Book Review: “Bailout” by Neil Barofsky

If there is one thing the political right and the political left can agree on, it’s that we both hated the bailout.  We hated the idea of it… we hated the cost of it… and in general, we didn’t want it done, even if we ultimately thought it was necessary.  After it was done, we hated a lot of the things that resulted – not only that nobody in the companies lost their jobs, and not only that, they actually got paid BONUSES.   That really stuck in our craw.

Where we disagree, however, is where we always do – what happened to cause the crisis that necessitated the bailout, and with all that money being spent, how did we know it was being spent “well”?

This book gives an insider account of what happened, from an insider’s view.  When the bailout bill passed, one of the items in the law was for an agency called “SIGTARP” – the Special Inspector General for TARP (the bailout).  Neil Barofsky, a tough federal prosecutor in New York, was nominated to lead the agency.  He was a Democrat appointed by Bush.  This book is his account of how the bailout went down.

If you are on the right of the political spectrum, this book will provide you with plenty of anecdotes to make you feel good about your hatred of government.  Barofsky details how power in Washington is viewed by the size and location of one’s office, for example.  How one person had an office in Treasury that was ridiculously large.  It conferred power.  But his secretary and staff?  They were in another building!  And he also details how Treasury hated the whole idea of SIGTARP, so him and his staff were confined to some basement offices with no equipment, located in a dank, smelly area of the building near the cafeteria.

Barofsky also details how, in order to get things like computers, phones, and freakin’ garbage cans, he had to contract with other government agencies and pay exorbitant rates.

Finally, he details how people within Treasury acted like gossipy teenagers, spreading stories to Barofsky that Elizabeth Warren hated him (not true) and as he found out, Elizabeth Warren was getting fed stories about how Barofsky hated her (also not true).

If you hate government, these stories are like manna from heaven.  It is proof that your beliefs in the stupidity of government are spot on.

However, if like me, you are on the left side of the political spectrum, you get plenty of examples of how the banks dominate our government, and that the continuing revolving door between Wall Street and Washington is extremely bad for the country.  You get to see how you hope for strong oversight and regulations, but how banks, with their power contacts, hurt TARP, leading to fraud and abuse.

Barofsky had some harsh words for Hank Paulson (the Secretary of Treasury for Bush), but believed that Paulson had a “a ha” moment with the crisis, and supported SIGTARP even though most of his staff did not.  However, he was gone pretty quickly.  But under Obama, Geithner and his crew were just as bad, and probably worse.

As a key point, Barofky highlights that any time he tried to get rules placed on TARP to avoid fraud – fraud he had seen first hand as a prosecutor trying Wall Street crimes, Treasury rebuffed him with the simple comments of “banks would never do that, it would risk their reputation.”  Even though banks played a gigantic part (in my view, the sole part) in destroying their reputation by causing the crisis to begin with, Treasury – full of people who had worked in those big banks, couldn’t see that, and wouldn’t see it despite any plea.  Thus, few rules for moral hazards were put in place, and Barofsky details some of the criminal fallout that occurred – things he waned Treasury specifically about.

However, when it came to helping homeowners who were underwater, Treasury was very skeptical.  At that point, moral hazards were the most important thing.  While one can understand the argument – why should a person get a reduction in principal owed on his underwater house when he is behind in his mortgage, while his neighbor who is on top of his mortgage doesn’t – the simple fact is that moral hazards only came into play when it wasn’t for the banks.  In fact, Barofsky details how the loan modification programs, which dragged on and on and on and never really worked, were actually intended to just drag out the process of foreclosures, such that the banks didn’t have to process gazillions of foreclosures at once – the failing loan modification program was used, to quote Geithner, to “foam the runway” (i.e. keep the plane (the banks) from exploding on a crash landing (foreclosures)).

All in all, a very entertaining book.  I have read a few books detailing the financial crisis, and most of them can be pretty dry.  This book is not long, and has fun, personal anecdotes from the author.  If I were to list any complaint with the book, it’s that it jumps around a bit, without necessarily telling you what new topic it was covering.  At times, this made it difficult to know – should I keep reading this tonight because he’s coming to a conclusion by way of this new story, or is this something completely different that might keep me up for another couple of hours.  You don’t ever want to put the book down when he is in the middle of something, so a few more “topic headings” for lack of a better term, would have been helpful.


