rage lit

Joe Nocera Likes to Be Angry

And on the publication date of his comprehensive new financial crisis book with Bethany McLean, All the Devils Are Here, we were of course only too happy too oblige the Times columnist by annoying him in a Q&A.

A lot of financial-crisis books have come out in the past two years. Why should we read yours? Sell me on it like you’re an Ameriquest loan officer trying to sign me up for a mortgage I can’t afford.
Well, I’m not a loan officer; I’m an author. The last time I got too braggadocio about this book, a couple years ago, the New York Observer whacked me across the head for being uppity. So I am mildly chagrined. But having said that: Why do we need another financial-crisis book? ‘Cause nobody’s put it all together, where it all came from. We are not about tick-tock on Lehman weekend. We are about twenty years of missteps, crookedness, delusion, the sort of combination of forces and factors that got us into a situation we couldn’t get out of.

So what makes that a fun read?
I mean basically, history is readable. History is fun to read. We’ve put this together with people, with characters, with sort of inside poop about companies like Merrill Lynch that basically shot themselves in the head. And also, to be honest? The book makes you angry. You find out a lot of stuff that took place, that you didn’t really know happened, and you just want to strangle someone when you finish.

And that’s a good feeling?
It’s a cathartic feeling. From my own point of view, I got angrier about the crisis when I was writing this book — when I really started to understand the seamy underbelly, how preventable it was, how many people had to look the other way, how this machinery got put in place, that you could sort of see from a mile away was going to come crumbling down. Ugh, it was just appalling.

But then the problem is, as it has been through this crisis, is that you’re angry, you look around, and there’s no one to strangle. Because as your book illustrates, there’s not one single villain.
Yes, there’s a reason we call it All the Devils Are Here. Because there’s a lot of devils. No one thing could have brought us to this place. If you had just sleazy subprime-mortgage companies, without the connection to Wall Street, this wouldn’t have happened. If you had had regulators who actually cared about consumers, about people borrowing money, this wouldn’t have happened. If you had home owners who were perfectly content with 30-year fixed mortgages, this wouldn’t have happened. It required all these different pieces. In the book, we try to very clearly take you from villain to villain to see how it all adds up.

If you had to absolutely pick a villain, who would it be? Was it the lenders. The GSEs? The ratings agencies? Goldman Sachs?
Institutionally, the biggest villains by far were the ratings agencies. If they hadn’t sold their souls for filthy lucre, if they had stuck to what their mission was, and not slapped a triple-A rating on every Tom-Dick-and-Harry mortgage-backed security that came down the pike, this could never have happened. Individually, I mean, I honestly think the biggest villain is Alan Greenspan. Half of his job was to be a regulator, and he not only ignored that half of the job, he affirmatively turned his back on that half of the job. He’s now blaming it all on Fannie and Freddie, which is the classic Republican excuse for the crisis because it allows them to say government did it, it allows them to take all of the failings of the marketplace completely off the hook.

In this book and also in most of your columns, you cover a lot of awful people doing awful things. Do you think people are basically evil?
I’m not that cynical! I think people are basically complicated. I think everybody has a mix of motives that are good and bad. What I try and do in this book and in my column is capture people’s motivations. I think [former Countrywide CEO] Angelo Mozilo was much more complicated than he has been made out to be. He’s widely regarded as leading the charge into subprime and being the leading exemplar of bad lending. And there’s no question he did a lot of it. But what was interesting to me about him was his motives. He truly believed in the virtues of having more and poorer people own their own homes. But after resisting subprime for many years, what finally drove him into it in the end was he couldn’t stand the thought of another company getting bigger than him. He needed Countrywide to be No. 1. So he was sort of driven by this insane desire for market share.

You wrote this book with Bethany McLean, of Smartest Guys in the Room fame. Who did the heavy lifting as far as the reporting and writing, you or Bethany?
We both did.

