The Big Short

Image of the Wells Fargo buggy on display at a Wells Fargo Bank.
Image of the Wells Fargo buggy on display at a Wells Fargo Bank.

In 2007 I spent seventy-five minutes in a small room with an audience of forty people listening to Michael Lewis. It was called a Master Class and set up as a two person panel, a moderator and Michael Lewis, but it was essentially Michael Lewis talking non-stop. I had won a grant through the KARES foundation, part of the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival [1] that included passes to the Master Classes.

Michael Lewis talked about how it happened that he went fresh out of college with an art history degree into the finance business. It’s a fascinating story and the story itself is all part of how corrupt the finance – bonds, stocks, banks – industry really is.

Next, Michael spoke about the research he had done for the book he was writing at the time. The book would be published later as Moneyball. In that story we learn that baseball teams with the highest paid players did not win the most games. It was the teams with lower paid players that won the most games. The reason: they loved playing.

Approximately five minutes before the end of the session, just as the moderator was about to begin concluding remarks, Michael Lewis interupted his own talk, got up, walked around from behind the table, and said he had to use the restroom. He said he knew that if he waited until the end he would be crowded around and then there would be a line. “And I really have to pee,” he said and left the room.

Genius is an overused and cliché word, and technically based on meaningless IQ scores, so I won’t use it here. I’ll say that Michael Lewis is brilliant and humble. He has a talent and uses it well. And that was only after listening to him talk. I read Liar’s Poker immediately after the festival. I gave it away after reading it because I thought it was an important book and wanted more people to read it.

The Big Short, the movie

Now, The Big Short. I didn’t think I needed to see the movie because I lived through it, as most of you did. I already understood what had happened. I thought I’d read Michael Lewis’ book when I had time. But the movie. The movie received such universal high praise that it became tempting. Then there were interviews with director Adam McKay, former head writer on Saturday Night Live, both text and audio [2] . I didn’t know Adam McKay, but I thought, “I like this guy,” after listening to the podcast. In the movie, there’s Brad Pitt, someone I admire as a fellow human being. And, due to other, unrelated circumstances I was going to talk about The Big Short at a stand-up open mic. I wanted, and would have preferred to wait until I got home to watch the movie via iTunes, but IF the movie was playing nearby and at a time convenient, I would go to see it in a theater. It was and I did.

The movie was good, but the experience of seeing a movie in a theater was awful. I just have to say that because it is true. First, there are commercials, some of the most hideous commercials I have ever seen. Then the movie does not start on time. It starts after exactly twenty minutes of previews and more commercials, and there was no advantage whatsoever to seeing this movie on a big screen. It’s ok. Now I know, and it won’t happen again. But the movie was good, every American should see The Big Short.

Reading Liar’s Poker prepared me for The Big Short. In The Big Short, we learn about the people involved in the biggest known, so far, economic scandal in the US. Not all of them were the bad guys, but everyone was sucked in. “They’re not confessing, they’re bragging.” Some were naive, as protrayed in the movie; in real life, these people are a-holes, harmful, but on their own they do not produce economic crises. Most of the truly bad guys weren’t on screen at all.

Just because they made a movie about it doesn’t mean that it’s over. I wondered if the movie would give any hint that corruption in the banking industry continues and that this type of economic collapse will happen again. Do not miss the last line in the movie before the credits. It does unequivocally suggest that the next econimic crisis is already underway.

Do you think there is an economic gap now? The banking industry won’t stop until there is a full out economic apartheid. The banking industry in the United States is over one-hundred years old. It was probably a good idea when it started, but it is outdated and unnecessary today. It was the Grand Missed Opportunity, to put it nicely, of Obama’s presidency that he did not shut the whole thing down. Instead, what he did was a reverse Eddie Murphy[3]. When the bankers came to him, he basically said, “How much do you want?” And the bankers gave themselves bonuses and remodeled their offices.

No president can stop the bank corruption alone. If Sanders does not choose Elizabeth Warren for vice-president (since she is not currently running for president), there is no hope for cleaning up this mess.

One More Thing

On Friday, January 15, 2016, the stock market dropped many points. The media blamed China. The White House Press Secretary released a statement which said nothing. The only thing earnest about White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, is his name. CNN followed the announcement by saying they didn’t know if the president had been informed.

  1. Tennessee Williams Literary Festival.  ↩

  2. Adam McKay speaks with Jimmy Carrane in a podcast.  ↩

  3. A sketch on an episode of Saturday Night Live in which Eddie Murphy is made up in white face, goes about various activities; among them, applying for a loan and sitting across from a banker who says, “How much do you want?” as he takes money from a drawer and pushes it across the desk to Murphy.  ↩

a frame from the SNL sketch with Eddie Murphy as Mr. White
a frame from the SNL sketch with Eddie Murphy as Mr. White