The Rolling Stone contributing editor discusses his new book about the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street in Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America.
With Griftopia, you seem to position yourself as an unwilling expert on finance and Wall Street.
The irony is sometimes so overwhelming to me personally that I laugh out loud at it, because two years ago I literally couldn't balance my own checkbook.
You take both Republicans and Democrats to task for the mortgage debacle?
Yeah, absolutely. The two parties had similar, but not exactly the same, roles in all of this. Some of the Republican criticisms about the Democrats currying favor with voters by using government largesse to extend credit to people who maybe didnt deserve it – there's a little something there. But on the Republican side, I think there was obviously an enormous effort to take a lot of money from Wall Street and keep the system deregulated. And that led to a lot of abuses. So they both had a share in what's going on, for sure.
It's pretty harrowing stuff. Which country should we move to?
(Laughs) I think about that myself. It is very depressing. As I was writing the book, my editors and I constantly came up against the problem that no matter how well I wrote it, it was going to be really depressing. And how do we make it funny? In my previous books, there was a lot of comedy, or at least some comic elements. There's just really not a whole lot to work with in this one (laughs). It's pretty bleak.
Did you consider offering solutions? Is that even the investigative reporters role?
Well, we thought about that. We even thought about adding a section at the end where I might discuss what some of the options are. And I tried, but I felt a lot less sharp trying to predict the optimistic future, than when I was just describing the depressing reality. Ive talked to a lot of people who have very good, concrete ideas for how to rein in some of these things, like Ted Kaufman (D-DE), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and some of the sources in my book in the commodities world. The main idea of the book is that things have evolved in a direction that is incredibly complex and just demands small, specific answers, rather than these big, overarching solutions. For instance, in the commodities world, one way to fix things is just to eliminate some of the exemptions that companies have gotten that allow them to speculate while posing as physical hedgers or consumers of commodities. If you get rid of these exemptions, that'll eliminate some of the speculative money and the price swings. It's just little stuff like that, not one big solution.
It does seem that with lobbying money in Washington, it's much tougher for politicians to act in good faith.
Yes, especially since that, even if you do get a law passed, they write specific rules in-house in the various organizations, like the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, after conferring with industry experts – all out of view of the voters and elected officials. So that entire rulemaking process is really something that is very hard for people to have an influence over, and so it evolves in a predictable direction.
In the book, you say when people find out you work for Rolling Stone, they run in the other direction. What do feel is your role as an investigative reporter, now that we seem to have two versions of news, Fox and MSNBC?
We have that problem where it's kind of devolved into this team-building exercise, where you're either waving the flag on one side or you're waving the flag on the other. What happens over time is you always root for the same team and you're always supporting one party or the other and never looking at their drawbacks. Then over time you lose credibility, even with those who are supportive of your point-of-view. So I think you have to go out of your way now and then to cross over and criticize people on your own team a little bit. Or even more than a little bit, as needed, in order to keep people coming back.
So when you're done with investigative reporting will you pull an Upton Sinclair and run for office?
(Laughs) There's so much in my past that would make me completely unelectable.