Sunday, February 17, 2013


I just finished reading Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street by Neil Baroksky. I discovered the book via Barofsky's appearance on Jon Stewart's show.

It's an interesting, if somewhat flawed, read. I'm a big fan of P. J. O'Rourke -- his earlier works like Holidays In Hell, Parliament of Whores, The Bachelor Home Companion, and Republican Party Reptile are sheer genius, and also extremely funny -- and Stewart's talk with Barofsky led me to think that Bailout might be of the same stuff. Alas, Barofsky is not another O'Rourke.

Barofsky is also not William Faulkner: this is his first book and it shows.

But Barofsky is the former Special Inspector General (SIG) charged with overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and Bailout is not just another dry economics text. As an outsider to both Washington DC and the writing world, Barofsky's words ring genuine and he really cares about the issues he raises.

The book is not without humor:

As he cleaned his office, I told Kevin something he already knew: "I never would have survived without you, you know. SIGTARP wouldn't have survived without you."

"Fuck you," he answered lightheartedly.

But the real reason to read Bailout is because it is a singular memoir of an honest man who really was "on the inside" of a huge government program. Barofsky began the job with no experience of the realities of Washington politics, but as an ex-Federal Prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York City who had sent many drug lords and crooked Wall Street executives to prison, he didn't just roll over and cooperate with the Treasury Department. Instead, he focused on doing what he believed was just. And that made him many, many enemies.

Admittedly, the account in Bailout is rather one-sided, but even the firmest adherent of the "there's two sides to every story" school of critical reading is going to be stunned at some of the government malfeasance described in this book. You can't make some of this shit up. And if you still have problems believing it, Barofsky provides ample and comprehensive footnotes to document his story.

I'm still in shock from some of these revelations. How could Congress have the foresight to see the need for a Special Inspector General to protect a $700 billion hand-out from the inevitable criminals who would flock to that huge pile of money -- and yet be so naive as to trust the banks to use the money in the best public interest? How does the Treasury Department get away with its blatant bias towards Wall Street and its "fuck you" attitude towards the American people? For instance:

Nothing more emphatically attested to the double standard Treasury applied to its handling of the crisis than its incompetence in addressing the foreclosure crisis. As familiar as I had become with HAMP's failures, I had not really fully appreciated the cynicism behind the program's execution until ... [former assistant secretary of the Treasury Herb] Allison made the absured claim to us that the program had never been intended to help the 3 to 4 million home owners that the president cited in his speech announcing the program actually stay in their homes through permanenent modifications. Instead, he said, the goal had always been to make 3 to 4 million offers for trial modifications. That claim of such a meaningless standard for HAMP seemed particularly callous ...

I'm not a religious man, but as I read Bailout, I couldn't help but think that there is a very special place in Hell awaiting some of these people for the misery they inflicted on so many Americans. At least, I hope there is.

In short, Bailout is a worthwhile read. The writing is sometimes less than smooth, but it is nonetheless a compelling, honest, and fast-moving narrative, and the "one man against the system" story will resonate with everyone.

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