The sentence: The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.
The writer: Matt Taibbi
The story: “The Great American Bubble Machine,” published July 9, 2009, in Rolling Stone
The setup: “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen,” Woody Guthrie sang in his 1939 ballad, “Pretty Boy Floyd.”
The song is about a Depression-era bank robber who didn’t just ride off with sacks of cash. He also burned mortgage papers, which freed many farmers from debt. That earned Floyd the nickname the Robin Hood of Cookson Hills. Goldman Sachs has a different reputation. “You won’t never see an outlaw / drive a family from their home,” Guthrie’s song ends. Goldman, on the other hand, drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. That, among other things, earned Goldman Sachs the nickname “the great vampire squid.”
The sentence drops two lines deep into a 10,000-word prosecution of the investment bank. Taibbi explains how Goldman Sachs robbed the country with a fountain pen over the 80 years between 1929 and 2009. Its M.O.: inflate a bubble, rake in salaries and bonuses, watch the bubble deflate, pay off some relatively small penalty, and repeat. Along the way, say hello to old employees in positions of power, such as the New York Fed or the treasury department. According to Taibbi, the bank ran this game via the Great Depression, tech stocks, the housing crisis, gas prices, and the bailout, and it was hungry to inflate another bubble in carbon credits. And this is possible, because, as Taibbi writes, “organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.”
Why it’s so good:
The vampire squid sentence is a hilarious and vivid start to an essay that eventually must wade into the dull and abstract world of leverage-based investments, IPOs, and CDOs. Taibbi knows he’s got his work cut out for him. Five months earlier, he wrote about the “strong temptation to not really give a shit” about the back-to-the-obscene Goldman bonuses in the wake of the financial crisis. The reason for this apathy, he guesses, is that “there’s still a widespread misunderstanding of how exactly Wall Street ‘earns’ its money.”
The sentence starts to clear things up. Even if you (like me) need more than one read for the parts that are “pretty easy even for the financially illiterate to grasp,” the metaphor brings to life the zombie-like (“relentlessly jamming”) hunt for tech stocks, taxpayer-funded bailout money, oil commodities, whatever (“anything that smells like money”).
Never mind that vampire squids do not actually have blood funnels (an error that nearly got the sentence axed by fact-checkers). The metaphor calls to mind the giant squids of Norse mythology, Moby-Dick, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Like any good sea beast, Goldman Sachs isn’t just any vampire squid. It is “a great vampire squid.” And it doesn’t kill its catch, at least not instantly. Instead, it torments and takes its time to slurp out and digest humanity.
This essay doesn’t pretend that there are two sides to the Goldman story that deserve equal weight. The vampire squid sentence lets you know that from the jump. There won’t be space for Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO, to claim he’s “doing God’s work,” or for Brian Griffiths, an international adviser, to insist we must “tolerate inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity.” Instead, Taibbi slaps a face (albeit a cephalopod’s face) on “the world’s most powerful investment bank.”
It stuck. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street protesters rallied around Goldman Sachs with “papier-mâché replicas of squids.” When word got out that the Danish government sold nearly 20 percent of its biggest utility to Goldman, protesters covered a statue of a former king with — what else? — a vampire squid flag.
Jason Silverstein is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Harvard. He is writing a book about the science of empathy for Simon & Schuster. Follow him at @Jason_Reads. For more installments of “Why’s this (sentence) so good?” go here.