I watched The Big Short last weekend, the 2015 Oscar-nominated movie about four men who saw the housing market crash of 2008 coming. Here’s a very quick summary, just in case you either haven’t seen the movie1 or weren’t paying full attention nine years ago when all this was actually happening (like me): basically, big banks began selling bonds made up of mortgages that weren’t nearly as strong as the banks said they were, so when the bonds matured, the money that was supposed to be there wasn’t. People hadn’t been paying their mortgages, which meant that the banks didn’t have the cash that they said or thought they did, which then meant that the banks couldn’t pay people’s loans or their employees’ salaries. Millions of people, both in the banking sector and in other walks of life, lost their jobs and their homes and it’s only been in the last few years that the housing market has really begun to recover.
The key, though, is that the whole mess was essentially created by bank executives who saw opportunities to make money off of people’s lack of knowledge, lack of interest and, most importantly, their lack of patience to actually research what they were buying. Without getting too much into specifics, the banks kept taking on loans that had no backing and, as with any system based on falsified practices, the foundation eventually fell out from under them and everything crashed. And, while “common” citizens were floundering trying to find new jobs so they could stay afloat and avoid going into terrible debt, the bank executives received bailouts from the government – paid for, by the way, by those same “common” citizens’ tax dollars – to keep their banks open and fix the mess they had made (more about this in a second).
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I wasn’t affected too severely by the market crash. My wife and I probably paid more for our apartment than we would have even six months or a year later, but that’s probably the most significant influence.2 We were able to make all of our mortgage payments through the eight years that we lived in our apartment. Neither of us lost our jobs and, probably because we were very young and didn’t know any differently, we didn’t think too much about what was happening around us.
But there I was, watching the movie the other night, seeing old news clips of people in tears leaving their offices with their belongings in cardboard boxes. I saw photographs of unemployment lines and tent cities. I saw parents trying to reassure their children that there would be food for dinner. And then I saw references to 2008 headlines about bank and insurance company executives receiving billions of dollars in bailout money from the government and using significant portions of it for lavish parties and personal bonuses, rather than trying to fix the economic crisis.
And I got angry.
I got angry at the bankers who willfully sold products that were doomed to fail. I got angry at the lawyers and accountants whose language was so esoteric and intentionally unintelligible so that people were driven to simply sign on the dotted line rather than give themselves migraines trying to understand the details of their contracts. I got angry at the executives for not only tolerating such behavior, but encouraging it because of the extent to which their bank accounts would be padded. I even got angry at the homeowners who stopped paying their mortgages. I’m sure that many of them did so for good reason because of job loss or other unforeseen circumstances, but that just made me angry at the banks again for not realizing the problems and addressing it immediately, rather than putting lipstick on a pig and bundling those underwater mortgages together in order to sell them under a different name.
Most of all, I got angry at everyone who either ignored their conscience or didn’t seem to have one to begin with while they were complicit in creating a fraudulent system that caused so much pain to so many people.
I don’t mean to sound naive. I know that greed is real and that there are always going to be people who will look to take advantage of others in order to move ahead. I know that hubris and arrogance are always going to rear their ugly heads at some point or another. I know that people are animals at their cores, which means that they are usually going to act in ways that promote their own best interests as opposed to limiting their potential for personal benefit after considering the impact of their behavior on others. I even know that it’s specifically because of those primal instincts that the responsibility gets placed on the rest of us to be upstanders, rather than bystanders,3 in order to pursue justice.
That is probably where the root of my anger lies. It’s a mix of disappointment in one group of people for their actions and frustration with another group of people for not speaking up about it.
The question, of course, is, “So what?” The Big Short chronicles events that happened almost a decade ago, so there isn’t much for me (or any of us) to do about the past. But there is something we can do about the future. We can pay closer attention to the influence that big banks, pharmaceutical companies and other corporations have on our government. We can contact our elected officials to make our voices heard so that they understand the motivations of their constituents. We can criticize the media’s coverage of certain issues over others and draw more attention to events that are important to us. We can be more aware of politicians’ attempts to pack so much activity into one day that we lose track of their actions, just as the aforementioned housing and banking lawyers used legalese and financial jargon to confuse and overwhelm unsuspecting clients, not to mention competing institutions.
The housing crisis and the Great Recession may be over for most of the United States but that doesn’t mean we can afford to get complacent. Our President-elect may not end up having quite as much power as he thinks he will after being inaugurated, but his greatest weapon as the leader of our nation will not lie in his Constitution-granted executive abilities, his partnership with a Republican Congress or his Twitter account.
His most powerful weapon will be capitalizing on the apathy and ignorance of the American people.
1. You should.↩
2. That, plus the fact that we were part of that first government stimulus package that gave homebuyers a grant that would need to be paid back a year at a time later on, as opposed to the later stimulus packages that included grants that did not have to be paid back at all.↩