Blue-Suited Vultures and Childlike Demands

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Margin Call is another offering in the growing list of movie dramas and documentaries that attempt to explain the economic meltdown of 2007–08. This one gives an insider's view of a giant financial institution — perhaps a Lehman Brothers, although that company is never identified — as its analysts suddenly realize that it can no longer sustain its high levels of margin-driven debt against its falling asset values.

The film opens with a cadre of blue-suited vultures — most of them women — storming the office to let employees go. At the end of the day, nearly half of them have been fired, including middle manager Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Dale has been working out a logarithm that seems to be predicting financial catastrophe, but no one will listen as they usher him out the door. This scene is perhaps the most intense of the whole movie. Women literally tap men on the shoulder and signal for them to follow, an action reminiscent of the Rapture that will herald the beginning of Armageddon. It is hard to say which is better — to be summoned away, or to be left behind to face destruction.

As a parting gesture, Dale tosses a flash drive to his protegé, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and warns him to be careful. Sullivan opens the file, and after adding a few mathematical computations of his own, discovers that the company's net worth is less than the debts it owes. Considerably less. And with the multiplier effect caused by buying on margin, the gap will widen exponentially in a matter of days, unless the markets as a whole turn around. An emergency meeting is called, with all the corporate bigwigs arriving in the middle of the night.

Here the film becomes heavy with pointed dialogue intended to explain the problem to those of us in the popcorn gallery. It is not unreasonable to assume that every one of these high-powered business people in this high-powered room is a genius at math and finance. Yet CEO John Guld (Jeremy Irons), sinister in his impeccable gray suit, his impeccable British accent, and his frighteningly sharp face, threatens Sullivan, "Speak to me as you would a child, or a golden retriever." This childlike demand is designed for the audience's benefit, of course, but it is almost laughable in the circumstances and reveals J.C. Chandor's inexperience as a writer and director. He doesn't yet know how to set up exposition believably.

The explanation that Sullivan then delivers is so abstract and obtuse that only someone who already understands it would be able to fill in the missing specifics and render it understandable to others. We know that the company has borrowed too much against assets that are diminishing in value, but we don't gain any further light from having seen this movie, and we certainly don't learn anything about how to prevent a similar meltdown.

Films such as "Margin Call" continue to garner glowing praise while vilifying an economic system that allowed America to become the wealthiest, most powerful, and most generous country in the world.

More interesting are the ethical conversations that follow. After Guld reminds the Board of his motto of success: "Be first, be smarter, or cheat," he adds, "I don't cheat, and we aren't any smarter, so we will have to be first." This means that his brokers will have to sell all their assets within hours of the market opening in the morning, before buyers realize that the asset values are dropping.

Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a 34-year veteran of the firm, offers the free-market answer to government regulation when he argues, "But you'll be selling something you know is worthless. They will never buy anything from you again." He's right, of course. The greedy businessperson looks for the quick profit that comes from offering inferior quality at an inflated price, then hurriedly moves on. But the wise businessperson offers good quality at a fair price, knowing that satisfied customers will provide steady gains from repeat sales for a lifetime. Cynically Guld gives the opposite view of the free market: "We'll be selling at the 'fair market value.' It's not our fault if the fair market keeps falling." Acknowledging Sam's point about repeat customers, he continues, "This is the big one. We have to get out all at once."

To entice brokers to destroy their own careers by ruining all their customer rapport and good will, the company leaders offer them huge incentive packages for unloading the majority of the company's assets by the end of the day. The brokers may not be able to get a job for a while, but with this kind of compensation, they won't have to. Integrity can't be bought, but it can be sold.

Karl Marx argued that those who deal in money deal in nothing. They don't produce anything of value, and they don't consume anything of value. They just provide a medium of exchange. Thus, in a Marxist view, being a salesman or stock broker is the lowest form of labor. This point comes through in the film when Dale laments, "I used to be an engineer. I built a bridge once." He then recounts how much time and energy he has saved for all the people who have used his bridge every day for years. The implication is clear: as an employee of this financial institution, his life has been meaningless.

Sam Rogers responds in a similar fashion when Guld says derisively, "You could have been a ditchdigger" instead of a wealthy financial analyst. "Yes," Sam agrees, "but then at least there would be some holes in the ground." Guld continues in Darwinian style, "It's just money; it's made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than it's ever been. . . . You and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. . . .We just react. And we make a lot of money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong."

