Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Big Short

“The Big Short,” the film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, explains the 2008 financial crisis by detailing the actions of four groups of investors who foresaw the burst of the housing market bubble. Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side, and Boomerang) is in very familiar territory depicting the dark side of Wall Street; his first book, Liar’s Poker, recounted his days as a Wall Street bond market manager in the mid-1980s “when a great nation lost its financial mind.” According to Lewis, not much changed in twenty-five years – save a few names and outlandish increases in the amounts of money bet and squandered on Wall Street.

big shortOur family has been doing a Christmas Day movie for the past few years. Our initial Christmas Day excursion was in 2007 when we took in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” The next year we saw what still rates as one of the best of the Christmas Day pics: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” “Up in the Air” (2009) and “Hugo” (2011) were good, but not memorable. “Anchorman II” (2013) was, predictably, funny in a juvenile type of way. “Les Miserables” (2012) had a great Sacha Baron Cohen as Thénardier, and . . . a whole lotta of singing.

“The Big Short” is well worth seeing. The movie title refers to the practice of short selling a stock or bond – betting that it will tank. The protagonists bet, correctly, that the housing market bubble would burst. The movie’s two hours plus run-time works continually to explain this and other components of the 2008 economic swoon to both those who have and haven’t delved into its causes. The movie’s narrative, including “breaking the fourth wall” explanations from Ryan Gosling’s character, and cameos from chef Anthony Bourdain, actress Margot Robbie, entertainer Selena Gomez, and economist Richard Thaler, help explain complex derivative trading, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and other roll-off-the-tongue market descriptors.

Neil Irwin, senior economics correspondent for The New York Times, reviews the movie favorably. He is critical, however, of the movie’s notion that no one – save the four groups of protagonists – foresaw the burst of the bubble. Irwin rightly claims that many other people suspected the bubble’s presence as early as 2005; the ferocity of the bubble’s burst is what caught so many by surprise. Subprime mortgage loans’ ability to corrode supposedly walled-off safer securities wiped out dreams on Main Street and Wall Street. American (and worldwide) common good took a beating: jobs and pension funds were lost; properties were squandered; and social and economic inequalities, on the rise for a generation, were exacerbated.

Steve Carell’s character, Mark Baum (Steve Eisman in real life) – haunted and obsessive – doggedly seeks out some sort of justice in the midst of the darkness. He’s a Wall Street player, undoubtedly, but the unmitigated fraud that imbues the financial side of the housing market won’t let him rest. His pursuit of what turns out to be contorted justice gives a glimmer of hope.

As 2016 approaches, we’re still a society that emphasizes fiscal over social policy. A balance between the two categories of policies would be an improvement. The lures of consumerism continue to take precedence over concern for and care of the environment. The realization and acceptance that we can’t continue to burn through unlimited amounts of oil and coal to fuel our desires of economic growth at all costs would be another improvement. And many yet believe that market activity, like a washing machine working a load of soiled clothing, somehow turns our collective greed into good. It doesn’t – and that’s the simple lesson of the 2008 crash well-told by “The Big Short.”

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Understanding the 2008 crash, which had much in common with the economic crash of 1929, is essential knowledge for citizens who care about their families, neighbors, and communities. “The Big Short” – book or movie – is a good place to start. If you would like to understand the larger panoramic view, I humbly suggest you read Just a Little Bit More. Until Brad Pitt contacts me (ha!) to make a movie version of JaLBM (he co-produced “The Big Short”), this linked YouTube short on JaLBM will have to suffice!

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

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The Proper Place of Excess

Thanksgiving, once again, is here and gone. I know I had too much to eat and drink. How about you?

Excess is a regular part of the natural order. Our bodies turn excess calories into fat cells – technically, stored energy for later use. Most excess weight, however, is simply lugged around serving unwittingly as a contributing factor to health problems. Alcohol, on the other hand, is eliminated by the body. But a morning-after dehydration headache, caused by excessive drinking, lets you know you overdid it. Long-term excessive drinking, of course, will kill you.

