report on this in Rolling Stone.

He wrote that the downfall of public employee pensions came in six steps.

  1. State and local governments offered generous pensions, sometimes in lieu of pay increases.
  2. Many of them failed to make their Annual Required Contributions to the funds which, as Taibbi noted, is financial fraud if unreported, because it means that governments are less solvent than buyers of state and local government bonds are led to believe.
  3. Many of them solved short-term financial problems by borrowing from their pension funds.
  4. All this came crashing down in the financial crash of 2008.
  5. Wall Street hucksters promised state and local governments that they could get higher returns by putting the pension funds into high-risk investments.  Huge fees were paid to fund managers, but the high returns haven’t materialized.
  6. The proposed solution is to give firefighters, police officers and school teachers less than they were contractually promised.

protest-Public pension fund would be in better shape if they had simply invested in U.S. Treasury bonds or on low-fee stock index funds.  Instead pension funds were turned over to managers to charge exorbitant fees for speculative investments that in the long run underperformed the market.

Now, Taibbi wrote, public employees are being made to suffer for mismanagement by the trustees of their retirement funds.  Maybe it will have to come to that, he wrote, that should be a last resort, not a first resort.  Before that, local government should end corporate subsidies and try to claw back the excessive fees.

In 1976, Peter F. Drucker, then considered a top business thinker, wrote a book entitled How The Unseen Revolution: Pension Fund Socialism Came to America.  He said that workers in the United States in effect owned the means of production because of the stocks and bonds owned by their pension funds.

The title was an exaggeration.  Pension funds only owned about 16 percent of publicly traded stocks and bonds, measured by market value.  But Drucker thought that pension funds would become more and more important, and the interests of workers would become more and more aligned with investors and holders of financial assets.

That didn’t happen, because the workers did not in fact control the pension funds.  It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if they had leveraged their financial power to influence corporate policy.   It is interesting to speculate on what would happen if they did so now.

Click on Looting the Pension Funds: How Wall Street Robs Public Workers for Taibbi’s full article.  I didn’t do justice to it, and it is worth reading in its entirety.  Taibbi is a first-rate investigator and clear and eloquent writer.

Click on Who Rules America: Pension Fund Capitalism for a debunking of the Drucker thesis (which I admit I took seriously at the time) by G. William Domhoff.

The face of the Republican Party

November 9, 2012

Matt Taibbi wrote a great article for his Rolling Stone web log this week, picking apart a post-election broadcast by Rush Limbaugh line by line, and concluding that it is the attitude of people such as Limbaugh, rather than the actual Republican policies, that prevents the Republicans from enlarging their base of support among Hispanics, women and young people.

limbaughrush

The fact that so many Republicans this week think that all Hispanics care about is amnesty, all women want is abortions (and lots of them) and all teenagers want is to sit on their couches and smoke tons of weed legally, that tells you everything you need to know about the hopeless, anachronistic cluelessness of the modern Republican Party.  A lot of these people, believe it or not, would respond positively, or at least with genuine curiosity, to the traditional conservative message of self-reliance and fiscal responsibility.

But modern Republicans will never be able to spread that message effectively, because they have so much of their own collective identity wrapped up in the belief that they’re surrounded by free-loading, job-averse parasites who not only want to smoke weed and have recreational abortions all day long, but want hardworking white Christians like them to pay the tab. 

Their whole belief system, which is really an endless effort at congratulating themselves for how hard they work compared to everyone else (by the way, the average “illegal,” as Rush calls them, does more real work in 24 hours than people like Rush and me do in a year), is inherently insulting to everyone outside the tent – and you can’t win votes when you’re calling people lazy, stoned moochers.

It’s hard to say whether it’s good or bad that the Rushes of the world are too clueless to realize that it’s their attitude, not their policies, that is screwing them most with minority voters.  If they were self-aware at all, Mitt Romney would probably be president right now.  So I guess we should be grateful that the light doesn’t look like it will ever go on. But wow, is their angst tough to listen to.

Click on Hey, Rush Limbaugh: ‘Starting an Abortion Industry’ Won’t Win You Female Voters for Matt Taibbi’s full essay.

The problem for the Republican leadership is that although Limbaugh is perceived as a spokesman for the Republican Party, the Republican leadership has no control over him.  The influence runs the other way.  Republican politicians don’t dare defy Limbaugh, even when they know he is harming their party.

