Matt Taibbi Talks About Criminalized Poverty and Why Wall St. Is Above the Law
It’s not exactly breaking news that the American criminal justice system is wildly unfair. Thewar on drugs sends thousands of black and Hispanic kids to prison for using the same illegal substances that their white peers can more often get away with smoking or snorting; meanwhile, the Wall Street bankers responsible for the financial crisis get off with zero punishment and huge bonuses. These gross disparities in how the rich and poor are treated by the police and courts are the subject of The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, a book illustrated by VICE columnist Molly Crabapple and written by Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone investigative journalist who has made a career of lampooning our entitled upper class (and just left that magazine to start a new website about political corruption).
I called Taibbi to chat about how America got to this terrible, dystopian place and where we should go from here.
VICE: The core theme of the book is that we’ve seen two parallel, and very different, systems of criminal justice emerge in this country—one for the wealthy and powerful, another for the poor and brown. That concept in and of itself might not totally shock people, but the timeframe—just how novel that phenomenon is in our democracy—should, right? Matt Taibbi: Obviously it’s not a new story that the rich get off and poor people get screwed. I think that’s a narrative that probably couldn’t be more obvious, but there are some new developments that have made this situation worse. There are these parallel policy and political developments that happened in the early 90s that mirrored each other, with the Democrats coming over on the issue of welfare reform and also deciding to follow the Republicans in terms of courting money from the financial services and hopping on board with deregulation. I think what both of those decisions meant was that, basically, poor people no longer had a lobby in Washington consistently, and the very wealthy now had a consensus behind them. So we started to have this phenomenon of much more aggressive law enforcement against the poor. On the other side, it begins with deregulation of white-collar commerce, and then it kind of ends in non-enforcement of white-collar crime. That also seems to be a political consensus. It’s not just the same old story that has gone back to the beginning of time… This is also a new political development that has to do with the alignment of the two political parties in this country and how they’ve changed recently.
Why Obama’s Regulators Let Wall Street Bankers Off Easy
If there’s anything more maddening than the sheer scale of the financial fraud that sent America and the rest the planet spiraling into the economic abyss in 2008, it’s the fact that no Wall Street bankers have gone to jail for causing the mess. As in zero, zilch, none at all.
So at his farewell party last month to celebrate a lengthy career at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—the US regulatory agency that supposedly keeps Wall Street in check—James Kidney, a trial attorney who had been hamstrung for years by indifferent bosses, broke his silence and went off on an awesome rant about how no one in the financial sector fears the body supposedly policing their behavior. The SEC, in essence, is a joke.
Describing it as “an agency that polices the broken windows on the street level and rarely goes to the penthouse floors,” Kidney told an audience of fellow employees that they had dropped the ball because of a revolving door of corruption between the SEC and Wall Street megabanks. “I have had bosses, and bosses of my bosses, whose names we all know, who made little secret that they were here to punch their ticket. They mouthed serious regard for the mission of the Commission, but their actions were tentative and fearful in many instances,” he said.
Will Unions Save College ‘Student Athletes’ from Poverty?
The 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament came to its frantic conclusion on Monday night, with hundreds of millions of dollars in bets, ticket sales, and ad revenue changing hands across the country as young men hurled themselves at each other in desperation on national television. In the end, UConn point guard Shabaaz Napier was basking in the glow of victory, smiling for the cameras with his teammates, which made it easy to forget that he recently expounded on the seedy underbelly of college sports in America.
"I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving," he told reporters in late March when asked about the Northwestern University football team’s ongoing effort to unionize.
In case you haven’t noticed, big-time college athletics is a pretty sordid business that rests on the exploitation of the labor of young men and women, many of them from poor backgrounds, under the auspices of the dubious “student-athlete” construct. Supposedly these kids are on campus to learn first and play second, ridiculous one-paragraph essays notwithstanding. But as has been repeatedlypointed out, the universities, coaches, and NCAA brass rake in huge profits each year—college sports is now a multibillion-dollar industry—while the kids who don’t make the pros (or suffer heinous injuries before they have the opportunity) are largely left high and dry.
Fed up with the status quo, the Northwestern Wildcats—a mediocre but widely identifiable Division I football program—filed with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to form a union and earn legal recognition as employees earlier this year, and, in what is being hailed as a potentially landmark ruling, they won. Now the students are set to vote on April 25 on unionization, and there is at least some chance they will embrace the opportunity, assuming the university overlords don’t scare them away from the idea. With employee status and union bargaining power could come protection for those with athletic scholarships from suddenly being cut off from receiving an education if they became injured or didn’t perform as expected—and maybe, further down the line, they could receive a real share of the cash generated by the massive advertising revenue their athletic endeavors make possible.