Book Review: “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” by Lawrence Wright

I’ve broken this review into two sections.  The first section is a review of the book itself (how it is structured, the writing, accuracy, etc.) and the second section is what I took away from it about Scientology

The Book

The book is broken into 3 sections, which are the 3 pieces of the subtitle (“Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief”).  Each occupies about a third of the book, but the last section is a little shorter.  The first section is essentially a brief biography of L. Ron Hubbard, and how he came to found this thing called Scientology, and ends with his death.  This part was quite interesting, as I personally had very little knowledge of the man outside of “Oh, Dianetics and Scientology and a lot of Sci-Fi books”.  While not going super deep into any specific detail, he points out the contradiction between the history that we know of him from actual records and letters to and from friends, and the history that he created for himself.  According to the actual records, he only went to two years of college, never fought in any battles during the war, and had all kinds of health problems.  According to the history he invented, he was a civil and/or nuclear engineer, fought and was wounded in battle, and cured himself of his ailments through the fundamentals of what was Dianetics (and later, Scientology).

The culmination of a lot of his wanderings after the war resulted in the book “Dianetics”, which the author credits as pre-dating, and essentially creating, the self-help movement.  It was an astounding book that sold very, very well, and sounded very scientific.  Hubbard fully expected the psychiatric community to fully support the book.  However, while the book comes across as extensively researched (with a lot of footnotes), things he points to in the footnotes never happened (research and experiments he credits didn’t actually occur).  The psychiatric community called it junk, and this is probably why Hubbard, and Scientology, really, really, really hate psychology and psychiatry.  (Do you remember the Tom Cruise rant against Brooke Shields for taking medication during post-partum depression?  That’s where that rant comes from.)

Despite being rejected by psychiatry, the book sold immensely well.  However, this did not lead to wealth and fame for Hubbard.  The book basically points out how you can do all these things yourself, and as such, Dianetics communities sprung up all over, none of them under his control.  (Later, he would actually lose control of the term Dianetics).

But out of the ashes of Dianetics came Scientology.  You can view Scientology as “Dianetics 2.0”.  It has all the same concepts, even in using the term “clear”, but rather than being a treatise on the mind, it add mystical/fantastical aspects such as past lives, and by cloaking it in a religious blanket, he was able to control it.  While this may seem like a scam, the author is quick to point out that Hubbard spent the remainder of his life attached to Scientology, constantly refining it.  It made him wealthy, but if it was just a scam, you would think Hubbard would have at some point just taken the money and run.  He never did.

The second part of the book is about Hollywood and Scientology.  A lot of movements that started (and ultimately petered out) at the same time as Dianetics and later Scientology attempted to court Hollywood.  This would be an obvious thing to do – you get celebrities attached to your movement, you bring along a lot of other people.  In addition, Hubbard desperately wanted to break into Hollywood as a writer or director.  Additionally, Scientology promised all these answers without asking you to believe in some ancient deity.  It was, in many ways, a natural fit for actors, though it wasn’t until Tom Cruise came abort (20 years into the establishment of the religion), that the celebrity endorser Hubbard craved really occurred.

This part of the book overlaps the first part, but deals with different aspects and characters that are not Hubbard himself.  However, there is no repetition in the narrative, so it does come across as a different book.  In many ways, when you start reading this section, it is like you’ve started another book.

This part of the book really picks up steam after Hubbard’s death, when the church eventually is taken over by David Miscavige.  It was fascinating to see, essentially, power grabs going on in the church for who would lead it, and why, and a bit of palace intrigue occurs.  (In many ways, you can see this in early Christianity when reading the letters from Paul, as he had one idea where Christianity should go – such as getting as many Gentiles as possible into it – where the old guard who knew Jesus had different aims.)

The final part of the book is called the “Prison of Belief”, and what this deals with is, in many ways, the next generation.  Many of the people in Scientology now have been born into it.  While there are no official statistics on how many members there are, it has appeared to be declining, or staying flat.  But if you were born into it… if you did things like the “Sea Orgs” (essentially, the clergy of the church), what happens when your belief systems come up against strong contradictions in Hubbard’s own life?  You believe in the man, but it was clear he was lying?  (As in, he never did heal his war “wounds”, and in fact, they weren’t “wounds”, or his claims that people at a certain level in the religion had extra-human powers, yet nobody ever seemed to, or that when you reached a certain level, petty things that affect you as a “pre-clear”, which should be gone, are still there?)

