Friday, December 6, 2013

notes towards a Readsday post

My reading has been going very slowly lately because I've been fighting off winter flu, and we've also been watching I don't know how many documentaries on The Meltdown all of a sudden -- I seem to be acquiring an education about derivatives and mortgage-based securities and subprime loans nearly against my will. (The last time I saw a derivative was in a college calculus class.) We saw The Flaw, Inside Job, The Smartest Guys in the Room, and a couple of Frontline docs, all streaming for free various places around the internet. (Charles Ferguson is my new filmmaker boyfriend.)

What I couldn't get over, especially after seeing Inside Job, was that even if you're the most absolutist anti-regulatory free marketeer ever, eight miles high on whatever Alan Greenspan is smoking imported from his home planet of Ultima Libertad -- clearly, if someone makes a bunch of bad loans, disguises those loans as good investments, PAYS a ratings company to issue the best ratings to convince innocent people to buy them, and then makes money when those investments/loans go bad as they were designed to -- you have to admit that is fraud. Actual, criminal, honest-to-God bare-assed bald-headed fraud! How is it that nobody has served jail time? Been arrested? Even been indicted? It was a giant, global, multi-billion -- hell, probably in the hundreds of billions by the time you could add it all up -- Ponzi scheme.

I've been reading After the Music Stopped by Alan S. Blinder which is tough going for several reasons -- namely his terrible prose style. A sample: "This option requires some explaining, starting with some vocabulary. (Sorry!)" (No, really.) I think he's writing that way because of his stated goal to make a complete picture of the Giant Meltdown accessible to ordinary Americans, but I find it patronizing and aggravatingly faux-folksy, like people who write "Hunh" and "Ain't no thing" in online comments. He also has a giant blind spot (ha, ha. "Sorry!") centered squarely on Ben Bernanke, so every time he defends the man I fling my Paperwhite across the room (not very far -- I'm lying sick in bed) and then have to get up and out from under the covers to find it again. The emotional effect of the book is bizarre -- it's like a horror film disguised as a tax law (insert DFW reference here). Something like "The spread between three-month financial company CP and three-month T-bills rose 138 basis points between September 25 and October 6" might make your retinas fall asleep out of context but I sat up straight when I read it (basically, as he says earlier, "Spreads provide an objective, numerical, market-based measure of financial distress" and the average spread for T-bills is I think thirty or forty points. You get the idea).

I also read the first half of The American Way of Poverty, which was absolutely heartbreaking, and couldn't bear to go on and finish it partly because I get bored with other peoples' "if-I-ran-the-world-this-is-how-I'd-fix-it" fantasies but mainly because even if that part was any good, there is absolutely no chance any kind of policy change is going to be made at all -- hell, we're still fucking waiting around here to find out whether or not EUC is going to be renewed or if it's going to be an absolutely terrible Christmas. The book is based on this website, which is full of even more absolutely heartbreaking stories. And those stories are just going to go on and on. There will be more of them -- more of us. Nobody is even going to try to fix it, just as nobody is going to jail for the giant global Ponzi scheme. There's no acceptable vocabulary in Washington left to even try to conceive of the problem, let alone how to possibly fix it.

I kept taking time out from all this to reread parts of To Say Nothing of the Dog, and I think you can probably understand why.