This cynical attitude about the role of financial institutions is continuing to drag down our economy as surely as investing on margin did. It willfully ignores the fact that financial institutions provide capital for funding those bridges and ditch-digging projects. And it encourages viewers of films like this to ignore that fact. These films continue to garner glowing praise while vilifying an economic system that allowed America to become the wealthiest, most powerful, and most generous country in the world.

For a relative newcomer (this is his first full-length feature film) Chandor managed to do several things right. He secured major funding and assembled an all-star cast that includes not only Tucci, Spacey, and Irons but also Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, and many others. He has garnered accolades from the mainstream critics. He has written a script that, despite its schoolboy reliance on potty language (thus its R rating), has "gravitas." But while it may seem "important," it isn't very entertaining, or very thrilling. Interesting is about as high as my praise will go. His direction is often affected and heavy handed, especially with his actresses. Wait for Margin Call to be available on Netflix.

quot;


Editor's Note: Review of "Margin Call," directed by J.C. Chandor. Before the Door Pictures, 2011, 107 minutes.



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The Return of Coxey’s Army

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In 1894, Coxey’s Army, a legion of purportedly needy people, came to Washington to demand radical reform of the capitalist system. It was supposed to be a “march,” but some of Coxey’s soldiers tried to make their trip to the capital by hijacking railroad trains. The depredations of the Army were widely feared, especially by communities that lay on its route, but by the time it reached Washington its numbers had dwindled. It ended when its leaders were arrested for walking on the capitol grass. That took care of Coxey’s Army.

During the past few weeks, downtowns across the country have been the unwilling hosts of tribes of ignorant savages shouting about the wickedness of, guess what, the capitalist system.  They maintain that they represent the 99% of Americans whose lives are controlled by the remaining 1%, who supposedly own 99% of property in this country. Ironies abound: people who have nothing better to do than hang out in a park and empty their bladders in a McDonalds restroom are lauded and supported by labor unions; people who want to abolish wealth are bankrolled by “liberal” billionaires; and people who never vote are courted by the highest official representatives of the Democratic Party. Friendly media note with relief that the Occupy mobs are (usually) “peaceful.” I suppose that if you come over to my condo complex, pitch a tent, and refuse to leave, denouncing me day and night and threatening my neighbors with the risk of epidemic disease, you are being “peaceful.”

It’s a safe bet that not one Occupier, or mainstream commentator on the Occupiers, has ever heard of Coxey’s Army. So such people haven’t fully realized what the lowest level of police power can do to wipe up a “movement.” On October 13, all around the country, local mayors and cops started moving against the demonstrators, evicting them from their zones of occupation for reasons of health. Their tent cities were fouling the environment.

Of course, that’s another irony that should be savored.  One of the Occupiers’ great complaints is that capitalism is ruining the environment. Well, just look at what the Occupiers did to New York’s Zuccotti Park (which by the way is privately owned, despite Mayor Bloomberg’s apparent assumption that he owns it and can let protestors in and out whenever he wants). It’s hard to imagine a more degraded environment.  For this reason, the protestors were nearly kicked out of the park on October 14, a mere four weeks after they started to degrade it. On that day and the day after, they were kicked out of parks and other civic spaces in many other cities. On October 16, they were prevented from starting a camp in Chicago’s Grant Park.

A few more run-ins with local government, and the movement will probably go the way of Coxey and Friends. This is yet another irony, because what the protestors, “anarchist” or not, are really screaming for is more government, government that will run everyone’s life in the minutest detail. That’s the only way in which their multitudinous demands — for equal incomes, free money, vast solar energy projects, whatever — could ever be satisfied.

But there’s one nice, nonironic touch.  For once, one of the Occupiers said something correct. According to a CNN report on October 13, Occupy Wall Street spokesman Tyler Combelic promised resistance to any attempt to move the protest out of its usurped location, observing. "It's not an occupation if you can't occupy the park."  How true, how true.




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The E-Trade Baby Blues

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When I was in college I learned about a theory called “the cultural contradiction of capitalism,” which claims that capitalism calls upon the public to assume two conflicting personas. As producers, people must be rational and responsible; but as consumers, they need to be irrational, carefree, and gluttonous, so they will buy as much as possible.