This part was fascinating too, because he points out, Scientology isn’t the only modern religion to have this problem.  Looking at Mormonism, for example, it is pretty clear Joseph Smith was making things up as he went along, and some of his tales are fantastically wrong.  As an example, he bought some coffins from Egypt which had Papyrus in them.  This was at a time when the Rosetta Stone was just discovered, and so most ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs had yet to be translated.  Smith said he could translate this papyrus, and claimed this was a “Book of Abraham”.  But it isn’t – it’s just some things about funeral rites.  How does one reconcile how wrong (and clearly scam-like) Smith was in this regard, with your faith as a Mormon?  Clearly, people do it.  That is the “prison” of your belief.

What I took away from the book about Scientology

So, let me skip all the parts about how weird Scientology seems to be (Emperor Xenu, and spaceships that look liked DC-8s, and the galaxy being 43 quardillion years old).  Is that any more weird than a virgin birth?  Than parting the Red Sea?  Than Muhammad riding to heaven on his favorite steed?  Than golden plates delivered by the angel Moroni, that have since disappeared?  It’s only weird in that it is the “newest” one, when you think about it.

Is it a religion?  Or is it a “cult”?  The author never calls it a cult (whether this is because he doesn’t think it is, or whether it is because he doesn’t want to be harassed by Scientologist lawyers the rest of his life like other have been for calling it a cult is hard to say).  He lays out some statements from people in other faiths.  A monk, for example, who took a life of poverty, beat himself with whips when he had a failing (self flagellation).  The book points out beatings and self-deprivation of food, and other things Scientologists have done.  Is that different?  How about Jehovah’s witnesses who won’t take a blood transfusion – is that different from a Scientologist not wanting to take Prozac?  These are good questions.  And as such, I think it is fair to call it a religion.  Even though I wouldn’t go near it with a 10-foot pole that doesn’t make it a cult, because I wouldn’t become Amish, either!

No, what I took away from it is just how paranoid a religion it is.  Unlike many faiths, where there is an “us”, and a “them”, Scientology tries very hard, while being a “religion”, to behave as if it is built on “science”.  As such, there is nothing like “baptism”, where you are now “in the group” and are safe.  If you do something that a superior considers wrong or bad, even if you have been in the church your whole life, have worked your ass off to promote it, have lived by its principles, etc. you can be considered an “SP” (suppressive person) or, a “PTS” (potential trouble source).  The number of Scientologists who were punished, for essentially no other reason than pissing off somebody more senior, is endless.

And when you consider that people who aren’t Scientologists (wogs is the term), are thus, by their very nature “SPs”, the cult-like status sometimes attributed to it comes into play.  We generally think of cults as organizations that force their members to cut off contact with people who aren’t in the cult, and the concept of PTS and SP feeds directly into that.

Another item that feeds this paranoia is related to the scientific basis it tries to have.  The “auditing” sessions (where you are hooked up to their e-meter) are recorded, and that information is put in a file.  In many cases, members of Scientology have dug into those files when somebody wishes to leave the organization.  This is something very different from other religions.  If you no longer want to be Catholic, for example, your confession to a priest is still sacred, and he will never violate it.  If you confess that you had desires for somebody not your spouse, that stays witht he priest. But in Scientology, if you admit that in an audit, and then you want to leave, that stuff is then told to your spouse.  The files are violated all the time as a way to discredit former members who have become critical.  That is a form of intimidation that is very, very difficult to find acceptable.

That paranoia stems from Hubbard himself.  If you look at how he tried to create this narrative about who he was as being different from official naval records (he went so far as to claim that he was a member of military intelligence, and thus there were two sets of records on him), you can begin to see it.  If you look at how Dianetics got away from him, you can begin to see it.  If you look at how it took forever for Scientology to get “tax exempt” status, you can begin to see it.  This was a man, and a movement, that constantly felt under attack.  Add to that that this was supposed to be scientific, where the thing harming you could be measured with an “e-meter” (but where the e-meter itself has to be interpreted by an “auditor”) you have a religion that can’t default to “the <deity> works in mysterious ways”.  There is no mystery – there is an explanation for everything, and if something didn’t go right, it must be your fault.