Taibbi: the Tea Party Moron Complex
The following is an excerpt from Matt Taibbi's new book, "Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America." published by Random House, 2010.
If American politics made any sense at all, we wouldn’t have two giant political parties of roughly equal size perpetually fighting over the same 5–10 percent swatch of undecided voters, blues versus reds. Instead, the parties should be broken down into haves and have-nots -- a couple of obnoxious bankers on the Upper East Side running for office against 280 million pissed-off credit card and mortgage customers. That’s the more accurate demographic picture of a country in which the top 1 percent has seen its share of the nation’s overall wealth jump from 34.6 percent before the crisis, in 2007, to over 37.1 percent in 2009. Moreover, the standard of living for the average American has plummeted during the crisis -- the median American household net worth was $102,500 in 2007, and went down to $65,400 in 2009 -- while the top 1 percent saw its net worth hold relatively steady, dropping from $19.5 million to $16.5 million.
But we’ll never see our political parties sensibly aligned according to these obvious economic divisions, mainly because it’s so pathetically easy in the TV age to set big groups of voters off angrily chasing their own tails in response to media-manufactured nonsense, with the Tea Party being a classic example of the phenomenon. If you want to understand why America is such a paradise for high-class thieves, just look at the way a manufactured movement like the Tea Party corrals and neutralizes public anger that otherwise should be sending pitchforks in the direction of downtown Manhattan.
There are two reasons why Tea Party voters will probably never get wise to the Ponzi-scheme reality of bubble economics. One has to do with the basic sales pitch of Tea Party rhetoric, which cleverly exploits Main Street frustrations over genuinely intrusive state and local governments that are constantly in the pockets of small businesses for fees and fines and permits.
The other reason is obvious: the bubble economy is hard as hell to understand. To even have a chance at grasping how it works, you need to commit large chunks of time to learning about things like securitization, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, etc., stuff that’s fiendishly complicated and that if ingested too quickly can feature a truly toxic boredom factor.
So long as this stuff is not widely understood by the public, the Grifter class is going to skate on almost anything it does -- because the tendency of most voters, in particular conservative voters, is to assume that Wall Street makes its money engaging in normal capitalist business and that any attempt to restrain that sector of the economy is thinly disguised socialism.
That’s why it’s so brilliant for the Tea Party to put forward as its leaders some of the most egregiously stupid morons on our great green earth. By rallying behind dingbats like Palin and Michele Bachmann -- the Minnesota congresswoman who thought the movie Aladdin promoted witchcraft and insisted global warming wasn’t a threat because "carbon dioxide is natural" -- the Tea Party has made anti-intellectualism itself a rallying cry. The Tea Party is arguing against the very idea that it’s even necessary to ask the kinds of questions you need to ask to grasp bubble economics.
Bachmann is the perfect symbol of the Dumb and Dumber approach to high finance. She makes a great show of saying things that would get a kindergartner busted to the special ed bus -- shrieking, for instance, that AmeriCorps was a plot to force children into liberal "reeducation camps" (Bachmann’s own son, incidentally, was a teacher in an AmeriCorps program), or claiming that the U.S. economy was "100 percent private" before Barack Obama’s election (she would later say Obama in his first year and a half managed to seize control of "51 percent of the American economy").
When the Chinese proposed replacing the dollar as the international reserve currency, Bachmann apparently thought this meant that the dollar itself was going to be replaced, that Americans would be shelling out yuan to buy six-packs of Sprite in the local 7-Eleven. So to combat this dire threat she sponsored a bill that would "bar the dollar from being replaced by any foreign currency." When reporters like me besieged Bachmann’s office with calls to ask if the congresswoman, a former tax attorney, understood the difference between currency and reserve currency, and to ask generally what the hell she was talking about, her spokeswoman, Debbee Keller, was forced to issue a statement clarifying that "she’s talking about the United States . . . The legislation would ensure that the dollar would remain the currency of the United States."
A Democratic staffer I know in the House called me up after he caught wind of Bachmann’s currency bill. "We get a lot of yokels in here, small-town lawyers who’ve never been east of Indiana and so on, but Michele Bachmann . . . We’ve just never seen anything quite like her before."
Bachmann has a lot of critics, but they miss the genius of her political act. Even as she spends every day publicly flubbing political SAT questions, she’s always dead-on when it comes to her basic message, which is that government is always the problem and there are no issues the country has that can’t be worked out with basic common sense (there’s a reason why many Tea Party groups are called "Common Sense Patriots" and rally behind "common sense campaigns").
Common sense sounds great, but if you’re too freaking lazy to penetrate the mysteries of carbon dioxide -- if you haven’t mastered the whole concept of breathing by the time you’re old enough to serve in the U.S. Congress -- you’re not going to get the credit default swap, the synthetic collateralized debt obligation, the interest rate swap, etc. And understanding these instruments and how they were used (or misused) is the difference between perceiving how Wall Street made its money in the last decades as normal capitalist business and seeing the truth of what it often was instead, which was simple fraud and crime. It’s not an accident that Bachmann emerged in the summer of 2010 (right as she was forming the House of Tea Party Caucus) as one of the fiercest opponents of financial regulatory reform; her primary complaint with the deeply flawed reform bill sponsored by Senator Chris Dodd and Congressman Barney Frank was that it would "end free checking accounts."
Our world isn’t about ideology anymore. It’s about complexity. We live in a complex bureaucratic state with complex laws and complex business practices, and the few organizations with the corporate will power to master these complexities will inevitably own the political power. On the other hand, movements like the Tea Party more than anything else reflect a widespread longing for simpler times and simple solutions -- just throw the U.S. Constitution at the whole mess and everything will be jake. For immigration, build a big fence. Abolish the Federal Reserve, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education. At times the overt longing for simple answers that you get from Tea Party leaders is so earnest and touching, it almost makes you forget how insane most of them are.
This excerpt first appeared on DailyKos. Click here for a copy of "Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America."