Photo courtesy of the observer.com
When College Democrats approached us about co-hosting a talk from Rolling Stone sweetheart Matt Taibbi, we nearly pooped our pants. Through wit and careful analysis, Taibbi has slowly made the spread of information sexy again. And we love him for that. Knowledge, disguised by a little snark, is the media industry’s best weapon to combat apathy—especially political. Our Noise editor Shea Garner sat down with Taibbi before his talk in Maxwell last week. Enjoy their conversation—verbatim, no bullshit.
Jerk: Your recent string of articles in Rolling Stone about Mitt Romney and Bain Capital have garnered a lot of attention. While it’s great to inform the public, some people say giving Romney any publicity is like giving attention to a screaming baby. What do you say to that?
Matt Taibbi: Well, that’s an interesting question. When I decided to do that article, I actually tried not to get into these Blue versus Red political debates. The articles I write, I try as much as possible to write about these things that resonate for people on both sides of the aisle, and this was an article that I thought was really less about Mitt Romney as a person than it was about private equity business and financialization—this whole idea that American business used to be about making stuff and selling it, and now, the new way of doing things, is just about making financial products and squeezing value out of things that we’ve already built. That’s what I was trying to write an article about. The consequence of it is that it turns into this gigantic anti-Romney article, and that’s why everyone is reading it, unfortunately. But that’s more of a marketing thing than my intent.
Jerk: On the flipside of Romney, Obama has seemingly made it one of his very publicized missions to cut student loan rates. A lot of politicians promise these things and never deliver. Do you see this getting any easier for college students like us?
MT: My next assignment is actually about student loans, believe it or not, and I actually haven’t started delving into the issue. I think that it’s clear that the way that students are burdened with lifetime debt for educations, that half the time don’t result in a guaranteed job after you get out, is an incredible burden on kids. I think it’s awful. It’s one thing for med school students who borrow a ton of money, but they’re going to be able to pay that money back. It’s not hanging over their heads for their entire lives because that’s part of the return for being a doctor. But ordinary kids who go to liberal arts schools and get bachelor degrees get out and are just sort of left to find their way in the world. It just sort of becomes this life-crushing thing for a lot of people and end up into their late-thirties trying to find a way out of it. Debt is a gigantic political issue that’s not talked about enough, and most of the country has either zero net worth or negative net worth, and that’s because one part of society is lending and the other part is constantly having to get into debt. And it starts with student loans.
Jerk: Speaking of debt, we see a lot of discourse back and forth about four increments and bark about results within term limits, when economically, it seems like a lot of trends are decades in the making (a major point in your latest book Griftopia). What do we need to do to stop things like bubble economics and change that in the short term?
MT: Well, in terms of bubble economics, one of the constant threads between the recent bubbles that have come up, whether it’s the internet tech bubble in the 90s, the housing thing in the early part of the last decade, or the commodities in 2008, is this enormous access to sums of money and easy liquidity that’s become a feature of our economy. Sometimes that comes from the private sector, whether it’s junk bonds or securitization of mortgages. They find these get rich quick schemes where they’re able to monetize things that aren’t that valuable, and it creates these enormous sums of money. Other times, it’s the Fed just pumping the economy full of tons and tons of money, which is what happened before the Internet stock boom. It happened before the housing crisis, and it’s happening now. In fact tomorrow, they’re going to announce another round of what they call quantitative easing, which is where they just print a billion dollars and pump it into the economy. And when you have massive amounts of money that is sort of engineered out of nothing, that’s your recipe for an economic bubble because it creates these surges and manias for speculation that encourages everybody to get in on these various booms. If access to the Fed’s trillions were cut off, if you eliminated junk bonds and CLOs for mortgages, it would reduce the mania in the economy.
Jerk: If the US wants to become an actual economic leader again, what key industry do you see as vital within the next decade?
MT: Well, I think right now the thing that is the leading industry for the United States is still the financial services industry. And the reason that traditionally we’ve been the world’s leader in banking is because we have this image around the world of “this is the safest place to put your money.” Whether it’s dictators in the Middle East or wherever, people felt that the American financial system was sound. They felt comfortable investing here and thought that American businesses were safer to invest in. The problem with that is that we’re losing that competitive edge now because of this newer perception that there is a lot of corruption in our markets. That’s why I think this is a critical moment in our history. When we decide not to prosecute all of these people that committed fraud, that kind of scares people around the world, and it starts to make them think that this isn’t really any different than Russia or Indonesia. That’s a key for us. We could still easily be the banking leader around the world, but we just have to turn that around.
Jerk: Okay, enough about politics. As a magazine, we obviously want to talk about the future of journalism. With the newspaper and periodical industry currently struggling, especially physical publications, where do you see the industry heading? Will we be totally digital soon? As graduates hoping to get a job in that field, what steps are we going to have to take differently?
