In August, Dylan Ratigan delivered a two-minute, mad-as-hell rant on his MSNBC show, attacking what he identified as the injustice of the country’s economic system and the cowardice of its politicians. “This is not some opinion. This is a mathematic fact. Tens of trillions of dollars are being extracted from the United States of America,’’ he shouted, as his stunned colleagues looked on in the studio. Video of the segment quickly went viral online, establishing Ratigan, a former financial reporter, as a kind of populist prophet of post-recession rage.
With its brazen title and persistently indignant tone, “Greedy Bastards’’ takes up where that outburst left off, expanding on the theme of “extractionism,’’ defined here as “taking money from others without creating anything of value.’’ The financial industry comes in for the most withering criticism, but Ratigan finds a mixture of waste and greed in many areas of public life, including health care, education, energy, tax policy, and international trade.
Summarizing the current state of things, he writes, “The duped American people don’t understand the price they are paying.’’ Such righteous furor, often persuasive on live television, is difficult to sustain in prose. Ratigan turns selfish bankers, doctors, and oil executives into cartoon enemies — variously identifying them as bastards, pirates, vampires, and zombies — and muddies what appears to be sincere frustration with banal slogans of outrage: “The truth will set you free - but first it will piss you off.’’
Of course, there are plenty of reasons for people to be angry. The book’s strongest section focuses on the causes and aftershocks of the recent financial crisis, charting the now familiar but always freshly infuriating story of how the country’s largest banks imperiled their own assets and the safety of the global economy by making increasingly risky bets on unregulated debt securities. “It was a classic instance of making cheap candy bars with rocks inside,’’ Ratigan writes, in an instance in which his penchant for hyperbole seems perfectly apt.
Deriding the bailouts that followed the market collapse and government inaction in the years that followed, he cites a massive “cover-up’’ which has allowed the same dangers to persist. Yet that both over- and undersells the point: The failure to reform the financial system has largely happened right before our eyes, which makes the unfairness of it even harder to bear. Ratigan’s proposed solutions - which include more robust regulation, stronger capital requirements for both banks and individual borrowers, and a reformed tax code based on consumption - reflect real consideration and reveal his willingness to take ideas from across the political spectrum.
Ratigan’s analysis is less cogent when he applies his “greedy bastard’’ formula to areas in which the motivations of individuals are harder to paint in stark good-vs.-evil terms, such as the inefficiencies of the health care system or the failings of public education. The inertia of Ratigan’s anger propels the argument forward, but finally clashes with the more inclusive and optimistic tone he attempts to strike later in the book, when he cautions against giving in to hostility, and writes that “all but the worst of the greedy bastards are soldiers in a bad war.’’
That nod to reality comes a bit late, as it follows page after page in which he fulminates about the corporate plunderers robbing Americans and the elected officials too corrupt or weak to stop them. Ratigan, who recently founded Get Money Out, an organization pushing for campaign-finance reform, is now more of an activist than a journalist, and “Greedy Bastards,’’ which mixes cartoons, charts, and gimmicky acronyms in among its serious arguments, is a blunt primer for his cause - and an extension of the Ratigan brand - rather than a durable examination of modern civic life. Rage may get people’s attention, but it rarely keeps it.Ian Crouch is a contributor to the New Yorker magazine’s Book Bench blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.