Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Taibbi: the Tea Party Moron Complex

Alternet, an excerpt from Matt Taibbi's new book:

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.


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...


On the one hand, I don't think it's all that difficult to understand Wall Street's recent fuck ups. I mean, you don't have to actually master this stuff in order to get a handle on it. Taibbi's examples, for instance, are easily explained to anybody who wants to listen for, like, twenty seconds or so. "Securitization" means turning something into an investment. "Credit default swaps" are a kind of insurance policy for risky investments. "Collateralized debt obligations" are essentially the securitized form of loans, or rather, loans purchased from an original lender by investors, who hope either to make money from the borrowers' interest payments or to make money by re-selling those loans to other investors at a higher price than what they originally paid. Of course, it's far more complicated than that, but we're not trying to be accountants or hedge fund managers here: we're just trying to know what the fuck happened. We don't need perfect understanding just to know what the fuck happened.

On the other hand, I have a slightly better than average understanding of economics, no doubt, because I have an unhealthy taste for the subject. And I have, indeed, put in hours of reading on the so-called mortgage and lending crisis, which was easy because, as I just noted, I like economics. Consequently, it's probably not fair for me to expect everybody to be exactly like me in this respect. (I will say this, however: if our school system was worth a damn, everybody would be exactly like me in this respect--this is essential shit for citizens in a democracy, and it seems almost by design that comprehending economics barely even registers as a vital topic for the classroom.) But the bottom line on this is pretty clear. If you don't have a little bit of intellectual background and aren't inclined to do much reading, any opinion you offer on economic issues is as likely to be right as it is to be wrong. That is, you're just following your gut instinct, so you might as well be flipping a coin.

The professional rabble rousers who specialize in stoking the fire in Tea Partier hearts fully understand America's illiteracy in economics, fully understand that, in the absence of intellect, emotions rule. That's why Tea Party rhetoric is wildly weak on facts, but redlining the outrage meter. That's why it's not so easy to talk sense to these people: they're full of piss and vinegar, and utterly unwilling to listen to anybody who's not on their page. Angry people are simply not inclined to ponder complicated systems full of nuance and subtlety.

While I disagree with Taibbi's notion that ideology no longer has much of a role to play in our society - there's still plenty of room for principled disagreement, even when everybody agrees to use the same set of facts - I cannot disagree with his basic thrust: our society is far, far more complicated today than the one at the time of our nation's founding. I've kind of hit on this before, myself, when I talk about why we need Big Government: we live in a big world, with big businesses, and very big concerns; only a Big Government is up to the task of navigating such treacherous waters with such big waves. But lots of people still tend to only register what they see around them, easily ignoring the bigness of their world. Big things are frightening, after all.

When you look at it that way, it's kind of amazing that there aren't more Tea Partiers. Burying your head in the sand is very seductive.