IS THIS A POLITICAL BOOK? It’s a political book in the sense that we have a landscape of unaccountable and not very helpful financial institutions, and they are politically powerful. And when you’re faced with a landscape like that, when you’re faced with financial institutions that are so unaccountable, there’s a couple of different possible ways to go. One is to try to regulate them better. And lots of people are doing that and I think very highly of their work. But you have to say that they’re not really getting that far.
[When I talk about financial institutions], I’m referring to the banks: to Bank of America, to Goldman Sachs, to J.P. Morgan, to Wells Fargo, to Citigroup — the people who created the financial disaster of 2007 and 2008 and who are largely still in control. There really has not been that much to change since then, except a lot of people lost a lot of money.
[Before this book], I kept meeting activists, people who have the energy, people who are interested in changing stuff. But they’re baffled by what has to be changed and where to start and what to do. And so I wrote it for them. This is the book that I wish I had had 25 years ago when I started looking into this kind of stuff.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE 2008 CRISIS. I FEEL LIKE A LOT OF FOLKS ARE ANGRY AND HAVE A VAGUE SENSE THAT THE BANKS ARE TO BLAME, BUT THEY AREN’T ABLE TO SPECIFICALLY ARTICULATE WHY. CAN YOU HELP? Well, we should be angry. You know why? Because there are no victimless financial crimes.
People said, “Oh, there [were] excesses. . . money was lost. . . ” Well, the excesses that happened, the money that was lost — that all belonged to real people. That belonged to people’s pension funds. That belonged to people’s savings. That belonged to businesses that had to go out of business.
I mean, the disaster was huge, and the people who were taking the risks mostly were not bearing the burden of those risks. When the managers of J.P. Morgan Chase decide to speculate in basic derivatives, it’s not their money that they’re speculating with. They’re speculating with somebody else’s money, secure in the knowledge that they can always argue their way into a bonus. Maybe their bonus will only be $8 million, instead of $10 or $15 million. But they’ll be able to argue their way to a bonus, whatever happens. But they wind up taking these risks that go very badly for some people. . . people who don’t have their hands on the levers of control of these banks.
YOU COULD PROBABLY MAKE A LOT OF MONEY IN THIS INDUSTRY IF YOU WANTED TO. I may be the lowest-paid guy in America who could write a book like this.
DID YOU EVER THINK OF GOING INTO INVESTMENT BANKING? No. My interest is in trying to make a financial system that has some democratic accountability. Finance on its own terms is not that interesting to me. There’s a lot more interesting things to spend your time on. But finance in the shape that we have it – which is that it has been the cause of cataclysms and devastated communities — I mean, that’s interesting.