Friday, October 21, 2011

"Margin Call" Challenges Wall Street Ethics

I woke up this morning to Kenneth Turan's positive review on NPR of the just-released Hollywood drama, Margin Call, which is based on the collapse of the Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers in 2008. (Also see Turan's review for the LA Times and the HBO film Too Big to Fail.)

That radio story was quickly followed by my reading of A.O. Scott's glowing review in the New York Times. In light of both reviews, I was hoping to see this movie tonight (in violation of my usual policy of waiting until movies make it to the dollar theater or DVD). It's not often that I would willingly part with $9.00 for a movie; I have to be persuaded by multiple sources. Sadly, though, Margin Call isn't playing in our area yet.

That's a bit surprising, because you would think that the continuing Occupy Wall Street protests and the Academy Award winning documentary Inside Job would warrant a nationwide release. While Inside Job marshals enough evidence to outrage even the most indifferent citizen (see earlier posts), Margin Call is said to take a subtler approach. As in Kevin Spacey's portrait of Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack (another ripped-from-the headlines drama), we get to see real people making real choices in morally compromising situations. These are flesh-and-blood human beings--not crude caricatures like Oliver Stone's evil Gordon Gekko in the two Wall Street films.

A very telling exchange quoted in Turan's review is between Kevin Spacey's character and Jeremy Irons' character (the CEO):
Sam Rogers [Spacey]: And you're selling something that you know has no value?
John Tuld [Irons]: We are selling to willing buyers at the current, fair market price.
One lesson of this snippet? The winners are those who can get away with peddling junk; the losers are the ordinary suckers who aren't smart enough to see how the winners have gamed the system. Too bad for the losers: it's a free market. If they lost, it was because they got out of the game too late. They were "the last one holding the bag." They were the fools who bought the junk. Hey, it's a free market; they just failed to do their due diligence. The market punishes fools.

The real lesson: A free market economy full of unethical people like Irons' CEO is no longer a free market. It's a system that allows the slick, smart, greedy, and unethical to dupe unsuspecting, trusting people. Such a system is predatory and enslaving: the opposite of free. And saying this is not "class warfare." It's just describing Wall Street and the global financial system for what they have become: a group of people cloaking their knowing misdeeds in the rhetoric of the free market.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Updates: The Occupy Movement and the J-1 Visa Program

Globalization continues to breed contention. Two recent examples:

The Occupy Wall Street protests mushroomed over the weekend to the point that even my little town of Canton, OH saw a protest downtown, with at least 70 protestors. It looks like we are seeing the growth of a social movement that may rival the Tea Party in its energy. As with that earlier wave, new media are a key part of mobilizing and energizing participants. All in all, it's a fascinating development, worth watching closely.

The New York Times reported today on the foreign student cultural exchange visa program that contributed to a work stoppage at Hershey's Chocolate company earlier this year. (For details see earlier posts.) The subcontractor that brought students over, the Council for Educational Travel USA, comes out looking pretty bad. All in all, it looks like the kind of program that was open to abuse, subjecting some of the young people from overseas to some rough treatment. All along, though everyone agrees that they got an all-too-accurate picture of American culture in the process. As one participant was told,
“You wanted a cultural exchange . . . . This is America and this is the way we do things here.” 
Indeed. Subcontracting and exploiting workers? Guess it's just part of our culture.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Social Movement or Flash in the Pan?

In the last week, anti-Wall Street protests have begun to attract more media attention. The Occupy Wall Street movement may just catch on, but it's too soon to tell. Two things about Occupy Wall Street bear directly on globalization.

First, one of their key slogans "We are the 99%" capitalizes on the startling fact that the top 1% of income earners in our society earn a significant share of national income--a dynamic that the growth of the financial sector (Wall Street) has aided and abetted.

Second, the Occupy Wall Street page explicitly claims inspiration from the Arab Spring movements--perhaps one of the first times in history that young people in a Western democracy were inspired to go out into the streets by young people in the Arab world. This feedback loop from the Arab world to the United States suggests that global media do have some power to spread contagious ideas of protest and freedom in multiple directions around the globe.

For a little sense of the rather chill vibe down in the financial district in lower Manhattan, check out this video:

Right Here All Over (Occupy Wall St.) from Alex Mallis on Vimeo.

Not exactly violent or scary. It does seem a little vague and unfocused.

Nonetheless, I suspect we'll be hearing more from this group in the weeks to come, as they clarify what it would take for them to go home. See the Occupy Wall Street page for more up-to-date information.  And for a list of specific demands, see this page.

For now, it isn't clear that these protests will rise to the level of being a significant social movement or whether they will fizzle out. Will they drive real political change in our governmental institutions or policies? Or will they occupy unemployed hipsters until the cold weather hits? Either way, I'll be watching them closely.