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.

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



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The Bowels of the Occupy Movement

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According to its website, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a people-powered movement organized in "response to the Great Recession caused by our financial and political leaders." It vibrates with activity as people organize against corporate greed. Working groups pulsate, "planning actions, coordinating with community groups, engaging with the press, supporting each other, and strengthening solidarity within the movement." They intend to work tirelessly until inequality, injustice, poverty, and war are eradicated, all the while "refusing to be silenced," presumably by powerful movements clamoring for inequality, injustice, poverty, and war.

The early days of the OWS movement experienced rapid growth, its popularity boosted by media coverage and support from celebrities and Democratic politicians. In recent weeks, it has been joined by labor unions, community organizers, human rights groups, and the Communist, Socialist, and Fascist parties. Implying a form of automatic enrollment for everyone whom big business and big government has been sticking it to, the hope is that the "99%" name will increase membership to, well, 99%. There is also a small, but vocal, anti-Semitic faction, no doubt formed from the belief that Jews own all of the banks. And since OWS demands "indictments and prosecutions of all crimes committed by banks, brokerage firms and insurance companies," a very large legal faction is expected to develop soon.

Much of the anger is understandably directed at our democratic-capitalistic system. But a poll conducted for the movement by CUNY sociologist Héctor R. Cordero-Guzmán found that 70.3% of OWS'ers are politically independent and 64.2% are under the age of 34. That is, most probably don't vote. The poll also found that 92.1% had some college, a college degree, or a graduate degree; 13.1% are unemployed; and 71.5% earn less than $50,000 a year. So most OWS'ers are highly educated and have jobs, but almost 85% (13.1 + 71.5) pay 0% in income taxes — in contrast to, for example, Tea Party members, who are old and uneducated, but pay 30% of their income in taxes.

In addition to Wall Street and the 1%'ers, OWS'ers hate big corporations, especially ones that make huge profits, ship jobs overseas, and "plunder the planet." During a working group debate, one protestor tweeted "X on sucks" to his followers by using his new $560 iPhone 4S. I assume he was talking about Exxon, a giant American oil company with a profit margin of 9.66%. Apple, which recently surpassed Exxon as the world's largest company, extracts a profit margin of 35% on iPhones, which are manufactured by Samsung in Taiwan. Evidently, big corporations that screw consumers can get an OWS protest exemption if they make cool products.

Similar logic applies to people. Corporate CEOs are demonized because of their sinfully high salaries. True, the top ten CEOs averaged $43 million in 2010. But the top ten celebrities averaged $100 million. Instead of castigating them, however, OWS'ers pay them tribute, by purchasing exorbitantly priced tickets to attend their bourgeois movies, concerts, and sporting events.

Despite numerous anti-capitalist signs (e.g., "End Capitalism" and "Smash the Pillars of the Pig Empire") and an equally large number of signs advocating socialism and communism, the OWS movement insists that it doesn't want to destroy business; it just wants to make a few changes. Specifically, it wants American business to hire more people, increase salaries and benefits, provide free health care and education, reduce the prices of products and services, and eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The profits (if any, after all the wealth-sharing) should be returned to society. So the new system would be a hybrid in which capitalists could own businesses but control neither their property nor their profits. Let's call it Marxalism.

Self-respecting socialists cannot be expected to carry their clever anti-capitalist signs while shivering and holding their noses at their own fetor.

Nationwide demonstrations by rebellious youth may annoy and disrupt American business, but they are unlikely to cause an immediate, voluntary switch to Marxalism. Nor will they result in a swift enactment of anti-greed laws. The real leaders understand the futility of such languid tactics. They are professional radicals, hiding in the bowels of the movement — deep thinkers for whom class warfare is a full-time job. They are the friendly statists from ACORN-like orgs, whose anti-capitalist outrage calls for social revolution. And they want it before ADHD and cold weather drive demonstrators back to their jobs and classrooms.

