Movie review: The Big Short (2015)

Over ten years later, it can feel like the global market crash never happened. Or it can feel like it just happened yesterday. Watching The Big Short, I wondered how the System could be so greedy, so stupid. But it was. And really, nothing has changed. No regulations. No bankers (except one) went to jail. No banks were broken up. The rigged system continues as before.

While The Big Short is a major downer, it is a well-done look at what happened, through the eyes of three different people or groups of people who saw the demise of the mortgage market before anyone else.

Michael Burry who headed an investment fund took a look at the mortgages included in mortgage-backed securities. What he saw was the collapse of the mortgage market. Most were subprime adjustable mortgages with rates that would soar in 2007. It was a ticking time bomb.

Funny thing was that no one else saw it. No one looked at the numbers. No one believed him. He wanted to bet against these mortgage-backed securities. The only problem was that no instrument existed to do this. So he took the initiative and approached bank after bank about creating a credit default swap on mortgages.

No one bets against mortgages. No one. The inherited wisdom was that mortgages were a sure thing. Well, perhaps in a system run without fraud or corruption. But such a system is not ours.

He was laughed at and ridiculed but bank after bank that he went to gladly created the investment instrument. They were more than happy to take his money. After all, mortgages are a sure thing. You do not bet against them.

Others in the financial industry stumbled across what Burry did and researched it themselves. Jared Vennett, a salesman at Deutsche Bank, reached out to a company but mistakenly got a different company instead—FrontPoint Partners. FrontPoint Partners listened to his offer and started looking into the mortgage and real estate market. The fraud, they discovered, was everywhere. The global economy was set to tank.

Two other investors in a small company, Brownfield Capital, stumbled across Vennett’s pitch to various banks. As small-time players, they couldn’t gain access that would let them invest in the credit swap—until they reached out to an acquaintance who was a former securities trader, Ben Rickert. With his help, they were able to invest and profit off of the 2008 global economic collapse.

None are really portrayed as evil Wall Street villains. They profited off of the villains who created the crisis. Fair enough. There is some truth to that. In the end, many of them closed their funds and got out of the business or downscaled their financial activities.

The movie is partially narrated from Vennett’s point of view. On occasion, the movie stops and shows Vennett talking directly to the camera. In one scene, when the Brownfield Capital guys see Vennett’s proposal about the credit swap on a lobby table at a big investment bank, the actors step out of their roles to talk to the camera and explain that this wasn’t really how they learned about the credit swap. Or at the end, when the hope that bankers go to jail and big banks are broken up is expressed, the movie suddenly stops and rewinds. That is clearly not what happened. No one went to jail. No banks were broken up.

The movie also takes an innovative approach to explaining financial items like CDOs. Famous people like Anthony Bourdain, Richard Thaler, and Selma Gomez appear on camera to explain these concepts through more relatable activities like making fish stew or playing blackjack.

I cannot say that I completely understand what happened to cause the 2008 crash. But the movie helped show some of it through the eyes of various investors as they looked into the mortgage market and learned about CDOs themselves. There is something profoundly disturbing to see people working in investment funds sickened by the practices and lack of ethics around them.

Movie review: Saving Capitalism (2017)

Robert Reich is one of those sane voices in the wilderness. As an economist and former Secretary of Labor, he has some well-educated opinions about how the economy can work best for the average American.

Saving Capitalism, a Netflix original, is a documentary inspired by his book of the same title. The documentary shows Reich going from book signing to book signing, meeting to meeting. In between, he explains his background and his perspective on the economy through the decades. Reich is pretty good about trying to explain economic concepts in laymen’s terms. (He shares excellent tidbits through videos and tweets on Twitter.)

Reich is an unabashed Democrat and firm believer in capitalism. But he gets it. He gets that people are angry and frustrated. He gets that people are screaming to be heard but no one is listening. He gets the feeling that the system is rigged.

It is, he says. It only works for a few. And then he explains why. Along the way, he debunks myths that we have been told about the capitalist system.

Free markets. There is no such thing, though for several decades some people have liked to pretend there is. Any capitalist system plays by rules, rules surrounding property, monopoly, contracts, bankruptcy, and enforcement. The role of government is to set these rules. So the question is not do rules exist but rather how should the rules be set and who should they benefit.

The rules are not set in stone. They are not inherently set a certain way. The rules are man-made and can be changed to reflect our values as a society. (Clearly, our values are at a really low point right now.) The rules do not have to rig the system against us. We can change them so that capitalism works for all of us.

