I recently read Griftopia by Matt Taibbi. He’s the Rolling Stone blogger who came to national attention with his 2010 Vampire Squid characterization of Goldman Sachs. To wit:

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

He’s abrasive, brash, and more than a little rude. On the other hand, he’s got the nerve to call fraud “fraud,” theft “theft,” and so on. He insists on referring to multi-billion dollar crimes and criminals by the same names that we might call them if our ordinary neighbors committed the same crimes for thousands of dollars instead of “thousands of thousands of thousands.” While I could do with a teensy decrease in the number of times he calls people “douchebags,” I have to admit that he has a point and is successfully communicating something that continues to elude the broader public consciousness.

The Buddhist in me smiles at the fact that crime is crime – just like chewing, eating, and excreting is the same whether you dine for $2 or $200 per person. The citizen in me wants these criminals put in the same prisons, perhaps even for the same terms, as the small time petty fraudster.

Taibbi has each of several major aspects of the current financial disaster condensed to a tight little chapter. He covers the mortgage bubble, the commodities bubble, the great health insurance giveaway, and other topics with a brisk efficiency. He also lays a finger on one of the key mistakes made by the Tea Party. They imagine that the experience of interacting with government is the same, no matter your scale. For ordinary people and small businesses, government is an invasive and sometimes oppressive force. The machinations of the tax man and the regulator do seem needlessly complex and burdensome. However, all that changes when you have a few hundred million to spend on lobbying. When you can pay to have government rewrite the laws in your favor, and can also pay for marketing campaigns to support those changes, things are very different.

More to the point: This is serious and complicated stuff. I make a living working with very complex systems, and I found myself keeping a cheat sheet even on Taibbi’s highly simplified popular press version of events. Most of the public dialogue about these matters is bought and paid for by special interests. I find it hard to imagine that well have a sensible and well informed electorate next November.

I think that all smart people have an obligation to dig in and try to understand at least the basics, and then to try to help your neighbors understand as best they can. Taibbi’s book is a great place to start.

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