To ignite a revolution, the movement needs rebellious leaders with the ability to rouse and incite the masses. Who should be the provocative face of the revolution? Given the number of protestors wearing chic T-shirts imprinted with the image of Mao and Che Guevara (not to mention Marx, Lenin, and Stalin), it would be tempting to use modern-day versions of these idols. However, Che-like leaders would be demoralizing. The original Che denounced the “spirit of rebellion” as “reprehensible” and those who “choose their own path” as "delinquents." Chairman Mao has become a cult hero, perhaps more trendy than Che. California even has "Mao's Kitchen" restaurants. But it would be difficult for Mao-like leaders to explain the miserable failures of the original Mao — for instance, the "Great Leap Forward" to create a just, egalitarian society that ended up killing 45 million innocent Chinese men, women, and children. As with Che's idol, Stalin, justice and equality were evidently unimportant goals for Mao.

There are even problems with frontmen such as Michael Moore. On the plus side, he is highly visible and somewhat popular, has no history of supporting mass murder, and has never been seen in a Che T-shirt (although he has endeared himself to Fidel Castro). A recent convert to the OWS movement, Mike hates capitalism, which he regularly and vehemently denounces. He often alludes to violence in the streets if Wall Street doesn't pay back what it has stolen: our pensions, our money, and the futures of our children. But the spectacle of Michael Moore raging against corporate fat cats would hardly ignite a revolution. And a T-shirt image of a fat 57-year-old man, with bangs sticking out from under a goofy ball cap, is simply ridiculous.

In terms of the stated goals, two months of demonstrations have achieved nothing. As the OWS movement has grown and spread, so too has its proclivity for violence and revolution. Writing in the New York Post of a recent visit to Zuccotti Park, Charles Gasparino "found a unifying and increasingly coherent ideology emerging among the protesters, which at its core has less to do with the evils of the banking business and more about the evils of capitalism — and the need for a socialist revolution." Unfortunately, the latest recruits to the cause — for the most part, criminals, drug users, panhandlers, and the homeless — have produced little more than a stench pervading the carnival-like encampments. Indeed, the increasing violence and decreasing sanitation of the movement has begun to wear out its welcome in many cities. And with the onslaught of winter, many protestors plan to retreat, vowing to return with the fair weather of spring. Self-respecting socialists cannot be expected to carry their clever anti-capitalist signs while shivering and holding their noses at their own fetor. Besides, it is an image more ridiculous than that of a Michael Moore T-shirt.

In the bowels of the OWS movement lie zealous agitators who see themselves as its true leaders. Privately they regard the mainstream media, vocal celebrities, and shrill professors of socioeconomic equality as useful idiots. When it comes to money and power, they are as greedy and exploitative as any of their oppressors. By offering false hope and fomenting hatred and unrest, they seek to extort capital and usurp power for themselves. And with thousands of eager demonstrators at their disposal, they believe their moment is now (or next spring).

But there is an obstruction, a chronic irritation — the lack of charismatic demagogues to articulate the ideology. Some would say the movement has been stricken with irritable bowel syndrome. Alas, for this strain, no medicine seems to be available.




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Poisoning the Well

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Young people are getting an education on the free enterprise system that prejudices them against it.

Their educators tend to see its ethos as one of “dog eat dog.” They believe that fierce competition is its only feature, and that this competition must always be destructive. They believe that some will win and others lose, and that the winners must completely obliterate the losers.

Kids learn that lying in business is sharp and shrewd. That successful businesspeople use every dirty trick in the book to get ahead. That, given the nature of the system, they absolutely must do this to succeed. Dishonesty may be considered wrong everywhere else in the world, but in the workplace it is a skill necessary for survival.

Of course this is the detritus of Marxist philosophy. Even at its mildest, it is not what people who esteem the free enterprise system, who support it as the one most conducive to freedom and prosperity, believe. But youngsters who aspire to succeed in business tend to believe these things, because they’re what’s being taught. They carry such notions into the business world, and this accounts for the abysmal lack of ethics we see in all too many of them.

People who notice this bad behavior are often told that “that’s business,” and believe it. Thus they are vulnerable to the rhetoric of “progressive” political hucksters who preach warmed-over Marxist ideas such as the redistribution of wealth and the supposed necessity of government intervention in the marketplace. And thus does the vicious cycle perpetuate itself.

