The Octomom vs.
The Subprime Mortgage Crisis
This close attention to daily experience - - - from the label on a packet of rice to the evolution of reality television - - - allows [Mark] Greif to make analogies between phenomena that bear no obvious relation, and in doing so illustrate how common patterns are manifest in everything available to our observation. A virtuoso example is provided by "Octomom and the Market in Babies," which begins by considering the media frenzy surrounding Nadya Suleman's delivery of octuplets in January 2009.

The Californian mother was initially feted by an American media grateful for a feel-good story after months of reporting on the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis, but was soon recast as "the most hated woman in America" when it was discovered that her In Vitro Fertilization treatment had been made possible by the provision of hundreds of thousands of dollars in state benefits towards the maintenance of her existing six children. Or, as Greif summarizes in the "language we were all then coming to learn: Nadya had leveraged her disability payments into six babies, collateralized them (as a state liability likely to pay revenues for years to come), and then quite brilliantly leveraged those six babies into eight more."

By conflating the reasoning of a psychologically unstable woman living at home with her mother with that of America's most powerful financial institutions, Greif illustrates that the same forces operate at the macro and micro levels of society. "Octomom" acted according to the implacable, if ultimately deranged, logic that justified the boom in mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations.

This is the bridgehead for an assault on the American media and its deference towards the perpetrators of the financial crisis, those multi-millionaire financiers who slipped away without harassment to their mansions in the Hamptons while the television crews camped out on Nadya Suleman's lawn. We see how the news channels, fronted in Greif's memorable description by "red-faced steam kettles," "puff purveyors" and "sawdust-shedding Pinocchios," neglected their duty to hold power to account in favour of demonizing a young woman, and thus colluded in the escape from justice of those responsible for the homelessness and destitution of thousands of American families.

The consequence of their dereliction of duty is, as the author points out, that it is now easier for most Americans to bring to mind the name of a woman who once had eight children than that of any CEO of a major US banking corporation at the time of the crash. By these means Greif sets his considerable intelligence to understanding what the symptoms of contemporary life - - - health food, reality-television, YouTube, the hipster, Radiohead - - - can tell us about the society we have created for ourselves and how, by extension, we might change it.

--- Ben Eastham
"Whose side are you on?
A review of Against Everything
by Mark Greif
TLS 4 November 2016
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