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Matt Taibbi
Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Spiegel & Grau / Random House
USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-52995-2
Publication Date: 11-02-2010
256 pages, $26.99
Date Reviewed: 11-13-2010

Index:  Non-Fiction

It's a big canvas; the entire world, over the last forty years. The scope of what has unfolded is so large as to be difficult to comprehend. What has transpired is so complex it takes a while to realize that Matt Taibbi is not just talking about politics, or business or even economics. 'Griftopia' is a book of true crime on a global scale.

Compared to the figures we meet in 'Griftopia,' the villains in a James Bond movie seem like unambitious pikers. The men and women who haunt this book are not constrained by compassion or morals or laws. They frequently have the laws re-written to suit their needs. Their take is so large that they have literally shifted the global balance of power. And their crime spree is not over yet.

In 'Griftopia,' Matt Taibbi sets himself a difficult goal. He can't just identify the criminals and say, "There they are." The problem is that the criminals have redefined the crime. Taibbi is not confronted just with who done it and how; he also has to explain just what happened. Fortunately, he is more than up to the task. 'Griftopia' is gripping, funny, terrifying and exciting. And even though the temptation is to say that it is also utterly depressing, that's really not the case. Taibbi writes with enough verve to leave readers feeling energized. Clarity is refreshing.

We start in familiar territory; Taibbi on the campaign trail in 2008, marveling at the manipulative powers of Sarah Palin. But something else is going on; quietly, in the background, banks are failing. Big banks. Oil prices are skyrocketing, and Taibbi realizes he has no clue as to why this is happening. Even though he's not a financial reporter, he decides to find out. What follows is a frightening portrait of Alan Greenspan, the avatar of regulatory capture. This phrase was coined to describe what happens when those within an industry manage to put themselves or one of their own in charge of regulating that industry. It's a way or working around the law. It's the beginning of the end.

Taibbi goes on to examine what he calls "the bubble machine," the ability to generate bubble economies that siphon vast amounts of money out of the hands of the many and into the hands of the few, then the fewer. He looks at the "internet bubble" and the housing bubble, and all the outright crime that festered in an atmosphere of what looked like money for nothing. Of course, the money went in one direction and the nothing hung around. He explores and makes chillingly clear the complex relationship between credit default swaps, derivatives and so-called "tranches" of secured mortgages that were chopped up and sold as AAA bonds. He comes close to making your head spin with anger, by drawing parallels between the lowest levels of crime and the stratospheric regions where entire economies simply disappeared into the accounts and holdings of a few wealthy criminals.

What makes 'Griftopia' a great read is Taibbi's prose and approach. He's funny and profane, and makes you laugh out loud about once per page. He keeps things simple, even when what is explaining is not simple. He gives us big characters, like Alan Greenspan Win Neuger and Joe Cassano. Readers will find themselves sucked into plot arcs of mind-boggling crime, in which the criminals essentially hire politicians from both parties to re-write the laws so that what was once illegal becomes not only legal, not only unregulated, but shockingly, illegal to regulate. In this book, crime pays.

'Griftopia' stems from the highly-rewritten final chapter, which ran in the Rolling Stone — a portrait of Goldman Sachs as a "vampire squid attached to the face of humanity." But it goes well and terrifyingly beyond that, with a look at Sovereign Wealth Funds, by means of which foreign powers now have a hand in when you're allowed to park on the streets of this country. He de-mystifies the commodities market and explains why oil shot through the roof. In a difficult-for-Democrats-to-read chapter, he looks at the health care bill. It's by no means socialism. It's the exact opposite, which makes one pause to wonder what would happen should those who call it socialism get their hands on it.

In the hands of a different sort of writer, 'Griftopia' might have been unreadably depressing and complicated, but Taibbi knows how to take apart the machine and show readers how the parts go together. He writes with clarity and flair. He's unflinching even when readers might wish otherwise. You might find this book filed under, Business, or Politics, or Economics; or even, perhaps True Crime. But 'Griftopia' actually should be filed as non-fiction horror. It's essential reading. The first step to conquering fear is to understand what needs must be feared.

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