But among those who care about free enterprise, there is a sense of what, for lack of a better word, I might call sportsmanship. While at one level a business competitor may be a rival, in the larger scheme he is actually a partner. You might defeat him today, he might defeat you tomorrow, but next week you might succeed together. As for customers, they are not suckers to be bamboozled; they are every company’s greatest resource. A continuously profitable business doesn’t try to fool them once, then go in search for other suckers; it establishes a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship with them.

The economic chaos we face today didn’t spring full-blown from Obama and the Left. It is the product of both major parties, and the years of confusion over which they’ve presided.

An understanding of these principles is almost totally absent in the minds of many young folks in the corporate world. And this has opened a Pandora’s box of ills. It has much to do with why tycoons pay expensive lobbyists to get legislation passed forcing competitors out of business. It’s why big corporations gobble up struggling small fry and — with the help of bought and paid-for elected officials — strangle other entrepreneurs in regulations that keep them from building better companies. It’s how so many of them can thrive on taxpayer-funded subsidies, then congratulate themselves on their commercial genius. Such tricks are then described, by anti-free enterprise professors, as capitalism in action.       

What the young are not being told is that there is a beauty, balance, and wisdom to the free enterprise system. That it can thrive only in an atmosphere of trust, based on individual integrity and mutual respect. That it is up to each of us to keep that trust. It’s true, we all compete, but only so we can become our best. And if personal dishonesty becomes too widespread, it will undermine and erode our ability to trust one another.

The well is being poisoned right at its source. William F. Buckley raised an alarm about the fouling of this spring in his first bestseller, God and Man at Yale, more than 50 years ago. His warning is as timely now as ever. We are paying small fortunes to educate our sons and daughters, and they are being taught to distrust the very waters in which they must swim. They are being taught that the only way to clean them up is to pay self-designated geniuses to regulate the flow.  What will happen is that the pool will dry up.

I spent my early college years at public institutions, and I remember being taught that the system in which I had to survive was evil. Then I transferred to a small, private college, and for the first time I heard that the economic system developed in my country had become a blessing to the whole world. For the first time, from professors not beholden to socialist dogma, I was exposed to a gospel of hope. It was many years before I was able to sort through the confusion of those conflicting doctrines and find my way to the truth. Kids today are confused, too, but they are as salvageable as I was.

They won’t hear the truth from the GOP-led Right. That crowd preaches free enterprise, yet feeds into the corruption and calls the bitter sweet — at least until the Democrats are in charge. The economic chaos we face today didn’t spring full-blown from Obama and the Left. It is the product of both major parties, and the years of confusion over which they’ve presided. Most of our would-be leaders learned from the same kind professors who now teach our kids, so they are no less befuddled.

Competition can be healthy. It can make us grow. But it can also be sick and deranged, goading us to tear each other apart, which is what happens when people compete for money and economic privilege that are taken from others and given to them. Thus Solyndra enjoys half a billion dollars provided at the expense of taxpayers who are losing their own jobs and homes. But there are still examples out there of beneficial competition in action, of good people working to keep our country great. I suspect, however, that Washington DC is the last place we’re going to find them.

If we can be made to believe the bad press about free enterprise — whether it comes from academia, from Hollywood, from the news media, or simply from our friends—we will act according to such notions. We’ll lie, cheat, and try to rig the game, and no one will have any cause to trust us. This was how the well got poisoned to begin with. The economic system that made America great needs better public relations. But we can’t merely entrust the job to any self-styled expert. We must, each and every one of us, take it up ourselves.

We must stop subsidizing schools that sow destruction. There are good schools, and responsible professors, who still teach the principles that can save us. There are still candidates, and voters, who care passionately about liberty. This is no time for passivity or despair. It is time to speak up, and to practice what we preach with greater fidelity than ever before. Our kids are watching every move we make to see how closely it corresponds with our words.

In the break room at one of my many corporate jobs, there was a poster promoting carpooling. It showed a throng of cars packed into a traffic jam. In each was a single driver, and from every driver’s head came a thought-balloon saying, “I can’t make a difference.” Although this was government-funded “green” propaganda, and the phrase has, unfortunately, become a cliché, it carried a grain of truth.

Each of us can make a difference, because although we are individuals, we are not alone. But we are individuals, and we are each responsible for ourselves. The great cleanup of the well can only begin with us.




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