Taibbi’s critics make the same argument that Wall Street makes—that investors/borrowers/insurance policyholders etc. are responsible for what they buy. True, but is that really the end of the argument? If we were talking about cars or heart stents, would we say the same thing? If the argument is that pension funds and other CDO buyers are sophisticated players, that is true, but again, is that the end of the argument? What about the consequences for the rest of us?
And is it out-of-bounds to point out, as Taibbi does, that Goldman was selling securities that would explode at the same time it was betting against them? Many in the business press think so. I don’t.
That all said, “Bubble Machine” poses all sorts of problems from a journalism standpoint, and they aren’t small. Here’s how I see them:
One, the piece pushes language past the breaking point, as, for example, in the subhed:
From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression - and they’re about to do it again.
“Contributed to,” “participated in, “profited from,” “been around at,” “—All these are words that could have been used in place of “engineered.” Rolling Stone didn’t go that way.
American Heritage Dictionary defines “engineer” as, “To plan, manage, and put through by skillful acts or contrivance; maneuver.” If that’s true of Goldman, or even Wall Street as whole, and these bubbles, it’s only in the broadest, most cosmic sense. The hyperbole hurts rather than helps.
As for “manipulation,” are bubbles the result of manipulations? And does exacerbating a bubble constitute manipulation? I don’t know, but the language is rough. Of course, Wall Street-backed predatory lending is rough, but this is where Taibbi leaves conventional investigative reporting behind.
But there’s something else to consider. As Taibbi’s piece forcefully reminds us, Goldman alumni, notably Rubin, Paulson, Ed Liddy (who is leaving AIG, mission accomplished), Goldman-influenced Tim Geithner, and others, have been all over the government’s policy and regulatory apparatus. Even assuming all acted in good faith as public servants, all are certainly fair game for robust attack for policy choices that either cost the country, benefited Goldman, or both. If decisions made by officials with whom you have a relationship that is less than arms-length end up benefiting you, someone’s going to take issue.
That all said, stretchers undermine argument.
Two, as others have too eagerly noted, the piece kills itself to put Goldman at the center of things, including the tech and mortgage wrecks, when it really means “Wall Street.” Other actors were much worse in various crises, as many have pointed out. To which, Taibbi has responded, So What? Still, there it is. The contortions create dissonance that harms the piece.
Three, it was a mistake to go back to the Great Depression. Taibbi is trying to establish a pattern of selling leveraged investments that eventually crashed, but there’s a limit. That was a different world. By collapsing the timeline into the last 10 years, the piece would have been stronger.
Fourth, Taibbi plays pretty rough, even with true facts. He says Goldman’s 2008 tax bill was just $14 million. But it was higher in the years before and will be higher in the future. Again, Taibbi might say, so what? But again, there you are.
More of a problem: he also attributes the low bill to Goldman off-shoring its income. The absolute bill was low mostly because of U.S. credit losses. And while, it is true that its effective rate that year was 1 percent, due, as he accurately quotes Goldman’s annual report, to “changes in geographic earnings mix,” Goldman spokesman Lucas van Praag points out in an email that the “geography” here was the U.S., where the losses lowered both the tax rate and the tax bill itself.
So, Taibbi was free to use the hilariously low tax bill as an indictment of the U.S. tax system, but off-shoring doesn’t seem to have been the problem he makes it out to be here: