The Father of the Squid

He is also good at outrage–loud, across-the-board, one-hand-on-chest-the-other-clenched, great gasping gall. “Arms flailing,” the second sentence of Griftopia goes, “I manage to scribble,” which is about taking notes during Sarah Palin’s classic convention speech, but it has wider reverberations, too. “I dropped my fork,” he writes later, after hearing from a source at a restaurant about the potential sale of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to foreign investors. He is a fork dropper.

The Goldman blockbuster, with its majestic and lurid vampire-squid opening, was one of his first Wall Street articles. “I don’t know, I was trying to come up with an image,” he said about its huge metaphor. “It was originally just a throwaway line, and they put it up at the top.”

“From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression–and they’re about to do it again,” the article, called “The Great American Bubble Machine,” said in its subhead. “I mean,” Mr. Taibbi said later, grinning, during an interview with WNYC, “there was a little bit of hyperbole that went into the headline-making there.”

Other writers mocked Mr. Taibbi, widely, for suggesting that a single firm could be held responsible for so much over such a long period of time, from Depression-era Ponzi scheming to the tech and housing and oil booms, to the bailouts, to the cap-and-trade plan. “Read the piece more carefully and see if Matt’s saying that there’s a massive conspiracy,” Mr. Dana offered, ruminating on the headlines. “Perhaps we should have said ‘had a hand in,’ or ‘was involved in.'”

The article did two things. First, a year before the S.E.C.’s lawsuit, it popularized the idea that Goldman Sachs was a gargantuan, cackling, antisocial villain, typifying a system built on making money from guile and influence, not merit. Mr. Taibbi describes this in his book as an invisible hive of high-class financial burglars and castrato henchmen pillaging the masses.

Second, it unleashed waves of fury about its author. “I’m not saying that Matt Taibbi is an impotent little bitch, but …” said Dealbreaker. The Atlantic‘s Megan McArdle called him “the Sarah Palin of journalism.”

Although his other Rolling Stone pieces examine Goldman’s rivals–like an infuriating piece about JPMorgan nearly cremating Birmingham, Ala., thanks to brilliantly fraudulent bond swaps and a huge new sewer system, a plot straight out of an early Randy Newman song–the new book doesn’t. The only other big villain is Mr. Greenspan, about whom Mr. Taibbi writes that “it sounds facile to pin this all on one guy.” Even Morgan Stanley, which, he writes parenthetically, pushed up commodity prices with Goldman, makes only a cameo.

“Literarily, in order to sell people on a lot of the subject matter, it just works better when you make a villain, like a James Bond-style villain, out of Goldman Sachs, and you almost use fiction-writing technique to sell the story,” he said. “But it’s all factual.”

 

“I’VE JUST CALMED down a lot,” Mr. Taibbi said after the diner. What he called the Vanity Fair incident, even if it’s already a while ago, was “an aberration from how I’ve behaved in the last six or seven years.”

Unlike three of his other books, Griftopia does not refer to “near nervous breakdowns,” “nervous collapses” or a “howling-on-the-bathroom-floor ten-alarm” break.

“I think he’s in a different place in his life,” Mr. Dana said. “Writing about credit default swaps probably doesn’t lend itself to wearing Viking suits and taking acid. I don’t know if Matt’s there in his life, anyway. There’s only so far you can take that stuff.” 

Speaking of which, Mr. Taibbi said he has one more Rolling Stone finance piece coming before he takes a recess. “Then I’m going to be doing some different things. I’ll come back to it,” he said. “Sometimes the best gift you can give to your readers is your absence, and I think I’ve kind of hit this as hard as I can possibly hit this, for a while.”

mabelson@observer.com

READ AN EXCERPT OF MATT TAIBBI’S LATEST BOOK GRIFTOPIA HERE