It’s okay, she’s not here, you can tell me the truth.
Well you’re going to print this, so. She’s more analytical than I am and in some ways a deeper reporter. I would never have gone as deeply into the subprime stuff that caught her eye, and I think that’s one of the keys to the book. I’m a better narrative writer and I’m a better editor. So the way it works is, her chapters are heavy on the analysis and light on narrative. My chapters are heavy on narrative and light on the analysis. There are chapters that are basically mine that I reported and wrote, and that she reported and wrote.

What’s your favorite chapter?
I’m very fond of the Goldman/AIG chapter. The reason I like it is because we were able to take advantage of documents that hadn’t been revealed during those sorts of earlier rounds of books, and we were able to piece together a very nuanced chronology of what actually did transpire between Goldman and AIG in the months leading up to the crisis. I don’t think anyone had done that before.

And who wrote that chapter, you or Bethany?
That was one of my chapters.

So you do think you’re better than Bethany.

You think your parts are better than hers.
I didn’t say that! You just asked me what one of my favorite chapters was. If you put anything along those lines in this interview, I’ll kill you.

Okay, moving on to a semi-related subject. It’s been reported that HBO was supposed to buy your book instead of Sorkin’s, but you turned your manuscript in too late, is that true?
That’s not really true. They hired Bethany and I to be consultants on an unnamed movie project about the financial crisis. We didn’t have a manuscript to give them, you know? I introduced the writer around to some people in Washington, we talked him through a bunch of stuff during the early parts of his research. And then Andrew’s book came out and it really was sort of tailor-made, cinematically, for the kind of movie they wanted to make. So they bought his book, and they hired him as a consultant too. Our book just came out. They’re shooting the movie now. If they had waited for us it would have been a hell of a long wait. They did what was right for HBO.

Do you see Sorkin as more HBO, and you’re more PBS?
Ha! I hadn’t thought of it that way.

But it’s kind of true. Speaking of Sorkin, he kind of seems to be the alpha dog over at the Times Business section lately, what with the new enhanced DealBook and everything. Are you ever like, “Argh, ‘Marcia Marcia Marcia’ ” about him?
Are we still on the record here?

Yes, of course.
I’m a huge Sorkin fan. He’s a friend of mine. I think DealBook makes perfect sense as a component for Bizday, and I think it’s an important part of it. But you know, the newspaper, Bizday itself, is not being subsumed inside DealBook or anything remotely close to that.

Speaking of annoyances, the public editor gave you a hard time recently over a conflict of issue in a column you wrote last month [about the board of Hewlett-Packard’s hiring of a CEO who was allegedly involved in intellectual property theft from Oracle at his previous job]. Your fiancée is the director of communications at the law firm representing Oracle [Boies, Schiller & Flexner] …
Okay, first of all, she didn’t do anything wrong. She’s the one who’s gotten dragged through the mud here, and it’s not fair. Second, well, you know, I did make a mistake. There’s no question that I made a mistake, and you know, I deserve to get twenty lashes for it. I perhaps did not deserve HP’s directors spending gobs of money trying to dig up dirt on me, but um, that’s the way it goes, apparently, when you write something the HP board of directors doesn’t like. But you know, I made a mistake. I had a conflict that I didn’t realize, and I should have bent over backwards to find out if David Boies was involved in this case. Which I did not do. So yeah, I done bad.

So are you going to pass all your column ideas by your fiancée now?
No. What I am supposed to do is if I’m writing about litigation is find out if David Boies is involved, which is a reasonable thing for the paper to ask. And I hope you print that line.

One last work question. You were reportedly interested in the Times Magazine job. Are you going to have a role at the newfangled version of the magazine?
I am helping Hugo out a little, to the extent that Hugo wants me to help out, and I’m enjoying it. But there’s no sort of formal relationship. I go to an occasional story meeting. I whisper in his ear. I’m gonna be, you know, Kibitzer-in-Chief.

Okay, we’re done. You sound a little out of sorts. Are you going to get drunk at your book party tonight?
No, because I have to do an interview at seven tomorrow. Bethany and I are going to be on Imus together, so I can’t afford to be hungover. Unfortunately.

Joe Nocera Likes to Be Angry