Dylan Ratigan's inglorious bastardsJanuary 20, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers' and contributors' takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We've invited the entire Fortune family -- from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers -- to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. In this installment, executive editor Stephanie N. Mehta reviews Greedy Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters and Other Vampires from Sucking America Dry, Dylan Ratigan's prognosis of America's problems, and his prescriptions for fixing them.
Ratigan, host of an eponymous MSNBC show, uses the game of Monopoly to illustrate how the banking system functions but first explains to his readers how to dole out the $1,500 each player starts with ("two $500s, two $100s, two $50s, and so on"). He invents games called "Take a Cup" and "Make a Cup" to demonstrate how capitalism works and the difference between traditional banks and systematically important financial institutions, or SIFIs -- banks that are too big to fail -- and riffs on these make-believe games for pages on end.
He even feels the need to explain to his readers what the expression "you get what you pay for" means.
Ratigan himself is no dummy. He's a former Bloomberg editor and CNBC anchor who became a vocal critic of big government and big business following the U.S. financial crisis and subsequent government bailout of banks and automakers. (A cynic might say his conversion to populism was more strategic than religious; when he was on CNBC he wasn't exactly the network's man of the people, and he seemed content to be portrayed as a Porche-driving, frat-boy type.)
When Ratigan isn't over-explaining, he's jumping from one subject to another, prosecuting villains before making the case for why they're "vampires" in Ratigan parlance. A section on education declares the student-loan industry bad guys. Ditto for-profit universities. And banks ("banksters") are baddies for enabling families to take out second mortgages to pay for their kids' college tuitions. His argument: These institutions, with their lobbyists and political contributions, are gaming the regulatory system so that they end up saddling students with worthless degrees and a mound of debt. And then to pay off that debt many of those students become, yes, banksters and vampires. The implication seems to be that the securities industry is bankrupting American families just so it can force its children into indentured servitude as investment bankers.
Even if the reader puts aside this conspiracy theory, the author glosses over a few systemic problems: College tuitions are rising (which is why students and their families take out big loans in the first place) yet a college degree on its own is no longer a guarantee of employment post-graduation. But Ratigan doesn't take on Harvard or Northwestern or Oberlin or any of the institutions of higher education that are contributing to the rising cost of school, other than to insist they become more transparent and provide families with itemized bills showing what they are paying for. Nor does he address the question of whether young people really need to attend college to be successful, an issue that investor Peter Thiel has taken up recently, for example. (Notably absent from Ratigan's unsurprising critique of elementary education -- not enough innovation, mediocre teachers -- is any mention of teachers' unions.)
But the book's biggest shortcoming is its lack of original reporting, a shame, since Ratigan likes to remind his readers of his journalistic bona fides. ("[Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner wouldn't agree to do an interview with me ... I can understand his choice -- if I were Geithner, I wouldn't want to answer my tough questions either!") Ratigan, justifiably, criticizes big media for often being beholden to political and business interests that buy advertising, and implies that information in the press may not always be reliable because so many academics and experts are funded by corporations. But then he proceeds to grab anecdotes, quotes that support his assertions, and assorted facts from the likes of The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times -- even outlets Manufacturing News and Tax Notes.
But there's very little in the way of shoe-leather reporting. His section on education, for example, is full of descriptions of innovative programs and quotes from well-meaning folks like MIT's Nicholas Negroponte and Susie Buffett, Warren Buffett's daughter and an advocate for early education. He praises Sal Khan of the Khan Academy, whose innovative teaching videos are widely embraced by parents and even some schools to supplement classroom learning. But he never takes us inside a classroom -- we don't see how and why students struggle, nor do we get a glimpse of his proposed solutions in action. He tells, but doesn't show, us techniques for making learning more accessible and effective. We never hear a child or parent talking about their experiences. Instead, this populist spends a lot of time talking to Ivory Tower types.
The result is a book that is full of anger and passion, but utterly lacking in heart. Again, this is too bad, because there are many personal stories that Ratigan could have found to illustrate the problems caused by banksters and villains, but also to show how to fix classrooms, healthcare, banking and other broken systems. As for whether you should buy Ratigan's book, as Ben Franklin once wrote, "A penny saved is twopence dear." And if you need that expression explained, perhaps Ratigan's book is perfect for you.