A conversation with the Rolling Stone correspondent.
Question: What is “quantitative easing” and why might it be a problem in the decades to come?
Matt Taibbi: Quantitative easing is a completely lunatic program that is interestingly, not very well known here in America. Remember when Barack Obama had his 800-billion-dollar stimulus package, which was ostensibly intended to create jobs there was uproar all across the country that is this is socialism and how could we do this, just the government giving money away. Well that was actually real money that existed, that 800 billion dollars that they spent ostensibly creating jobs. Quantitative easing was a program where the Federal Reserve did like an “I Dream of Jeanie”-thing and like invented out of thin air now two trillion dollars essentially to buy T-bills and mortgage-backed securities and artificially prop-up Wall Street. And this is money that didn’t even exist and they simply were pumping it into the financial bloodstream, so that Wall Street could stay alive a little bit longer. It’s a completely insane program. There is a reason why you can’t just print money and get yourself out of economic trouble that way. 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.
Question: Will Sarah Palin run for President in 2012?
Matt Taibbi: Absolutely she is going to run for president in 2012 and... I don’t think she is going to win, but I think she is a very good bet to win the nomination. I think what we saw in the last election was the Tea Party is now in this kingmaking role and the Republican Party. I don’t think they can nominate anybody who isn’t acceptable to the Tea Party. That person is just not going to win enough primaries to get through. And Sarah Palin is a candidate who is acceptable to the Tea Party.
She is also—I've seen this personally, I've covered her in person—she is a gifted politician just in terms of getting people to connect with her on an emotional level in person. It’s something that if you’re an experienced campaign journalist you can just see these… 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.
Question: What have you seen at Tea Party rallies?
Matt Taibbi: It was really funny. I was in a rally that Sarah Palin was holding in Kentucky and she was doing the whole Ronald Reagan business, you know: "Government is never the answer, government is always the problem, it’s never the solution." And it was a crowd of 10,000 people at a gospel-singing convention, but it was first of all, an entirely white crowd. There wasn’t a single black face there and mostly elderly.
And while she was doing this speech I suddenly looked around and I noticed that like one out of every four people in the crowd was either on an oxygen tank or in one of those scooters, those motorized wheelchairs and I asked the person, one of the reporters next to me what is the deal with the scooters and they’re like there is commercials on TV here, you get... you don’t even have to pay for them because if you have Medicare it’s for free. And so I started interviewing these people afterwards and all these people on scooters they’re all on Medicare and yet they’re railing against government spending and socialism.
And here is the thing with the Tea Party: a lot of these people have this idea of "good welfare" and "bad welfare." Like "bad welfare" is for immigrants and minorities and it’s for people who are lazy and don’t really need it. "Good welfare" is for people who are just temporarily in a jam or who have worked their whole lives and now they’re retired and now they just need a little lift. They just genuinely don’t see the problem with this kind of thinking.
Question: How do you maintain your journalistic integrity without burning so many bridges that you can’t get the story?
Matt Taibbi: That is problem that every journalist has to worry about. I think in my case I have a little bit of a luxury that other journalists don’t have, which is that I'm not covering the same people over and over and over again. If I want to, I can cover a story and move onto a completely different topic afterwards and never have to deal with any of those people again. So I can actually do that scorch and burn thing where I descend on a whole bunch of people and write whatever I want about them, and if it’s not flattering I don’t ever have to talk to them again.
That is not the situation that some journalists are in. If you’re covering the White House for the Washington Post, well you have to nurture those relationships and you can’t burn people all the time. So 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, but at the same time you have to be fair to your sources, otherwise no one will ever talk to you. If you get a reputation of somebody who violates off-the-record privileges for instance no one is going to talk to you, so I work hard to be honest with my sources, but I don’t go out of my way to make them feel good either.
Question: How did your work in Moscow help you uncover hypocrisy in America?
Matt Taibbi: 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 where there was this oligarchical system that they had over there. 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. And that whole circular process is very similar to what is going on here in the States now where we have a small group of very, very politically connected banks who give massive campaign contributions to both parties and they’re rewarded with selective regulation and bailouts and then the money comes back again. I think if I hadn’t seen that in the more crude form that you see in Russia where—stuff is just right out in the open in Russia sometimes; they don’t even really hide it—if I hadn’t seen that it would have been harder for me to see this story.
Question: What idea has influenced you most?
Matt Taibbi: 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. You can’t... You do eventually have to plan and be smart and not be nuts and... but I think there is a time and a place for every life strategy. I think in the 20s, the way I lived in the 20s, which was really without a whole lot of planning and a lot... and more just seeking experience for the sake of it... that was appropriate then. It wouldn’t be appropriate at this time in my life, so I don’t have any regrets. I think that is kind of the way to go is live hard and let’s see what happens in the end.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Matt Taibbi: This is a very public life that I'm leading now, which I wasn’t prepared for and when I was doing this for most of my life... You know, writing is a very solitary profession. I got into it because I loved just the process of creating something and writing and 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's, 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. 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.
Recorded on November 22, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont
Directed by Jonathan Fowler
Produced by Elizabeth Rodd