I fully stepped into the world of capitalism this year with my new job. As a previous worker for the church and NGOs, I have found it a surprisingly easy transition. A cushy chair in an office is a lot easier a place to work than a school in the Amazon basin that takes 14 hours to get to by bus on dirt roads. And I like numbers; I am having fun with interest rates, IRRs and ROIs. I like the people I work with, who are all accommodating, and even the banks around me have never been anything other than friendly. However, when I saw The Big Short in Ayala last Wednesday, I was very unsettled. Up came the facts and figures that have made me distrustful of capitalism for a very long time, and I have not been able to shake it off.
The Big Crash: 2007
Adam McKay’s The Big Short is a financial drama, reminiscent of movies like The Boiler Room or The Wolf of Wall Street. This time it is about the financial scandal of the century (although I am aware we are very early on in the century), the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007. This story is an ensemble piece with many big stars (Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling to name a few) playing different parts in the financial sector that manufactured this disaster. The film displays the corruption behind the world of high finance while explaining a crisis that has largely been obfuscated by jargon in the media. To put it simply, banks gave mortgages to people who couldn’t afford to pay them, sold those debts to the public through bonds, and made themselves large amounts of money selling these dodgy debts. When everyone realized that the mortgages were very risky, the bond market collapsed and brought down a few banks until the government stepped in to shore up the system.
Mark Baum: Financial Anti-hero
Christian Bale is nominated for an Oscar for his role as the first guy who realizes everything and bets against the bonds to make a lot of money, but it is Steve Carell’s Mark Baum, the misanthropic hedge fund manager, that many people will identify with. Baum is an odd type of hero, fully entrenched in the mire that he hates and riles against, yet he is a powerful man within the system. He talks about the injustice but takes the money.
As someone working with finance, I feel Baum’s dilemma, and it is the problem of all moral people trying to earn a buck in our world today. Many of us don’t believe the propaganda of Wall Street, capitalism will save the world (look how it enriches the most crooked) or that the market is a benevolent creature that awards the valuable (the market is a fickle monster that lashes out with every irrational hope or fear of the buying public). The Big Short so clearly shows how those at the top of the financial game are complicit either in their ignorance of what they are selling or in their downright heinous drive for profit at all costs.
Can You Be the Candle in the Darkness?
My question and ultimately the film’s central quandary is, “Can anyone ever be a good guy in a corrupt system?” I am sure most of you out there are honest workers just trying to make a living and loving your families, but is your being involved in a system where those at the very top are evil make you complicit in that exploitative horror? Should we do what the Marxists, anarchists and liberation theologians say we should do, and just tear the whole rotting system down and start from scratch? I hope not. I hope there is room for those of us here who want to make the system better, by being honest and looking after everyone’s interest, and protecting the Earth from rape and ravage. The Big Short probably won’t start a revolution, but surely a better understanding of the systems we all live under might help us decide on an individual basis that we can do things better.
The Big Short is showing this weekend January 22-24, 2016 in Cebu cinemas.