Apr 022010

Matt Taibbi has an article about the destruction of Jefferson County up at Rolling Stone. I strongly recommend you read it, but take your blood pressure medicine first. I would like to be able to say that this story, in which crooked banks and corrupt politicians conspire to inflate the price of a public works project more than 1000 percent, saddling a county with billions of dollars of debt it will take a generation to pay off, is an elaborate April Fool’s joke. Unfortunately, as the residents of Birmingham know, it’s all too real. Like countless city councilmen, county commissioners, and mayors before him, Larry Langford played the city like a long con, adding the ruinous sewer project to his other notable failures, such as VisionLand. One wonders how much of his talent for failing upward was due to the assistance of men who knew he could be bought.

In a small way, I’m sorry that it came to this. Larry Langford had vision. It was a stupid vision, and he pursued it stupidly, but his allure came from the fact that he had it. After decades of politicians who seemed to be content to let the city be a place that only existed in history books, Langford articulated the view that Birmingham could be a place worth visiting on its own, present merits. He gave people the feeling that he believed Birmingham really could be a great city, a social and economic rival to Atlanta. Even if it was an empty dream, built on hokum like an unaffordable domed stadium, at least it was some kind of dream. Langford was a buffoon and a flim-flam artist, but despite all the damage he did, I’m going to miss the show.

As for the banking institutions whose complicated scams sent the county into punishing debt, their incredibly corrupt behavior in this case puts the lie to their oft-repeated claim that the mortgage crisis is the result of foolish borrowers living beyond their means. The economy collapsed because the banks’ con game unraveled, end of story. The Bernie Madoffs of the world weren’t isolated bad actors in a fundamentally honest profession. They were, rather, the paragons of an industry which prides itself on maximizing revenue no matter what the cost to the borrower, the lender, or their own integrity. But the investigations have barely touched these institutions, and the fines they have been made to pay are trivial in comparison to the magnitude of the damage they inflicted. In every way that matters to shameless creatures such as these, the banks will walk away unpunished, and we will be left with the bill, paying down the debt for decades to come.

The politicians, instead, will rot in jail. They deserve it, to be sure, but the blame doesn’t all rest with them. In this sense, the banks out-conned the cons. J.P. Morgan got away with the loot, and Larry Langford got caught holding the bag.

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