MT: Well I think there are two things to consider here. One is that people are actually reading more than they used to because of the Internet. So the foundation for some kind of business that’s going to employ people is there. The specific method of how they’re going to be able to monetize that hasn’t been figured out yet. Clearly, newspapers and magazines are on their last legs, or they’re kind of transitioning to a new role in society. I came up publishing alternative newspapers my whole career; I love the feeling of being able to read something in your hands. I think with glossy magazines—it’s kind of like an art form in itself. You know, to try to make it look good. And I think people always will love that, but I think that 90 percent of the people that do read it don’t need that, and it’s going to transition to tablets and stuff. There’s going to be a transition period for people like you when you get out of school where the business hasn’t quite figured out how to pay writers, but they’re going to figure it out eventually. Those jobs are going to come back.
Jerk: As both a writer and contributing editor for Rolling Stone—which do you prefer? Writing or editing?
MT: (Laughs) Well, I edited newspapers for years and years, and I’m a terrible editor because my instinct with people is to tell them not to worry about it, and then I do it for them, which is absolutely what not to do as an editor. It’s two completely different skills. If you’re a good writer, chances are you’re not a good editor, and vice versa. I would prefer the writing. Let’s put it that way.
Jerk: As the Arts & Music editor for Jerk, I feel obligated to ask what’s currently on your iPod.
MT: Oh god, I don’t listen to anything. I listened to rap and hip-hop growing up, and I haven’t bought a new album or anything since like the Clinton administration.
(Yes, you read that right. A contributing editor to Rolling Stone doesn’t listen to music.)
Jerk: Going off what we were talking about with the Internet—social media networks like Twitter are breaking news before many major sources, and it seems like analytical news isn’t as immediate or accessible to the public. The public then relies on humorists—The Daily Show, Colbert—and people like you to deliver some sort of analysis and opinion that’s easy to eat up or more entertaining. Do you see that as dangerous at all?
MT: I do think it’s dangerous that a lot of stuff that I write about, like politics, that particular corner of our political universe, is now unbelievably complicated, convoluted, and boring. It’s intentionally so. I think they try as hard as they can to make it as inscrutable and difficult for people as possible. So the only way for people to get any kind of grip on it is to do what I do, and dress it up with every conceivable literary bell and whistle to make it swallowable. And that’s not good, because the reality is that people are not going to read about collateralized debt obligations and quantitative easing. They’re just not going to do it. They fall asleep. That’s bad because it makes our politics inaccessible to people, and I think it’s a serious problem. Our media is totally trending in the other direction. It started in the 90s with magazines like Maxim that started with boxes this big, and then boxes this big, and next thing you know it’s like a couple of headlines. Now people can’t digest anything that’s more than just a tweet, really. They’re training a whole generation of readers to not be able to digest modern politics, which is a problem.
Jerk: What’s your favorite drink to talk politics over?
MT: (Laughs) I don’t drink so much anymore since I came back from Russia, but you know, it would be Vodka, I would think.
Jerk: Rolling Stone obviously has its own personality. Writing for a publication, you take that personality into account, but outside of that you don’t necessarily feel the need for that association. How do you portray yourself outside of Rolling Stone or how do you differentiate that?
MT: Well, the only difference is that I’ve been working with those guys for so long that I think probably my style outside of the magazine has morphed into what it is inside the magazine. But when I came to Rolling Stone, I had a lot of really bad habits because I was my own editor before that. You learn in a professional, legitimate, major, glossy magazine that you can’t meander. Every single paragraph has to be pretty lean and concise. Then, there’s the fact checking issue, which is if you haven’t gone through it at that level, it’s like having to go through an IRS audit with every article you write. It takes a long, long time to get used to. I guess the good thing is, now that I’ve been there for so long, I can’t write the other way anymore. When I think about it, I think, “How am I going to source that when I publish it?”
Jerk: How important is a partner’s political views in a relationship to you? Could you ever sleep with a crazed Tea Partier?
MT: (Laughs) If it’s a long-term relationship, I don’t think it works. I guess not all the time though. I met James Carville last year. I went down to his place, and he’s married to Mary Matalin. They’re basically mirror images of each other. She’s a republican consultant. But I guess that’s more like the professional discipline that kind of tied them together. I think one of the problems is that American politics has become so blood sportish that if you’re a genuinely red state person I just don’t see those people tolerating living with a blue state person. My wife isn’t very political at all. She has no interest in politics, and that works just fine.
What do you hope to deliver to a room full of college students tonight a month and a half before the 2012 election?
I talk a lot about Wall Street, but tonight I’m going to talk about campaign journalism, my experience coming to that, and what you don’t see, what they’re not telling you, what some of the illusions and deceptions are in a campaign. I just want to tell people how to watch out for certain kinds of propaganda in campaign journalism. And I sort of tell a bunch of funny stories about my own experience getting there.