It should be noted that Goldman disputes, in no uncertain terms, the notion that it was ever in serious trouble and that it has benefited in particular, directly, from any government help. In this, though, Goldman argues not just against Taibbi but against the whole world.
And Taibbi’s wild-eyed idea that Goldman (he actually uses Goldman as a proxy for Wall Street) played a role in the oil-price bubble of last summer has now received support from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which The Wall Street Journal reported, is set to blame speculators (Goldman isn’t named, but the point is made), not supply and demand.
Second, while some in conventional business journalism may wish to dismiss Taibbi, it’s worth remembering that he is only filling a vacuum left by mainstream outlets themselves. One reason “Bubble” was so shocking, I believe, is that it looks with well-deserved skepticism (okay, red-faced, foaming outrage) on the core business practices of an individual financial institution, by name, and a powerful one at that. Conventional business-press investigations focus too often on marginal infractions, rulebreaking within the game, and too rarely on the game itself. One upside of Taibbi’s approach is its rejection of the false notion peddled by Wall Street and its defenders that crises are like natural disasters, unpreventable and uninfluenced by important actors, political and financial. Just because crises are complicated doesn’t mean individual and institutions didn’t play important roles, and complexity does not give the financial press a pass from its job of calling those actors to account on readers’ behalf. Just the opposite is the case: institutions are decisive, and investigating them is Job One.
As we demonstrated in CJR’s May/June issue, the mainstream media failed in the basic task of singling out out-of-control actors when it might have counted in the years prior to the blow up, particularly during 2004-2006.
And, as we also noted, when the press did perform this basic function in the early part of the decade (in probes of Lehman and its ties to notorious predator First Alliance Mortgage Co., of Citigroup and its acquisition of the rogue Associates First Capital, of Household International, Ameriquest and others) the practices were brought to heel. This was not a coincidence.
Third, like it or not, “Bubble Machine” is an important breakthrough for muckraking alt-media—the non-experts, the anti-business press—in the financial space. Other alts have done good work, which we’ve noted. But this wasn’t a bleat from the left. It was a sonic boom. Look for increased prominence of new players in the financial media, those not steeped in conventional business press culture, for worse and mostly for better, not hamstrung by the need to manage long-term relationships with financial institutions, and freer, indeed, incentivized to burn bridges or not to build them at all. Banks, Fed, Treasury, SEC—you are on notice.
Fourth, Taibbi is subtler than critics give him credit for. The charge is that he pins catastrophes on Goldman alone. But the piece often uses Goldman as a proxy for Wall Street as a whole, and he offers readers plenty of guideposts when he does so.
Fifth, in judging whether a piece is fair journalism or beyond the pale, all benefit of the doubt must go to the reader, who, while not as bright certainly as those sophisticates at CNBC, must be assumed to have enough flickering brain power to understand that just as Goldman Sachs is not literally a “giant vampire squid,” neither is it solely responsible for the Great Depression or anything else. Taibbi is offering polemic—we know this from phrases like, “It fucked the investors who bought their horseshit CDOs.” It is an argument, a frame through which we are invited to view an event. Readers can figure this out.
Sixth, as noted, some of “Bubble Machine” ‘s most damaging facts—about the tech and mortgage wrecks, in particular—are not only true, they aren’t even particularly controversial anymore. For instance, he reminds readers that Wall Street/Goldman threw underwriting standards out the window in both disasters. In the old days, Wall Street required three years’ profitability before bringing a company public. But then:
Of the 24 companies [Goldman] took public in 1997, a third were losing money at the time of the IPO. In 1999, at the height of the boom, it took 47 companies public, including stillborns like Webvan and eToys, investment offerings that were in many ways the modern equivalents of Blue Ridge and Shenandoah [early Goldman vehicles that blew up]. The following year, it underwrote 18 companies in the first four months, 14 of which were money losers at the time.