Reich actually predicted the anger and frustration that we see today back in the early 1990s when he was Secretary of Labor. The feeling that things weren’t working for average Americans started with the Powell memo of 1971. The Powell memo advocated for the flood of lobbying we see today from corporations.

With money comes power. With power comes influence over the rules of the game. As corporations started to pour money into politics, their power over the rules grew and then they were able to change the rules to benefit themselves more. The vicious cycle continued, ramping up further with Citizens United.

Reich also reviews corporate welfare, what it is, how much it is, and how insidious it is. Corporate welfare includes subsidies to industries and tax breaks. Rather than be an easy beast to tame, it has invaded the tax code, appropriations, and trade deals. Good luck rooting it out!

Reich argues too that the 2008 financial disaster was not an aberration, but rather the logical consequence of deregulation that started under Reagan. The late 1990s saw the rise of derivatives and the successful defeat of their regulation. Then the 1933 Glass-Segall law that was enacted following the 1929 stock market crash was repealed because, well, that was no longer necessary, regulation hampers profits, etc., etc.

To those who scream for no government involvement, Reich points out that government is always involved in capitalism. Government either prevents disaster with regulation and oversight or steps in to clean up a mess made through a lack of regulation and oversight. Which do we prefer?

With Citizen United, we see even more money from corporations and the super wealthy flowing into government. With it comes more power and influence for the corporations and the super wealthy—and less for us average Americans. With this trend comes more general anger, frustration, and delusion in the system.

…which explains the rise of populism. We are suffering through the ascendency of authoritarian populism, when the populace has decided to put its faith in a strong man to save the system and to save us. (Never mind that our current strong man—Trump—is one of the wealthy who is amassing more power, more influence, and more money at the expense of most Americans.)

The other kind of populism is reform populism, where the people channel their anger and frustration to reform the system. (Although he never mentions him by name, Sanders is the clear unnamed elephant in the room.)

The pendulum swings, Reich reminds us, and history repeats itself. We are back in the corruption of the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s. The message is that things will get better if we organize, rise up, and become active citizens again. Society as a whole will progress. As I watched photographs of individuals suffering through the effects of the Gilded Age, I couldn’t help but think of the horrible suffering that individuals must go through before we average Americans get to the other side of a better world.

Which do we prefer? Government that prevents disaster with regulation and oversight or government that steps in to clean up a mess made through a lack of regulation and oversight. I vote for the former.

Book review: Anarchism and Other Essays

Anarchism and Other Essays is a collection of writings by Emma Goldman, compiled in 1910 by Emma herself. The essays cover a wide range of topics important to anarchism, such as education, sexual freedom, women’s rights, and marriage.

Reading the essays one hundred years removed from their creation provides a glimpse into history. In some cases, arguments or points seemed dated and a bit archaic. In other cases, I had trouble understanding the perspective from which she was arguing. On the whole, my impression is that Emma and anarchism was grounded in idealism and belief in the goodness of humans. In many respects, her critiques of our political and social organizations are spot on. Sometimes her solutions seem progressive, even today. Often though, better possibilities do not seem to exist.

Her writings and the ideology behind them are definitely products of the time and reactions to centralization, machinization, and industrialization, which destroy the individual. I hear echoes of libertarianism, which derides all things government. Anarchism is the freedom from religion, property, and government.

She argues for individual liberty and living a creative life.  Again, she seems to be reacting to the times in which she lived, where industrialization was replacing individual artisans. Artists are slaves to economic necessity. The masses do not appreciate art; artists are forced to cater to their whims and tastes. Thus, artists are not truly free. She derides the masses and upholds the individual. “Every effort for progress, for enlightenment, for science, for religious, political, and economic liberty, emanates from the minority, and not from the mass.” (page 44)

Emma recounts several violent acts, such as the Haymarket Riot of 1887 or the Homestead Strike of 1892. These violent acts, she argues, are really acts of compassion committed by people suffering from violence in the world. The people who commit these acts of violence do so in response to the injustice they see around them. Which is worse: the acts of violence they commit or the injustice they see around them? The answer for Emma, of course, is the latter.

She examines prisons, the reasons typically given for imprisonment, and the reasons behind crime. Most crime, she argues, is due to social and economic inequalities. Prison can be used for revenge, punishment, deterrence, or reform. Prison definitely does not do the latter two, she argues. What can prevent crime? “Nothing short of a complete reconstruction of society will deliver mankind from the cancer of crime.” (Emma definitely does dream big.) She argues progressively for work in prison that will lead to employment once the convict is released, and for shorter sentences so they have some hope for rejoining society.