I recently recalled this theory while watching one of the incredibly annoying “E-Trade baby” commercials on television. The E-Trade baby’s message is that investing is fun and easy and, by implication, even a toddler could handle it. Although I am an aspiring lawyer, I do have some degree of background on investment advising, and I consider this message absolutely irresponsible. Investing is difficult. To beat the averages and outperform the indexes (which is the only sensible goal for day-trader-type, individually managed investing accounts such as E-Trade sells), an investor needs brilliance, discipline, and a ton of luck.

Investing without understanding how to research stocks is like gambling your life savings at a casino. A rational strategy for saving for retirement would include buying index mutual funds and highly rated bonds with gold or gold-related stocks as a hedge against inflation. Picking individual stocks (even supposedly “safe” or large-cap stocks such as IBM or Microsoft) is too risky for someone investing retirement savings. It is mathematically impossible to predict future stock prices accurately enough to eliminate the risk that your portfolio will be wiped out by bad luck or short-term swings on precisely the day when you need to dip into your savings. Stock-picking is not suitable for any investor unless you spend several hours each day researching your stocks. But actively managed investing for mainstream America is what the E-Trade baby sells.

Many Americans learned the dangers of Wall Street investment when the recent recession ate their portfolios. And Wall Street is a symbol of capitalism for the American public; when retirement accounts go down, Main Street always blames Wall Street. This happened in 1929, when the stock market crash started the chain of events that led to the Great Depression and the New Deal. It happened recently when the so-called Great Recession instigated the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.

My own opinion is that a fool and his money are soon parted. The American investing public believed that stock prices and real estate values could never go down, and that the principle of “more reward requires more risk” did not apply. The public got what it deserved. But although I blame the investors, it is undeniable that Wall Street, from Goldman Sachs to Jim Cramer to E-Trade, promoted itself as an easy, riskless way for mainstream families to make money and save for retirement. The investing public’s “irrational exuberance,” to quote Alan Greenspan, can only help Wall Street to make money. Vast fortunes are made by investment banks when stock market bubbles inflate. Wall Street is partially to blame.

What I am trying to get at here is that even though libertarians love capitalism, we do not have to love everything that results from the profit motive. My favorite movies are the original Star Wars trilogy. But George Lucas, desiring to milk as much money from his franchise as possible, has produced several re-edited versions, each more atrocious than the last, and also filmed the pathetic “prequels.” Similar stupidity was behind the decision to film “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” as two separate movies instead of one, dooming the two movies to artistic ineptitude. Generally, whenever a novelist or movie studio produces something good that people like, sequel after sequel follow, for no other reason than to make easy money and feed off the brilliance of the original.

Even though libertarians love capitalism, we do not have to love everything that results from the profit motive.

From a different angle, consider the widespread use of “intro rates” to persuade people to buy cellphone or cable TV services or six-month intro rates on credit cards. Are consumers so stupid that they don’t plan more than six months ahead? Ads full of colorful sights and sounds and subliminal associations but empty of facts and information about why their product is superior are the rule on television, not the exception. The stupidity of the public makes advertising easier. It is easier to sell car insurance by building a brand image around a jingle or a cartoon character than to produce a product that can be objectively demonstrated through scientific testing to be better than its competitors. Ads paid for by businessmen are a huge part of what shapes American culture and the American media — which helps explain why American culture is so strongly slanted in favor of shallowness, stupidity, and irrationality (though this is not a complete explanation, but merely one piece of the puzzle). America is full of instances in which businessmen appeal to consumers not on the basis of reason and logic but through gimmicks and psychological manipulations. Judging by the widespread success of ads like the E-Trade baby, many members of the public make some horribly irrational choices, in their consumer goods no less than their political beliefs.

You can’t blame capitalism for the fact that people make bad choices. Consumer irrationality is not a valid excuse to strip people of their freedom to choose. Wall Street gives us a far higher standard of living than any of the Soviet states ever achieved, and capitalism is the only system with a proven track record of prosperity and progress.

Nevertheless, the moral of this story is that the profit motive has a dark side. I know that some would say that the desire to make easy money by appealing to irrationality is not actually in any businessman’s long-term rational self-interest. I completely agree. Yet it is natural for people to seek to make money as easily as possible, and we see what results. Instead of blindly insisting that the profit motive can do no wrong, we should take the more refined approach and recognize that the fault lies with the people themselves, not with freedom as an economic system.

