A funny movie about the tragedy of the Great Recession
THE SANTA CLARA
January 28, 2016
The 2016 election boils down to the group Americans find more dangerous: poor, brown people or rich, white people. Trump has built a case for the latter. That clementine-colored windbag whips up racist fury with half-baked, blistering attacks on immigrants, refugees and Muslims who haven’t really done anything.
On the other side, Sanders indicts Trump’s demographic—wealthy, predominantly white businessmen. He lambasts these well-groomed Yakubians who got off scot-free after destroying six million homes, eight million jobs and $7 trillion of pensions, retirement funds and life savings during the 2007 economic collapse. Prosecution never materialized because Americans fuzzily understood the grand scam. And convoluted financial skullduggery doesn’t inspire the same fanaticism as “They’re coming over the border and raping us!”
But Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” simplifies this colossal disaster in the comedy director’s first foray into Oscar-worthy territory. The film follows the handful of dudes who predicted that the unthinkable was inevitable and made billions off the collapse of the housing market.
Christian Bale plays eccentric catalyst Michael Burry—a barefoot, metalhead MD turned portfolio manager with a reputation for finding wonky trends in the stock market. Steve Carell embodies caustic hedge funder Mark Baum who has a beagle’s nose for cow dung and a short fuse when confronted with cocksure villainy. Brad Pitt gets scruffy as retired big-time trader Ben Rickert who grows his own vegetables, rocks surgical masks in public and despises the callous number-crunching of high-level economics. And Ryan Gosling jaws double-time as trader Jared Verret who narrates through the fourth wall and bares his shamelessly selfish motivations with honest bravado.
The quartet crushes their roles. But like every all-star game, none get the ball long enough to show off their full repertoire. But that’s fine. This film functions best as a stylish PSA about the national disaster that happened less than a decade ago—yet has faded from our collective memory.
To detangle the complexity, McKay cuts to a bubble-bathing Margot Robbie, fish-stew brewing Anthony Bourdain and blackjack-playing Selena Gomez to unpack the falsely legitimate jargon that camouflaged the economic collapse. They teach us that stockbrokers marketed poop as “organic, microbe-rich, recycled fertilizer.”
McKay meticulously details the slow-boil to the meltdown. Banks lent money to people who didn’t have the means or inclination to pay it back. Then, banks bundled these mortgages by the thousands and sold them to investors. These mortgage bundles should have received a poor rating because there was no chance that money would be repaid.
But these investments earned AAA—the highest marks—because the banks padded the pockets of ratings agencies. Based on these blue chip ratings, other investors bet exorbitant sums that these mortgages would be paid off—creating a side market 20 times larger. Everyone made a ton of money until those original loans defaulted and the bubble popped.
We lost $5 trillion. That’s $5,000,000,000,000. That’s five million millions. Five thousand billions. For that money, you could build over 1,000 World Trade Centers and still have a trillion left to spend on over 750 Levi’s Stadiums.
And I say “lost,” but that’s not really it. We fabricated that cash. Wall Streeters told us worthless things were valuable. When we realized they lied, all the fake money we thought we had disappeared. Since the world economy exists only in our imagination, a big enough lie can topple the whole wazi-woozy.
To avoid a complete collapse, the United States government gave out $618 billion to defibrillate the too-big-to-fail banks. To their credit, the banks have paid back all of this money, plus $65 billion extra, but they also lavished themselves with $32 billion in bonuses.
And despite the vast sums poured in at the top, only a few drops have “trickled down.” Wealth inequality is at the highest rate since the Great Depression—y’know back when people waited in lines for bread. Right now, the top 5 percent own over half the wealth. The top 20 percent own 88.9 percent of it. The bottom 40 percent are in debt.
Since the “recovery,” 9/10 of income gains have gone to the top one percent. So not only have the super-wealthy recovered, they’ve strengthened.
We have the most robust economy in Earth’s history, yet ⅕ of our children live in poverty, ⅙ of adults are under- or unemployed and ⅗ of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings account. We live in a country where the homeless sleep under the awnings of skyscrapers with helipads.
I major in sociology. So I have heard oodles of starry-eyed visions of unrealistic utopias. But none have been more delusional than our current nationwide belief that the minimally regulated economy will take care of all of us. It just can’t. The economy can’t keep growing. Nothing can. Even the bloody universe will shrink at some point. That’s how everything works. We live in the constant cosmic respiration of birth and decay. Yet, we refuse to let this damaging fantasy die—choosing instead to dress it up in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses while insisting that everything is fine.
Americans react so viscerally to wealth redistribution because it grinds our up-by-the-bootstraps gears. Even when we lose trillions, we refuse to believe that the current economic situation is unfair because we’ve been told that’s un-American. The only ones who hate capitalism are quitters, losers and free-loaders. Besides, every American just knows they’re one lucky break from joining the elite. Powerball fever ain’t a seasonal issue. It’s chronic—and intensified by the relentless rags-to-riches propaganda that hold up the exception as the rule.
“The Big Short” follows classic American entrepreneurs—men who recognized unseen patterns and profited from them. They embody everything we aspire to be. They worked hard, used their wit and made dumptrucks of money. Only it happened at the expense of everyone else. And yeah, when the Titanic sinks, it’s better to be in the boat than in the ocean, but still, the mood ain’t quite cheery.
We shouldn’t want to be among the minority that escapes the crush of our lopsided economy. In the days when we still got eaten by furry beasts with big teeth, greed was good—caring about our tight community helped us pool resources to survive.
But now, in a predator-free world of plenty, this instinct turns us against each other. Some feast, while the rest squabble over the scraps that fall off the table.
In America, nobody should have to endure the ignominy of “failing.” We’ve already won. We have plenty of food, water and space for everyone. But the game we’re playing tilts towards those with financial gravity—allowing them to grow exponentially while we struggle to escape their orbit. The way things are set up, few of us can really, truly win. And there’s no shame in quitting because of rigged rules.
America’s problems will not be solved by a big, beautiful wall, or a registry of Muslims, or enough bombs to turn the Middle East into a glass sea. It’s the opposite. They will be solved by expanding our compassion. We can’t keep stuffing ourselves while our brother starves. We need to stop asking for more. We’ve had enough.
Contact John Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852. Follow him on Twitter @nicecoolfriend.