She rails against patriotism as a means to control and use the lower classes. Military excursions and standing armies are used to protect the money-class. (I am hearing echoes of John Reed’s stance on World War I.) Capitalism and militarism support each other and need each other. And, here Emma’s observation seems spot-on today, people enter the military out of economic necessity.

Emma mentions Ferrer in passing and then devotes an essay to him. She discusses Ferrer and the Modern School but doesn’t go into great detail about the type of education that Ferrer advocated. The impression is one of freedom and nurturing of the individual over strict authoritarian forms of education.

She attacks Puritanism, which is at the root of America’s history. This repressive –ism is the root of all real evil, repression, and lack of creativity. Its sexual mores demand celibacy for single woman OR forced sex/reproduction for married women. From this comes illegal, secret abortions and prostitution, which brings with it disease. No matter how you slice it, women are getting a raw deal, all thanks to Puritanism.

She discusses women and the impact of the lack of freedom on their lives. Women are reared to be sexual commodities, kept ignorant and chaste for marriage or forced into prostitution out of economic necessity.  “…it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.” (page 101)  Government suppression and moral crusades only make things worse. (Brothels where women have some protection are replaced with streetwalking.) Prostitution is a product of economic and social conditions and can only be abolished if industrial/economic slavery is abolished.

I found her writings on women’s suffrage and emancipation the hardest to understand and follow. She seems to be against both, recognizing that neither movement will really set women free. In countries where women can vote, are labor conditions better? Are women happier? Are there no double standards? Are women no longer seen as sex commodities? A resounding no to all of these, even today.

Being able to vote doesn’t affect economic conditions for women. For Emma, it is all about economics rather than having the same rights as men. The suffrage movement is “a parlor affair, absolutely detached from the economic needs of the people.” (page 116) Labor as her first allegiance is clear in another quote: “Susan B. Anthony, no doubt an exceptional type of woman, was not only indifferent but antagonistic to labor; nor did she hesitate to manifest her antagonism when, in 1869, she advised women to take the places of striking printers in New York.” (page 116)

Emancipation is really no emancipation. Women strive to be allowed to do the same as men, only to find that they now have to do the same as men AND their old role in the house and family. No wonder, she cries, that women are retreating from emancipation and seek marriage as a way to retreat and be taken care of. Also, the role of an independent woman is a lonely one due to moral and social prejudices. Better, some find, to acquiesce to the societal role for women as mother and wife. “…we find many emancipated women who prefer marriage, with all its deficiencies, to the narrowness of an unmarried life; narrow and unendurable because of the chains of moral and social prejudice that cramp and bind her nature.” (page 123) True emancipation is the freedom from external AND internal tyrants (i.e., ethical and social conventions).

Perhaps as expected, Emma is not a real fan of marriage. As with prison, she looks at the reasons given for it and then deconstructs them. Marriage is an economic arrangement/insurance pact. (In some respects, although we moderns claim to marry for love, this assessment is still true.) Women pay for marriage with their name, privacy, self-respect, life; they are condemned to “life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social.” (page 126)

Work is expected for men. For women, it is transitory. She is saved through marriage, but she is not free because now her labor and economic slavery increases. It is a myth, she argues, that marriage exists for the child and protects the mother. She argues instead for motherhood outside of the bonds of marriage. How this could happen with women’s economic subordination is unclear.

Emma’s arguments are a combination of clear-headed realism and idealism. Some seem insightful. Others fanciful. Economic justice and equality trumps other concerns. Freedom from religion, property, and government is key. She has a strong belief in the goodness of the individual, and justifies violence as a compassionate reaction to violence and injustice. “No real social change has ever come about without a revolution.” (page 41) What would be interesting is to read some of her writings after her deportation to Russia where she encountered post-revolution Russian society and recoiled from the horrors she saw.

Corydon Capitol State Historic Site: Governor’s Headquarters

I had once buzzed through Corydon, stopping briefly (and I do mean briefly) at the Capitol Building. This time I was going to do it right with a full tour of the historic sites in Corydon.

In 1813, the capital of the Indiana Territory moved from Vincennes to Corydon. From June 10 to June 29, 1816, Corydon hosted Indiana’s first constitutional convention. Following the convention, Corydon became the state capital and remained the capital until 1825, when the seat of state government moved to Indianapolis, a more central spot in the state (as opposed to the location of Corydon on the Ohio River at the far southern end of the state). (Those at the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site like to say that they are maintaining the buildings for when the capital moves back to Corydon.)

