02 January 2016

The Big Short

Joan and I went to see the movie today, having read and enjoyed the book. 

My friend, Seth, expressed his reaction well: great, dark humor. Much darker than the book.
Even though I laughed out loud many times and even clapped, I walked out feeling very queasy. The whole topic is decidedly unfunny. Near the end of the movie the Mark Baum character (played extraordinarily by Steve Carrell) breaks into a rant about corruption during a debate with the CEO of Bear Stearns, even as BS stock is crashing to zero. The audience runs out of the room rather than listen to the next speaker, Alan Greenspan, so that they can try to close their positions.

In 2016 we will see the effect of money in politics and just how powerful it is in the Presidential race. But it is certainly effective for non-presidential races. We have a bought-off Congress, that's for sure. Hillary's plans to change Wall St are excellent, but how can she effect them with the current Congress, of idiots and crooks?

This stuff makes a difference I think. Somebody who should know pointed out about 10 years ago that 40% of our GDP was in the financial sector, primarily investment banking. 40%! What values does it bring to the US? How do all the people on Wall St. spend their money? Does it produce jobs and lasting economic value?  Warren Buffet says everybody is stuck in the casino at the back of Wall St. instead of making deals and investments that have lasting value for America. Do we have the money any more to spend on the fundamentals such as infrastructure, education, R & D, safety nets, and effective regulation? Can we ever bring down the deficit? Will we be a debtor nation for the rest of the 21st century?

Michael Lewis's whole arc of financial books started with Liar's Poker, which is fundamentally about how much Walt St would pay a 20-something like him, fresh out of college, to do simple, shady deals. And how it was endemic to Wall St., not just at Solomon Brothers. He walked away from the millions, because it was WRONG. He became a Tom Wolfe style journalist.

One of the big differences between the movie and book, one of the things that we liked so much, is it focused on the effect of all this stuff on the rest of us, on the world. Wall St., the SEC, the bond rating agencies, the insurers took down the world economy! And all the time, everybody, EVERYBODY, was saying it couldn't happen.

Are there parallels now with the US socio-economic-cultural structure? Dare I say that the US is fundamentally broken? Are we a nation broken into helpless, disenfranchised, illiterate blue collar workers; fat, weak, well-off white collar workers in denial; and greedy investors and brokers who see predation and sociopathic behavior as the norm? Do we have a broken federal government and a political system that has no way to produce leaders who can fix it? Do we have an economy fixated on looking backwards to the age of petroleum rather than ahead to sustainability and true globalism? Are we secretly a third world country in practice?

Britannia ruled the world during the age of coal, then the US took over for the age of petroleum 150 years ago. The U.K. continues, but adopted the US's unsustainable culture. Somebody will take over from the US, probably China. It will all equilibrate, but will it be violent? And will we stop the global climate change doomsday machine in time?

So when you go to watch The Big Short, keep this theme in mind. Not only can EVERYTHING go wrong, it DID go wrong. It could and should happen again. I have no idea how to prevent it. I don't really know how to prepare for it, except something like the Ben Rickert character (played nicely low-key by Brad Pitt) lifestyle but he seemed to lack effective home defenses. That is what made both Joan and I queasy and had us reaching for the Bourbon when we got home. We both plan to reread the book and then go watch it again. It is that good of a movie. 

And, Seth, checkout Lewis's follow-on book, Boomerang. It is a pretty quick read. More dark humor. It covers 5 countries, post crash responses: Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany and finally California. The last chapter about the US is very, very scary and very prescient. He just fucking lays out the inconvenient truths.