Excess has its consequences.

Excess, nevertheless, plays an important role in the survival process. You and I are here thanks to an excessive amount of spermatozoa, from which emerged one little victor to join forces with an ovum. Survival of the fittest and the fertilized! And not only that, some of the plants which provide food, oxygen, and beauty upon the earth produce seeds for their own reproduction numbering in excess of hundreds and thousands. As a Texas gardener, I plant basil for the summer and cilantro for the winter (for year-round pesto). For seven years running, I haven’t had to purchase seeds to keep my gardens growing. Their seed production is voluminous; I only have to figure out where I left the seeds collected from the previous season!

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Historically, Northern Hemisphere winter has been the season of rest and recuperation. During winter seasons ancestral, many of our forebears rejoiced in the gathered harvest, savored freshly slaughtered meat, and delighted in new beer and wine. Before hunkering down to wait out the winter, trusting their accumulated supplies to hold out – our Northern Hemisphere ancestors celebrated. The winter solstice, December 21, marking the rebirth of the sun, has traditionally been associated with feasts and festivals replete with excesses. Our own secular Christmastime holiday is a direct descendant of these revelries.

Roman Saturnalia and misrule, centered on feasting and gift-giving, also featured societal role reversals where servants and peasants became lords and ladies for a day or short season. The usually steady tables of fortune were turned, if only for a moment. During misrule (common in European societies and colonial America) individuals of low socioeconomic status demanded that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them – the servants and peons of society – as if they were the wealthy and deserving. Servants pounded on the doors of their superiors demanding fresh meat and fresh brew. For the most part, these and far more unsavory indulgences were tolerated during misrule. You might have heard or read about the Puritans of Massachusetts infamously outlawing Christmas in the late 1600s. It wasn’t the legendary anniversary of the Savior’s birth with which they had trouble, but the simultaneous misrule celebrations that exalted excesses, some acceptable and others decidedly distasteful.

Later, in the 1800s, misrule evolved into a new type of social inversion that has persisted to our own day, justly captured in the well-known Mel Tormé lyric: Christmas was made for children. In the mid-1800s, before compulsory schooling, children were understood to be miniature adults who occupied the bottom rung of social hierarchy along with peasants and servants. Modern secular Christmas – a family celebration – was created at this time with children becoming the focus of charity and goodwill. Misrule became domesticated, but its excesses were not lost in the transition.

Many of our familial antecedents received only oranges and hard candy for Christmas as children during the Depression (they were thankful for it, though – ask them while you still can and they’ll tell you).  As if DNA code, the excesses inherent to the original secular celebrations that shaped our modern Christmas – Saturnalia and misrule – survived the Depression and now thrive as never before. Today’s high and holy season of excess – starting with Black Friday Eve (it used to be called Thanksgiving) and continuing through New Year’s Day celebrations – is unmatched in terms of devotion to consumerism, materialism, consumption, waste, and over-indulgence.

As the wisdom teacher of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for all things under the sun. Even excess. I enjoy the extended holiday, especially as my birthday falls during the season. It’s a good thing to celebrate the milestones of this life – on occasion – with a bit of excess. A case of really good wine, a lavish celebratory meal, an expensive trip with loved ones, extended vacation, tickets to a show – it’s your own misrule for a day or season.

It’s natural in the Northern Hemisphere to overdo it a bit at this time of the year. It’s been this way for millennia. But, as wisdom says, all good things in moderation. Whereas a season or moment of excess can have, on occasion, a proper place, we best be wary of its supposed charms.

too much

“How much is enough, Walt?” Breaking Bad, “Gliding Over All,” Season 5

Father Richard Rohr says: “Excess turns all gifts into curses.”

We live in a society where excess has become a way of life, a way of understanding the world, a way of being and interacting in the world. Excess, a cultural value revered and worshipped since the early 1980s in the US, invites extremism and undermines societal common good. How much is enough?

 

T. Carlos Anderson is the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014).

 

 

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