I've spend a bunch of time on this blog trying to understand who played what roles in both the run up to, and the meltdown of the recent financial bubble. But I've not, until now covered Matt Taibbi's exposés, or "screeds" as some call them. [Note: I got 179,000 Google hits on "Matt Taibbi"+screed] Taibbi's, The Great American Bubble Machine, Rolling Stone (07/09/2009), libeled Goldman Sachs as a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."
Ultimately in the court of public opinion, if not in the legal system, we have to come to grips with who among Wall Street players might have been playing the role of bloodmoney-sucking vampires, aided and/or least cheer-led by politicians, regulators, rating agencies, and the media.
However, since it proves too easy to charge others with crimes (or even moral turpitude), we need to introduce a notion that Gillian Tett talked about in Fool's Gold: that many were blind to realities that others readily saw. Some were blinded by their own institutions and subcultures. Some were simply blinded by greed and venality. All were (some still are) among those dwelling in modern-day versions of Plato's Cave (Wikipedia). To these we have to give a pass — I suppose — although we (and they) have lessons to learn about why we need whistleblowers, and why we all need to take responsibility to speak up when we think things seem not right.
In a recent update to his story, Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?, Rolling Stone (3/3/2011), Taibbi leaves little doubt that a whole bunch of Wall Street players ought to be in jail for their roles in the meltdown of 2007-2009. See also Taibbi's recent interview with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now.
I don't disagree that many ought to be in jail. But "ought to" is easier than "will be." Too many laws (financial regulation, usury, etc.) were relaxed over the last decade or two, and too many people played too many games on both sides of the political aisle as well as on both sides of the regulatory game to make it easy to sort out bad-enough deeds — vampire deeds — to land very many people in jail.
No matter which court (public opinion or legal) we work with, how are we to decide whether folks were knowingly committing fraud? As noted earlier, the media and politicians too were seldom found on the peoples' side of the issue. Regulators and ratings agencies were either hoodwinked or captured. Those few who dared speak up lost their heads, figuratively speaking. Maybe instead we ought to handsomely reward whistleblowers.
Finally, how are we to determine deeds deemed bad enough to constitute fraud, when we know that both organizations and culture trap people into ideological and methodological traps from which few can escape. People become chained as prisoners, and blinded by circumstance in Plato's Cave, as Gillian Tett notes in the epilogue to Fool's Gold (2009):
[T]he financial world's lack of interest in wider social matters cuts to the very heart of what has gone wrong. What social anthropology teaches its adherents is that nothing in society ever exists in a vacuum or in isolation. Holistic analysis that tries to link different parts of a social structure is crucial, be that in respect to wedding rituals or trading floors. Anthropology also instills a sense of skepticism about official rhetoric. In most societies, elites try to maintain their power not simply by garnering wealth, but also by dominating the mainstream ideologies, in terms of both what is said and what is not discussed. Social "silences" serve to maintain power structures, in ways that participants often barely understand themselves let alone plan.
… In recent years, regulators, bankers, politicians, investors, and journalists have all failed to employ truly holistic thought—to our collective cost. Bankers have treated their mathematical models as if they were an infallible guide to the future, failing to see that they were based on a ridiculously limited set of data. A "silo" mentality has come to rule inside banks, leaving different departments competing for resources, with shockingly little wider vision or oversight. The regulators who were supposed to oversee the banks have mirrored that silo pattern, too, in their own fragmented practices. Most pernicious of all, financiers have come to regard banking as a silo in its own right, detached from the rest of society. They have become like the inhabitants of Plato's cave, who could see shadows of outside reality flickering on the walls but rarely encountered that reality themselves. The chain that linked a synthetic CDO [Collatorized Debt Obligation] of ABS [Asset Backed Securities], say, with a "real" person was so convoluted, it was almost impossible for anybody to fit it into a single cognitive map—be they anthropologist, economist, or credit whiz.
Yet the only thing that is more remarkable than this deadly state of affairs was that it went so unnoticed, for so long. [pp.252-3]
Let's leave final words to John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash 1929:
One of the oldest puzzles in politics is who is to regulate the regulators. But an equally baffling problem, which has never received the attention it deserves is who is to make wise those who are required to have wisdom.
Some of those in positions of authority wanted the boom to continue. They were making money out of it, and they may have had an intimation of the personal disaster which awaited them when the boom came to an end. But there were also some who saw, however dimly, that a wild speculation was in progress and that something should be done. For these people, however, every proposal to act raised the same intractable problem. The consequences of successful action seemed almost as terrible as the consequences of inaction, and they could be more horrible for those who took the action.
[Endnote: By their own admission, neither Taibbi nor Tett got their stories perfectly right. But they came close enough. Their main storylines hold true. And if they don't I suspect I'll hear about it soon.]