Why the Sochi Olympics Are the Most Expensive in History
The Olympics are as much about money as they are about sports. Between broadcasting rights, merchandising, sponsorships and construction of the Olympic venues themselves, there’s a lot of money to be made. In the case of Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, there’s more money to be made than ever before, especially if you’re a friend of President Putin.
The 2014 Winter Games have cost Russia about $50 billion, making them the most expensive in history. Corruption watchdogs say it’s ordinary Russians who will end up footing the bill for this excess, not private investors as Putin has suggested.
We went to Sochi to investigate the claims of corruption and kickbacks, tour some of the most expensive Olympic venues ever built, and talk to Sochi residents who have been pushed aside to make room for Putin’s man-made mountains of money.
I Have a Chinese Banknote That Everyone in China Is Scared Of
I have a very special Chinese banknote. It’s only worth ten Yuan, but it might be the most precious object I own. The front of the note shows a drawing of the former leader of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong. Rumor has it, he spent every night with the young, virginal daughters of different farmers, because he believed popping cherries was the key to eternal youth. But that little factoid is not what makes this banknote so special. What’s special about my banknote is that in China—a country where everything is about money, money, and more money—nobody accepts the damn thing. It’s practically worthless. And I now understand why.
During a recent reporting trip to China, I found myself with a group of journalists and Chinese fixers sitting in the biggest mall in Shanghai eating shitty pizza at a fake Pizza Hut. When it was time to pay for the food, we all pulled out our cash. Amy, a Chinese student who showed us around, took the stack of bills and handed it to the waitress. Not long after that she came back with one piece of legal tender in her hand, stammering that the restaurant didn’t accept the cash because it was a “bad note.” I asked why, but she wouldn’t say. “Later, later,” she told me. When she offered up the bad banknote to my group, I snatched it up.
In 2009, I moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to New York City to “make it” as a photographer, a process that involved living in an apartment the size of a hallway with a view of a brick wall. I was broke, lonely, and desperate for work, when out of the blue I was contacted on Twitter by someone who went by the name C. S. Leigh.
Through the omniscient and infallible knowledge database that is Google, I learned that C. S. Leigh was a film director and a curator. An image search revealed photos of a balding, almost spherical man with black-rimmed glasses and a double chin. He told me he liked my stuff, and before long, I had agreed to take some photos for an art magazine he was putting out.
It seemed like the best thing that had ever happened to me. I did a fashion shoot featuring models in clothes from threeASFOUR and Chado Ralph Rucci and portraits of world-renowned perfumer Frédéric Malle and artist Meredyth Sparks. There was talk of my going to Paris and London for the Frieze Art Fair and Fashion Week, or perhaps attending Coachella to photograph bands for his magazine. It was as if C. S. had opened a door to the exclusive world of art and fashion and quietly slipped me into the front seat.
Military Police Are Killing the Cambodians Who Make Your Clothes
Four people were killed and 21 more injured in Cambodia this morning, when police opened fire with AK-47s into a group of protesters. The deaths come after months of tension and escalating violence between the authorities and garment workers, who are demanding higher wages.
Things came to a head on Thursday evening, when a police battalion in Phnom Penh were beaten back from an apartment block that had been seized by protesters during a day of demonstrations. By this morning, the military cops were engaged in a standoff on Veng Sreng Boulevard—one of the main roads out of the Cambodian capital—and the makeup of their opponents was a curious one. The factory workers, 90 percent of whom are women, had at some point been replaced by groups of metal pole- and machete-wielding young men, gathered together behind rows of Molotov cocktails.
At some point, the military police chose to respond to a barrage of rocks, bricks, and flaming bottles with gunfire. A nearby clinic that had refused to help the injured was ransacked. One of the injured was a pregnant woman who had been trying to escape the chaos.
The Exploited Laborers of the Liberal Media: Interns
Editor’s note: For years, VICE has used part-time unpaid interns—a practice that we recently halted. Our current policy is to pay interns $10 an hour and limit them to 20 hours a week during the school year and 25 hours a week during the summer.
I was 21 years old when I took out my earring, combed my hair, and tried concealing my distaste for power and Washington, DC, in order to ask questions at press conferences. It was the summer of 2006, and I had just left college to go work for a small, do-gooding nonprofit that covered Capitol Hill for public radio.
I went through the whole experience of being a journalist in the nation’s capital: attending deadly boring policy luncheons, interviewing near-dead lawmakers and dead-inside lobbyists, and dying a little inside myself every time I saw my work “edited”—turned into shameful garbage—before going on air.
Like any other reporter, I pitched stories at morning meetings and then did the legwork to put them together, in the process learning the job. While my gut impulse at first was to righteously confront the powerful with strident questions highlighting their logical inconsistencies and factual errors, I soon found it was often smarter to affect an earnest demeanor just a hair shy of sarcastic. You need to let the person being interviewed explain why he is terrible, which is more easily done when he thinks you are stupid or on his side.