The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap By Matt Taibbi - book review: Rich pickings in a captivating tale of two Americas

 

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The Independent Culture

In Michael Lewis's latest inevitable bestseller, Flash Boys, Lewis tells the sorry tale of Sergey Aleynikov, a talented programmer who was pretty much the only person on Wall Street to go to prison in the wake of the great crash. Aleynikov, Lewis reveals, was helped into custody by former employees Goldman Sachs for emailing himself computer code. His sentence was overturned.

Meanwhile, from the Libor scandal of 2012, to HSBC's money-laundering to the many shady deals preceding and following the crash itself – no company has been indicted, merely fined – not least thanks to the infamous 1999 memo from the now US Attorney General Eric Holder warning against prosecuting corporations (later dubbed "too big to jail").

Which is where Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone journalist whose work on the financial crisis spawned some of the best, angriest, journalism of the post-Lehman Brothers era and, of course, his zeitgeisty 2009 description of Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

Alongside Lewis, Taibbi has probably been the best, and most vivid explainer of how these vast, labyrinthine institutions work. And if Lewis, the former trader, is the man from the inside shipping information out, Taibbi is the punk outsider, barely containing his fury as he unravels how modern America works.

His thesis in The Divide is that there are two justice systems. One for the rich and one for the poor and, often, the non-white. As well as taking us behind the door of the big business – like the lucrative deal to sell parts of an ailing Lehman to Barclays, he takes us to meet immigrant workers sucked up by a Kafkaesque system of semi-privatised justice. They include a man arrested for standing outside his own house at 1am, another deported to the wrong country and right into the hands of a cartel.

All these people, Taibbi tells us with barely suppressed rage, are picked up and turned over by a US justice system that has monetised criminality, and is thus responsible for a prison/parole population that exceeds that of Stalin's gulags. And though Taibbi's journalism and passion carry the reader through sometimes dense reporting about financial chicanery, it's the tales from the bottom of the divide that are captivating.

Taibbi's skill at weaving these two disparate worlds together through the prism of justice is an enviable one. And while there's no line as memorable as the Vampire Squid, The Divide enshrines its author's position as one of the most important voices in contemporary American journalism.

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