So I support the profit motive — but supporting the profit motive does not mean supporting everything that results from the profit motive.




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Appleby's Revolution

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One thing that has always struck me about the Communist Manifesto is that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels held capitalism in awe. “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together,” they wrote in 1848. They listed the wondrous accomplishments one by one, from steam navigation to canal building, and “whole populations conjured out of the ground.” Of course, their praise preceded a call for workers to overthrow the great capitalist conjuror.

Joyce Appleby’s book, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, conveys the same sense of wonder. She praises capitalism, saying that its “distinctive characteristic . . . has been its amazing wealth-generating capacities. The power of that wealth transformed traditional societies and continues to enable human societies to do remarkable things."

Appleby certainly doesn’t recommend overthrowing the system. But her appreciation of capitalism diminishes as the book goes on, just as Marx’s and Engels’ did in the manifesto. At the start, The Relentless Revolution is like an exhilarating train ride, full of insights and a historian’s gold mine of information, but it loses steam and slows to a crawl once the Rubicon of the Industrial Revolution has been crossed. At the end, Appleby is praising the US government for trying to rein in the capitalist beast.

Appleby, who taught history at UCLA, describes herself as a “left-leaning liberal with strong . . . libertarian strains.” Given today’s academic history departments and her own attitudes, she deserves admiration for looking at capitalism as objectively as she can. “In this book,“ she writes, “I would like to shake free of the presentation of the history of capitalism as a morality play, peopled with those wearing either white or black hats.” For half the book, she achieves that goal.

The Relentless Revolution fits into the recent parade of big books trying to explain the rise of the industrial West — books such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, and Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules — For Now. These and other authors are trying to answer a couple of giant questions: why did the West (not China, India, or another part of the world) make the transition from subsistence living to a world of constantly increasing productivity? And how exactly did it happen? As I shall explain, Appleby offers two major responses that I found valuable.

Appleby identifies two main factors in Britain’s rise: higher wages providing the incentive to increase productivity, and coal providing the means.

The pivotal moment in world history is normally called the Industrial Revolution (although perhaps that’s a misnomer, given its slow gestation). Many factors contributed to this revolution, and part of the “game” motivating the big books is to offer new factors. It’s generally agreed that the process flowered first in Great Britain, but the reasons may stretch back to such things as the European practice of primogeniture, the separation of powers between the Catholic Church and the state, and the system of rights spawned by feudalism under changing population pressures.

Appleby focuses on 17th and 18th-century England (why she gives short shrift to Scotland is a puzzle). She points to two reasons why the Industrial Revolution occurred there: England had higher wages than the Continent, and also cheap sources of coal. Higher wages provided the incentive to increase productivity, and coal provided the means.

The idea that England’s wages were higher is actually new to me and undoubtedly has a complex history of its own; Appleby merely says that England’s population growth had leveled off in the 17th century. As for coal accessibility, she agrees with Pomeranz, who says that China fell behind Europe partly because its coal deposits were harder to reach.

Whatever the precursors, actual inventions — especially of the steam engine — required talent and knowledge, and herein lies the first of Appleby’s distinctive insights. In a way that I haven’t seen before, Appleby integrates two related forces: the British tendency toward scientific theorizing (or “natural philosophy”), and the British tendency to tinker. “Technology met science and formed a permanent union. At the level of biography, Galileo met Bacon,” she writes.

She elaborates: “Because of the open character of English public life, knowledge moved from the esoteric investigations of natural philosophers to a broader community of the scientifically curious. The fascination with air pressure, vacuums, and pumps became part of a broadly shared scientific culture that reached out to craftsmen and manufacturers in addition to those of leisure who cultivated knowledge.”

The Royal Society illustrates this integration. Created in 1662, it was both practical and scientific. Its members studied that New World import, the potato, but it also “brought together in the same room the people who were most engaged in physical, mechanical, and mathematical problems.”

Appleby’s second valuable contribution is to take a cold-eyed look at the role of New World slavery in creating the markets that nurtured the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, like Pomeranz, she sees slavery as a major factor behind the engine of progress.

