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.

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