The Breakdown

Explaining Southern California's economy

Dylan Ratigan's 'Greedy Bastards' at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of talking with MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan about his new book, "Greedy Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires from Sucking America Dry." We had a full house at the Crawford Family Forum. The conversation was lively. The questions from the audience were great. And Ratigan didn't even remotely hold back. We were delighted that we could partner with LA's own Rare Bird Lit to make the event happen.

The book consists of Ratigan's take on a variety of challenges currently facing the country, all brought on by what we decided should be called "greedy bastardism" — there's a bit of the greedy bastard in all of us, but some greedy bastards are greedier than others. For what it's worth, I pointed out that Ratigan is in good company with his indictment of the greedy bastards. He's very upset about how greedy bastards gave us the financial crisis and are wrecking the country. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, John Steinbeck was equally enraged. And even though he would go on to write the "Grapes of Wrath," he thought that the work of journalism was the best way to make his immediate case again the perpetrators of America's misery:

I break myself every time I go out because the argument that one person's effort can't really do anything doesn't seem to apply when you come on a bunch of starving children and you have a little money.  I can't rationalize it for myself anyway...I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this but I can best do it through newspapers.

Ratigan — who hosts the "Dylan Ratigan Show" every weekday on MSNBC, but who worked his way up through financial journalism until he became a regular presence on CNBC — shares Steinbeck's anger. One of the interesting things that emerged from our conversation, however, was the ultimate pointlessness of simply getting mad as hell. Ratigan now counsels compassionate solutions to the country's most difficult problems. 

Why? At base, I think it's because we're going through an incredible wrenching time of rapid change. Old industries are fighting for survival and resorting to greedy bastardism to stay alive. It's tempting to say that capitalism has proven itself to be too dangerous to be trusted with the U.S. economy. 

But Ratigan doesn't go that far. He insists that the financial capitalism, based on complex instruments that no one understood and that government couldn't or wouldn't regulate, isn't capitalism at all. Because there's no capital involved! There was only endless printed money, supplied by the Federal Reserve, and mountains of debt, generated by a banking system determined to trade on higher and higher levels of risk — risk that would be taken care of by the taxpayer when everything went wrong, as it finally did in 2008.

I'll provide a real review of Ratigan's book a bit later. But for now, I see some affinities between it as Emanuel Derman's "Models. Behaving. Badly." Not because they're similar — they really couldn't be more different. But because both were produced by men who lived in the world of a booming economy and the rapid growth of the financial sector. 

Ratigan now castigates what he terms "extraction" — the greedy bastards sucking what they can out of the economy, rather than producing anything of lasting worth. He pits this against the postwar capitalism that while imperfect was at least committed to democracy and the continued strength of the Republic.

Still, he was present for the glorious runup to the dismal downfall. He created a CNBC show called "Fast Money," all inside baseball for traders. Great entertainment. But clearly not his life's work. Taking to Ratgan, you get the strong sense of a guy course-correcting, finding a mission, and moving beyond anger toward action.

Derman likewise sounds repentant in his memoirish analysis of his upbringing in South Africa, his training as a physicist, and his days as a "quant" — someone who uses complex math to make money on Wall Street. Both men, as different as they are, come off as distinctly humane. Derman, true to his background in physics, comes to grips with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and its implications for the risk-casino that Wall Street has become. The more populist Ratigan evokes Teddy Roosevelt's progressivism but really connects himself with the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and his quest for the "greatest happiness for the greatest number."

Ratigan knows what he's up against — greedy bastardism has been indicted before, but like a zombie it's proved itself tough to kill. Ratigan, however, has a platform — there's no substitute for being on TV every day — and now he has a game plan, put down in lively fashion between the covers of a book. Worth reading. And on a chilly night in Pasadena, certainly well worth listening to the author make his case.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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