Matt Taibbi and Byron York Butt Heads Over Whether McCain Deserves Blame for the Wall Street Meltdown

James Lockhart before the Senate. Photo: Getty Images

Every day (or close to it) until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi and National Review's Byron York argue over the headwinds facing McCain, what Phil Gramm had to do with the financial crisis, and the importance of credit default swaps.

M.T.: So how are you feeling about McCain's chances today?

B.Y.: I've just finished an article for National Review — the actual magazine — about the headwinds McCain faces. I was going to look at three, and then I started to list them. I stopped at ten. New Gallup numbers out today show that George W. Bush's job approval rating remains at 25 percent, while his disapproval rating has ticked up to 71 percent. How hard is it to succeed a two-term president of your own party who is at 25-71? We don't know because it's never been done.

M.T.: Yeah, that's a damned shame, too. I feel really badly for the guy. I suppose you think the media coverage is also a headwind?

B.Y.: Actually, I did not list media coverage among the headwinds. I listed the succeed-a-two-term-president problem, the right-track/wrong-track problem, the Republican-Democrat-enthusiasm gap problem, the Republican-Democrat-I.D.-gap problem, the financial meltdown, Iraq, Republican gloom on Capitol Hill, Obama's fund-raising advantage, and McCain's historical problems with the GOP base.

M.T.: But all of those "headwinds," or almost all of them, are the direct result of McCain having supported policies that are now unpopular. There is absolute justice in his facing a "headwind" from the financial meltdown, from the unpopularity of the Iraq war, and so on. How is that a "headwind"? That's just self-created unpopularity.

I mean, his onetime campaign co-chair and top economic adviser, Phil Gramm, basically created the credit-default-swap market back in 2000. Why shouldn't he get hammered on the financial crisis?

B.Y.: Did I suggest that headwinds are unfair? But on the financial meltdown in particular, if you're suggesting that that is a Republican creation, or even more specifically a McCain creation, I think you're on pretty shaky ground.

M.T.: You don't think the unregulated CDS market was a major factor in the current crisis? Were you watching when AIG almost went under? Were you watching the Lehman collapse?

B.Y.: I think that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were also major factors. And I believe that many of the problems in the mortgage area can be attributed to the confluence of Democratic and Republican priorities: the Democrats' desire to give mortgages to people, particularly minorities, who could not afford them, and the Republicans' desire to achieve an "ownership society," in part by giving mortgages to people who could not afford them. Again, I believe that if you are suggesting that the financial crisis is a Republican creation, or even more specifically a McCain creation, I think you're on pretty shaky ground.

M.T.: Oh, come on. Tell me you're not ashamed to put this gigantic international financial Krakatoa at the feet of a bunch of poor black people who missed their mortgage payments. The CDS market, this market for credit default swaps that was created in 2000 by Phil Gramm's Commodities Future Modernization Act, this is now a $62 trillion market, up from $900 billion in 2000. That's like five times the size of the holdings in the NYSE. And it's all speculation by Wall Street traders. It's a classic bubble/Ponzi scheme. The effort of people like you to pin this whole thing on minorities, when in fact this whole thing has been caused by greedy traders dealing in unregulated markets, is despicable.

B.Y.: I was struck by the recent Senate testimony of James Lockhart, who is head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, about the sheer recklessness of Fannie in recent years. Despite "repeated warnings about credit risk," Lockhart testified, Fannie became more reckless in 2006 and 2007 than they had been in the scandal-ridden tenure of Franklin Raines (who departed in 2004). In 2005, Lockhart said, 14 percent of Fannie's new business was in risky loans. In the first half of 2007, it was 33 percent. So something terribly wrong was going on there, and it became a significant part of the present problem.

M.T.: What a surprise that you mention Franklin Raines. Do you even know how a CDS works? Can you explain your conception of how these derivatives work? Because I get the feeling you don't understand. Or do you actually think that it was a few tiny homeowner defaults that sank gigantic companies like AIG and Lehman and Bear Stearns? Explain to me how these default swaps work, I'm interested to hear.

Because what we're talking about here is the difference between one homeowner defaulting and forty, four hundred, four thousand traders betting back and forth on the viability of his loan. Which do you think has a bigger effect on the economy?

B.Y.: Are you suggesting that critics of Fannie and Freddie are talking about the default of a single homeowner?

M.T.: No. That is what you call a figure of speech. I'm saying that you're talking about individual homeowners defaulting. But these massive companies aren't going under because of individual homeowner defaults. They're going under because of the myriad derivatives trades that go on in connection with each piece of debt, whether it be a homeowner loan or a corporate bond. I'm still waiting to hear what your idea is of how these trades work. I'm guessing you've never even heard of them.

I mean really. You honestly think a company like AIG tanks because a bunch of minorities couldn't pay off their mortgages?

B.Y.: When you refer to "Phil Gramm's Commodities Future Modernization Act," are you referring to S.3283, co-sponsored by Gramm, along with Senators Tom Harkin and Tim Johnson?

M.T.: In point of fact I'm talking about the 262-page amendment Gramm tacked on to that bill that deregulated the trade of credit default swaps.

Tick tick tick. Hilarious sitting here while you frantically search the Internet to learn about the cause of the financial crisis — in the middle of a live chat interview.

B.Y.: Look, you can keep trying to make this a specifically partisan and specifically Gramm-McCain thing, but it simply isn't. We've gone on for fifteen minutes longer than scheduled, and that's enough. Thanks.

M.T.:  Thanks. Note, folks, that the esteemed representative of the New Republic has no idea what the hell a credit default swap is. But he sure knows what a minority homeowner looks like.

B.Y.: It's National Review.

Earlier:
Michael Idov and Matt Taibbi on Obama’s Foregone Historic Win, and the Morass It Will Land In

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.