The Indiana State Museum oversees the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site, which is a collection of historic buildings: the Governor’s Headquarters, the Porter Law Office next door, and the Capitol Building on the square.

The tour started at the Governor’s Headquarters, a two-story brick building. Davis Floyd, a state legislator, built the house in 1817, but lost it in the Panic of 1819. At that time, the state government bought it. In 1841, Judge William A. Porter acquired the house, which remained in his family until 1979, after which it reverted back to the state.

(Interesting side note about Floyd: in 1805, while he was a territorial legislator—long before building what became the Porter Law Office—he fell into an unsavory situation with Vice President Aaron Burr. In 1807, he was convicted of aiding Burr in what was known as the Burr Conspiracy—an attempt to take territory in the West from the US government. In the end, Floyd was not convicted of treason.)

Why is it called the Governor’s Headquarters? From 1817-1825, this brick building was the home and office of William Hendricks, Indiana’s second elected governor (1822-1825). (Hendricks was actually the third Indiana governor. Jonathan Jennings, the first governor resigned to take office in the US House of Representatives. Ratliff Boon, his lt. governor, replaced him as the second governor.)

Hendricks had quite a role in early Indiana politics. He served in the territorial legislature (1813-1816), as secretary (not delegate) to the Indiana constitutional convention (1816), as a US representative (1816-1822), and after being Indiana governor, as a US senator (1825-1837). (He was also the uncle to Thomas A. Hendricks who later served among other numerous offices as Indiana governor and Vice President to President Cleveland. Now I am curious about what happened to the Hendricks political dynasty, which seems to have died out with Thomas.)

William Hendricks ran unopposed for governor and, um, garnered 100% of the votes (a whopping 18,340). Lucky Hendricks dealt with the remaining debt and deficit caused by the Panic of 1819 by selling public land to raise money. (I felt a bit uneasy by this. Selling public land = land recently taken from the native Americans who were forcibly removed from Indiana.)

Hendricks was also responsible for roadways being built (hmmm…what type, I wonder? Corduroy or plank?). Under him, all residents were required to spend time building roads. (Oooh. Corvée labor. That must have been very popular. Forcing people to work on socialist projects surely wouldn’t fly today.)

Hendricks was also the governor who approved moving the capital to Indianapolis, a move that relegated Corydon to being a trade town on the Ohio River.

His wife pushed for free education, which led to the first state-funded system in the nation. (Sad that Indiana hasn’t led the nation in education in more recent times!) Each township was granted land to build a public school. The state seminary, which became Indiana University, was established in 1816.

The tour consisted of the downstairs only. The house itself is quite a large structure with two front doors, a “normal” front door with foyer and then a second door that opens directly to the governor’s office (which was originally the parlor). (The upstairs, I was told, consists of two bedrooms the same size as the two front rooms on the first floor.)

A kitchen exists directly behind the office/parlor. The kitchen was a later addition to the house, with a brick wall acting as a fire barrier between it and the house proper. (Kitchens were often separate from early houses due in part to being fire hazards.) The brick floors and limestone walls made the kitchen feel instantly cooler as I stepped inside. The large hearth sported a cooking crane, a large metal swinging arm that would allow cooks easy access to pots hanging over the fire.

A quasi-courtyard framed on one side by the kitchen and another side by a high retaining wall includes an herb garden. The garden and retaining wall was built in 1840s by Porter when he acquired the property. The garden is built so that water from rains would drain down to the center of the courtyard. Before this improvement, the house would flood, water pouring down the hill and into the house. Residents would clear the flood water by literally opening the back door and sweeping the water through the house out the front door (!).

The docent pointed out some structures on the hill above the retaining wall: a three-seater outhouse on one side and a chicken coop on the other. (I’m not sure I could picture using a three-seater outhouse sans any privacy barriers. Even trough squat toilets I used in rural China had small dividing walls as a nod to semi-privacy.) The nearby 1848 carriage house serves as the office of the Indiana State Museum.

Interesting given the state’s proximity to the south and influx of southern folks, Hendricks used servants in his headquarters, not slaves (which were technically illegal in the Indiana Territory and state, despite territorial governor Harrison’s attempt to allow slavery). Hendricks apparently was a strong anti-Jacksonian, a quality I smiled approvingly of, particularly in today’s climate.