Since branding Wall Street’s pre-eminent investment bank, Goldman Sachs with the epithet “vampire squid,” Rolling Stone correspondent Matt Taibbi has made quite a name for himself in the mainstream American media. Despite the popularity of Taibbi’s caustic commentary, few realize his nose for sniffing out corruption and hypocrisy was trained long before he turned his attention to the U.S. financial industry. In his recent Big Think interview, Taibbi explains how the time he spent in Russia throughout the 1990s, co-running the eXile, a satirical ex-pat newspaper headquartered in Moscow, has helped him uncover the less-than-savory underworld of the U.S. financial system.
“One of the reasons I was so attracted to this Wall Street story was when I first started looking at it in the summer of 2008 I was continually struck by how much it reminded me of a lot of the dynamic that I had seen covering the Russian government and the Russian state,” says Taibbi. “There were a very tiny collection of super connected industrial figures—these oligarchs. They were bankers mostly and there was this circular process of government gives tons of money to banker; banker then scams the public and returns money to politicians who in turn keep giving money back to the bankers.”
In Taibbi’s opinion, the U.S. government’s most recent “quantitative easing” program is yet another example of the “insanity” of Wall Street’s relationship to the federal government. “There is a reason why you can’t just print money and get yourself out of economic trouble that way,” says Taibbi. “There is a tremendous inflationary danger here, but they’re doing it anyway, which speaks to the total desperation and craziness of our current economy.”
A seasoned campaign reporter, Taibbi also talks about Sarah Palin, who he says will “absolutely run for president in 2012,”—as well as about the hypocrisy of Tea Party members who rail against welfare for immigrants, minorities, and “the lazy,” but happily ride around in motorized scooters paid for by the government. The Tea Party is now in a “king-making” role, says Taibbi, and he doubts the Republicans will be able to nominate anybody who isn’t acceptable to their rank and file. Despite his criticism of Palin and the Tea Party, Taibbi is complimentary of the Palin’s political prowess: “She is a gifted politician just in terms of getting people to connect with her on an emotional level in person,” he says. “You know it’s like watching Michael Jordon in person. You can just see that they have it and she has got it and I think she is going to win the nomination.”
Every journalist has to be concerned about burning their sources, says Taibbi, who in addition to being a veteran journalist, is a well-known bomb-thrower. “I venture a little bit more in the direction of just saying what I think is appropriate and letting the chips fall where they may,” says Taibbi, “But at the same time you have to be fair to your sources otherwise no one will ever talk to you.” Taibbi, a former heroin addict who spent most of his twenties traveling the world, playing professional basketball in Mongolia, and satirizing Russian politicians, seems to apply a similar mentality to his current life and work. “If you live life like there is no tomorrow, actually it doesn’t work, because ultimately there is a tomorrow. That is one of the things you learn if you do that long enough.”
Taibbi’s newfound public life, more than anything, is what keeps up at night. “I never, ever thought about my whole life and personality being out in public and what people might think of me as a person and all that and that is it’s very nerve-wracking, that whole situation. I worry that I’m going to hurt somebody with my writing. I’ve had a couple of close shaves where I’ve written some things that may have done damage to the people in my stories and that freaks me out an awful lot and so I worry about being wrong more than anything,” he says. “I think every time I write a story kind of I always hold my breath and worry that, you know, did I hit somebody unfairly in this piece? Or is it going to come back that I got something completely wrong? And I think that is the thing I worry about the most.”