Even though Bwog loves hopping around so very much, we were curious to see what a lecture about another type of movement—”rolling”—entailed. So a few nights ago, Zoe Camp hopped/rolled over to the J School and attended “A Rolling Stone Conversation” to see what all the fuss was about.
The name of Tuesday’s event at the journalism school was “A Rolling Stone Conversation,” but it was really more of a Q & A. The guests? Executive Editor of Rolling Stone, Eric Bates (CC ’84) and noted political reporter Matt Taibbi. After some brief introductions, Bates and Taibbi turned things over to the audience—a moderately-sized crowd of thiry-somethings comprised of mostly grad students and members of the public. The speakers had no qualms about making their liberal politics known—“I know you want to hear how Matt infuses his work with such a stance of objectivity,” Bates jokingly started off, to chuckles from the audience. Indeed, much of the focus of the questions—and the conversation in general–was on the corruption responsible for the 2008 economic meltdown and the rampant greed that Taibbi considered the root cause of much of our nation’s woes.
The spotlight was on Taibbi–a recent guest on Bill Maher, author of the best-selling Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America, and the investigative mastermind behind pieces on everything from “the crying shame that is John Boehner” to the crooked underbelly of investment firms. He spent a large chunk of time explaining the slow, painful process of writing about such tangled, confusing issues like the economic meltdown. Between sifting through a sea of financial jargon and spending months essentially cracking the code to a world of which most Americans have only a superficial knowledge, Taibbi had to go through great lengths on pieces like 2009’s “AIG and the Big Takeover.”
“I was terrified when the piece [AIG, Goldman] came out,” Taibbi added, acknowledging the immense task of reporting on the byzantine world of CDOs and sub-prime mortgages. “It wasn’t so much about getting a fact wrong, or misusing a name, it was that I had gotten something conceptually wrong. For the first four or five days, I was scared a smart person would tell me I had gotten it wrong.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
But as many would argue, and as public opinion would indicate, Taibbi and other investigative journalists didn’t get it wrong. Thus, when an audience member asked somewhat sheepishly, “Is greed a crime on Wall Street?” laughter rippled through the seats. Taibbi responded by calling what went on in the financial crisis “a criminal fraud scheme” that had most of the banks “trading toxic mortgages, sometimes while betting against them at the same time.” He also touched upon the sale of federal infrastructure by banks to foreign investors, and the duplicity involved with such sales.
“They think Morgan Stanley is buying parking meters or garages, but in fact, usually the banks look for 48-49 percent foreign investors,” Taibbi said, noting his skepticism about local governments’ apparent willingness to put infrastructure in the hands of these banks and foreign investors. “This isn’t the way to go about raising revenue,” he insisted.
And as for the often-blamed government housing initiatives, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Taibbi maintained that what caused the crisis was the invention of derivative instruments like CDOs that “allowed banks to make crappy loans, chop them up and resell them.” He went on to say that the crisis was rooted in greed –and that it would have happened even if such programs hadn’t existed. One of the night’s highlights soon followed – a simplified but nonetheless charming metaphor for the cycle of greed that snowballed into the meltdown. “What do you do once you figure out you can sell oregano and pass it off as weed?” Taibbi chuckled. “You buy more oregano.”
Even though much of the night’s conversation focused on these still-healing national wounds, the tone of the discussion was lighthearted and pleasant. There was no booing, no hissing – even when Taibbi reprised his infamous epithet of Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Eric Bates occasionally stepped in to note the all-time high of Rolling Stone’s circulation despite trying times for newspapers, and looked happy to let Taibbi run with much of the discussion. All in all, it was a fun event—provided, of course, that you shared the speakers’ views and didn’t have a problem with banks being compared to vampire squids selling off oregano as weed.