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Book review: 'The Great American Stickup' by Robert Scheer

The journalist makes sense of the 2008 economic 'meltdown' in the U.S. and finds fault with Republicans and Democrats alike.

October 18, 2010|By Jonathan Kirsch | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Robert Scheer is a journalist in the gadfly tradition of Lincoln Steffens, I. F. Stone and Seymour Hersh. His latest book, "The Great American Stickup," blames the "captains of finance" for causing the 2008 "meltdown" of the global economy in the first place and then profiting from the tax dollars that were thrown at the problem — "a giant hustle that served the richest of the rich," as he puts it, "and left the rest of us holding the bag."

We've been reading Scheer's informed, edgy prose since his days at Ramparts magazine, and his career has included a long stint as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and, more recently, the founding of the website Truthdig. By now, he is so practiced at investigative journalism and advocacy journalism that his book is like a strong dose of black coffee — bracing and eye-opening.

Remarkably, Scheer is capable of making sense of something that Victorian thinker Thomas Carlyle rightfully called "the dismal science," that is, the workings of the economy. And he is not only willing but downright eager to name names, including such now-dubious gurus as Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Alan Greenspan, among others. Without sacrificing the subtleties and nuances of his subject, Scheer (along with his sons Christopher and Joshua Scheer) leads us briskly through the policy-making of the last three presidents and their advisors and argues that Democrats and Republicans share the blame.

"After the inauguration, the new Obama administration made it clear from day one that pleasing Wall Street rather than distraught homeowners would be the focal point of policy," he writes. "For all the brave talk about transparency and accountability in the banking bailout, [Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner] gave the swindlers who got us into this mess yet another blank check to buy up the 'toxic assets' they gleefully created."

Indeed, Scheer always allows himself the luxury — and gives his readers the pleasure — of verbal pyrotechnics that would be out of bounds in a newspaper. Thus, for example, he complains that regulators merely watched as "the giant banks, led by executives and boards seeking fast profits, joined in a mad feeding frenzy, gobbling up so-called liars' loans given out willy-nilly by off-brand lenders that are almost now bankrupt."

Scheer is plainly a progressive but also, and above all, a populist. "If we as a people learn anything from this crash, it should be that there are no adults watching the store, only a tiny elite of self-interested multimillionaires and billionaires making decisions for the rest of us," he concludes. "As long as we cede that power to them, we can expect to continue getting bilked."

On that point, I suspect, a great many of his readers, Democrats and Republicans alike, will agree.

Kirsch is book editor of the Jewish Journal and author of, most recently, "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God."

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