MONEY

Who caused the financial crisis — villains or jerks?

Bloggers are buzzing over what one writer has called “Taibbi’s Scream” — that is, Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi’s muckraking takedown of Goldman Sachs in the latest issue of that magazine.

Well, “muckraking” isn’t perhaps the best word for it, for Taibbi doesn’t so much rake the muck as fling it. The article starts off, after all, by describing the investment bank as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” In the rest of the article, which is full of such invective, Taibbi argues that Goldman Sachs was at the center of — and a prime beneficiary of — every financial bubble in America from the market crash of 1929, to our millennial Internet madness, through the housing market collapse and the subsequent bailout. Heck, he even blames the firm for a bubble that doesn’t yet exist: what he foresees as the cap-and-trade boom and bust.

Goldman’s devious formula “is relatively simple,” writes Taibbi. “Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again.”

Goldman, naturally, has denounced Taibbi’s article as “hysterical,” a “compilation of just about every conspiracy theory ever dreamed up about Goldman Sachs.” Unfortunately, that’s not too far from the truth. It’s not that Taibbi’s article is a collection of lies; it’s, that, like most conspiracy theorists, Taibbi dramatically exaggerates Goldman’s role in all the bubbles, and, perhaps more importantly, exaggerates the firms supposed omniscience. Like most Wall Street firms, Goldman has done plenty of sleazy stuff over the years, but Goldmanites aren’t the diabolical masterminds Taibbi thinks they are, creating and deflating bubbles at will and cackling with glee as they rip off the rest of us.

You can find excerpts of Taibbi’s screed on RollingStone.com, but if you’re really interested you should probably read the whole thing in the magazine. (Look for the Jonas Brothers on the cover.)

If, however, you’re looking for a more sophisticated — and ultimately much more enlightening — look at the financial skullduggery behind our current crisis, you’d do far better to turn to Michael Lewis’s take on the AIG collapse in the latest Vanity Fair. (You can find the whole thing here.)

“Nearly a year after perhaps the most sensational corporate collapse in the history of finance, a collapse that, without the intervention of the government, would have led to the bankruptcy of every major American financial institution, plus a lot of foreign ones, too, A.I.G.’s losses and the trades that led to them still haven’t been properly explained,” Lewis notes. His article is an attempt to explain just what happened. A onetime bond trader salesman who’s been a perceptive writer on the money culture for decades, Lewis talked to those who’d been there at ground zero, at AIG’s Financial Products division.

The story that he tells is a complicated one, impossible to easily summarize; even the villain at the center of it all, former AIG FP head Joe Cassano, turns out to be more of an egotistical jerk than a diabolical mastermind — as trapped as anyone else in the bubble he helped create. Though Taibbi may find it hard to believe, that’s how it usually is.

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