In The Great Divergence, Pomeranz says that the vast expansion of agricultural cultivation in the New World enabled Europe to avoid the “land constraint” that kept the Chinese from developing an industrial economy. And slave labor played an enormous role in the cultivation of sugar in the Caribbean and cotton in the United States. Thus, Pomeranz says, Europe overcame the limitations of land by colonizing the New World, which made agriculture possible to an extent unlikely in tiny Holland or England.

Appleby’s take is a little different. She emphasizes more the three-way trade that we learned about in middle school (slaves from Africa were taken to the New World, where sugar was purchased and taken to Great Britain, where finished clothing and other products were bought, to be sold in Africa). Pomeranz and Appleby are not arguing that slavery was profitable, or that it was “necessary,” but, rather, that it was a significant element in the system of trade that led to the Industrial Revolution. Enthusiasts for capitalism such as myself tend to focus on the “trade”; critics of capitalism — along with Appleby — stress the “slave” part of the trade.

Furthermore, Appleby considers American plantations and British inventions as two sides of the same coin. “These two phenomena — American slave-worked plantations and mechanical wizardry for pumping water, smelting metals, and powering textile factories — may seem unconnected. Certainly we have been loath to link slavery to the contributions of a free enterprise system, but they [the phenomena]must be recognized as twin responses to the capitalist genie that had escaped the lamp of tradition during the seventeenth century.”

Whether she is right about this, I don’t know, but she brings to public attention the periodic debate by economic historians over the role of slavery, a debate that Pomeranz reawakened with The Great Divergence.

Unfortunately, after these interesting observations, The Relentless Revolution begins to wind down. As the book moves on, Appleby tends to equate anything that takes industrial might — such as the imperialist armies that took possession of Africa in the late 19th century — with capitalism. “Commercial avarice, heightened by the rivalries within Europe, had changed the world,” she writes in explaining the European adventures in Africa. I dispute that. While Cecil Rhodes and Henry Morton Stanley may have been private “investors,” for the most part Africa was overcome by government power, not by individuals or corporations.

While Cecil Rhodes and Henry Morton Stanley may have been private “investors,” for the most part Africa was overcome by government power, not by individuals or corporations.

Even greater blindness sets in as Appleby’s 494-page volume moves into the recent past and she becomes influenced by modern prejudices. In Appleby’s view, the financial crash in 2008 was caused by financiers; the only contribution by public officials was to “dismantle the regulatory system that had monitored financial firms.” No word about the role of the Federal Reserve, the Community Reinvestment Act, or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Indeed, capitalism becomes the same as exploitation, in spite of her more balanced initial definition of capitalism as “a cultural system rooted in economic practices that rotate around the imperative of private investors to turn a profit.”

In her last chapter, Appleby writes, “The prospect of getting rich unleashed a rapacity rarely seen before in human society.” This extravagant statement does not jibe with archaeological (not to mention historical) evidence of the human past. In Why the West Rules — For Now, Morris reports on an archaeological excavation at Anyang village in China. In 1300 BC, this home of the Shang kings was the site of massive deaths. Morris estimates that, in a period of about 150 years, the kings may have killed 250,000 people  — an average of 4 or 5 a day, but probably concentrated in large, horrific rituals — “great orgies of hacking, screaming, and dying.” This was the world before capitalism.

To be fair to Appleby, she is saying that the productivity unleashed by capitalism extended the breadth of human rapacity, and to some degree the example of slavery supports that notion. Eighteenth-century British gentlemen could think high-minded thoughts while enjoying their tea with sugar grown by often brutally treated slave labor — which they may have invested in. “This is the ugly face of capitalism,” Appleby writes, “made uglier by the facile justifications that Europeans offered for using men until they literally dropped dead.”

True. At the same time, it was the British who abolished the slave trade, at high cost in patrolling the seas. Before that, Africans were enslaved only because other Africans captured and sold them to the Europeans. (Malaria and other diseases kept Europeans out of the interior of Africa until late into the 19th century.) There is a lot of blame to go around.

So this book is a mixed bag. Even though Appleby increasingly departs from objectivity as she proceeds into modern times, I respect her project and appreciate her insights. I hope that her “left-leaning” historian colleagues read her book and expand their understanding of the past — just as I have.

fits into the recent parade of big books trying to explain the rise of the industrial West


Editor's Note: Review of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism," by Joyce Appleby. Norton, 2010, 495 pages.



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