It’s not just Limbaugh.  It’s the Fox News team, Glenn Beck and all of Limbaugh’s imitators on talk radio.  Or recall how Mitt Romney went to the NAACP convention and boasted about how he lectured the delegates on the superiority of hard work to food stamps.   NAACP delegates, as anyone familiar with that organization would know, are respectable, middle=class, achievement-oriented African Americans who need no lectures on the value of work from the likes of Mitt Romney.  He didn’t even try to win their support.  Rather he used the occasion to boast about how he doesn’t cater to black people.

So black people didn’t vote for him.  Big surprise.  Romney told a group of fund-raisers that he was handicapped because he wasn’t born Hispanic instead of a rich white guy.  So Hispanics didn’t vote for him.  Big surprise.  I’m not accusing either Limbaugh or Romney of being racist.  I’m accusing them of either not being intelligent enough to know the consequences of insulting large number of potential voters, or not being intelligent enough to know when they are being insulting.

Click on The GOP Must Choose: Rush Limbaugh or Minority Voters for Conor Friedersdorf’s thoughts in The Atlantic Monthly.

Inside the minds of the global financial elite

October 22, 2012

During the first year of the U.S. economic recovery, 93 percent of the gains from growth went to the top 1 percent of income earners, and 37 percent went to the top 1/100th of 1 percent.

Bill Moyers did a good show a few nights ago about the mentality of this elite of wealth—how they regard themselves as Ayn Rand characters who are carrying the rest of the world on their shoulders, their limitless sense of entitlement to their special privileges, and their isolation from ordinary people and their conerns.

Moyers interviewed Chrystria Freeland, editor of Thomson Reuters Digital and author of a new book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Superrich and the Fall of Everyone Else, and Matt Taibbi, who reports on high finance and politics for Rolling Stone.

As Freeland and Taibbi noted, the wealthy elite do not think of themselves as plutocrats.  They sincerely think that they are absolutely entitled to their wealth and privileges.  As a group, they are smart and hard working, and have risen largely through their own efforts.  As a result, they think they owe nothing to anyone else.  They think that they created the world’s wealth by themselves solely through their own efforts, and that they are carrying the rest of the population, especially the American middle class, are parasites.

Both Freeland and Taibbi got their start in journalism reporting on Russia in the 1990s.  They saw the rise of an oligarchy of wealth, which got control of resources based on their connections in government, and who lived lives of luxury behind guarded walls, cut off from the struggling majority of the population.  Now they see the same thing happening on a global basis.

Income inequality is rising everywhere, not just in the United States, but in France, Canada and other countries.  The elite of each country feel they have little in common with ordinary people in their own countries, but much with the rest of the global elite.

Freeland talked about “cognitive capture”—how politicians and intellectuals have come to accept that the plutocracy deserve their privileges, and how even poor people in the United States (not necessarily in other countries) believe they deserve to be poor.

On the other hand, Taibbi and Freeland said, there is class conflict within the upper 1 percent of income earners.   Millionaires resent the way government gives preferential treatment to billionaires.  Silicon Valley entrepreneurs resent Wall Street bankers.

My response to all this:

  • The fact that someone is highly intelligent and works very hard does not mean that person deserves to be rich.  I know smart, hard-working people who are barely making it.  You deserve to be richly rewarded if you make a contribution to society of great value.  Some members of the global elite do make a positive contribution.  Others do not.   Some are no better than thieves.
  • Many members of the global elite have determined that a prosperous middle class and a well-paid working class are not needed.  They can get along very well without  us.   But that is not the issue.  The issue is whether working people and middle-class people need the global elite.
  • The global elite think of themselves as “job creators.”  Another way of putting it is that they are gatekeepers who determine access to gainful employment.  There is a lot of work that needs to be done—in the United States, repair of aging water and sewerage systems, for example—that does not necessarily enrich the elite.   They shouldn’t have a veto over whether it is done.
  • It is a misnomer to label the plutocracy as “libertarian.”  They are libertarians or statists depending on what is to their interest at the time.  What is constant is their sense of entitlement.
  • I think the complaints of the millionaires against the billionaires, and the Silicon Valley elite against the Wall Street elite, probably have some merit.  There are many bankers who have operated on sound banking principles, and been overshadowed by bankers who’ve grown by gambling recklessly and then being bailed out by the government from their losses.

Click on The Rise of the New Global Elite for an article by Chrystia Freeland in The Atlantic.

Click on Plutocracy Rising Transcript for a written transcript of the show.

Click on Chrystia Freeland | Analysis & Opinion | Reuters for her blog.

Click on Matt Taibbi | Taibblog | Rolling Stone for his blog.

Click on Moyers & Company for Bill Moyers’ home page.