Sunday, February 19, 2017

Some Reviews

                I’ve come across one film and read a couple of books recently. I recommend all of them.
                The film is The Big Short. If you’re curious about how the mortgage crisis developed and how ridiculous things got before the crash, this is the film for you. I almost didn’t watch it because it clocks in at over two hours. Since it’s on Netflix, I figured I could watch an hour and then come back to it later for the rest. I didn’t have to. It’s the fastest two-hour film I’ve ever watched. It’s based on fact, and when it takes liberties with the actual events, it tells you. The film is about several people who were sure or were told (one group by a wrong number phone call) the crash was coming. One man was so certain of a crash he had securities designed so that he could short the mortgage market by a firm happy to take his money, since it was axiomatic the housing market would never deflate. The group that answered the wrong number investigated the mortgage market in Florida and discovered a stripper who had five mortgages on houses she thought she could always refinance as well as tenants who were not aware their landlord, who had the mortgage in the name of his dog, had defaulted—I guess it was actually the dog that defaulted (or maybe ate the mortgage). The group investigating Florida mortgages were convinced to short the market. One thing that stands out is how willfully everyone in a position to question the madness, from the ratings agencies to the SEC, ignored their jobs, in no small part because their continued existence depended on repeat business.
With our new administration and congress in the process of dismantling the protections (including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) the previous one put in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, I recommend this film as a way for us to protect ourselves, since no one else is going to be looking out for our interests.  

I listened to Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal, which was written during the 2016 campaign. Post-campaign, Mr. Frank could be considered a modern-day Cassandra. He gives a biting commentary on what’s wrong with the Democratic party—namely that they’ve cozied up to the well-educated and well-heeled elite. The Democrats have abandoned the concerns of their (former) working class base for those affluent (primarily coastal) city dwellers whose concerns are bike paths, meritocracy, and individual opportunity. Perhaps it’s because these people are the ones writing the checks, but, as we’ve seen in the past election, these people are not the ones voting in states needed to win an electoral majority. What’s even worse, is the Democratic elites’ answer for everything is education. If you’re out of work because of NAFTA (which was pushed through congress by Bill Clinton), it’s your fault for not having the education to get another job. Mr. Frank reminds us it was also Bill Clinton who pushed through welfare “reform,” depriving many of a means to a legal income. What is interesting to me is Frank’s quoting Democrats who sound like very conservative Republicans. (Larry Summers, for example, said, “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated.” You didn’t go to Harvard? Well, you deserve what you got.) There simply seems to be no sympathy or even empathy for the single parent making minimum wage who does not have the time, energy, money or work schedule to get an education. But, then, what kind of contributions will the party get from these losers?
Now that Mr. Frank has proven to be correct, will the party take some action? Or will it just slap some makeup on the dead horse its current leadership has left behind?

Finally, What We Do Now, edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians (and if I were either of these people, I would be really pissed to have my name in such microscopic print on the cover—it’s a lot of work to edit a book) was thrown together in two months. The book has contributions by twenty-seven writers on “standing up for your values in Trump’s America.” Some of the contributions are painfully predictable (How many ways can Bill McKibben say the same thing?), but there are a couple of surprises. Allan Lichtman, a history professor and developer of a prediction system, “the Keys to the White House,” echoes some of Thomas Frank’s points except Lichtman is more in favor of free trade. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff tells us Trump uses the brains of those listening to him to his advantage. I’m not sure I agree—I’ve listened to Trump, and all I get out of doing so is wondering how the man got as far as he did. Nevertheless, he did win the electoral vote, so maybe there’s something to what Mr. Lakoff says. Dave Eggers gives us several vignettes he witnessed just before and just after the election. He notes that in Michigan, where Trump won by 13,107 votes, 110,000 people voted down ballot but did not vote for president. Writer George Saunders offers a scathing view of the media in his contribution titled, “The Braindead Megaphone.” He savages reporters—especially on the local level. While reading it, I couldn’t help but think of a local station that features a married couple as dual anchors. They’re so sweet it makes me want to barf, and when they show photos of their children and dog (“This is Sweetie Pie in the snow; oh, look here’s another one of him; oh, and here he’s petting Fido, etc.”),  I want to scream, “This is not why I watch the news.” I mean, I like dogs as well as anyone (children not so much), but I have one of my own. Anyway, evidently this kind of thing goes on everywhere these days. Mr. Saunders gives the example of even when local media are reporting they’re frequently dwelling on the obvious—malls are busy during Christmas because people buy presents, so mall parking is more difficult to find that time of year. I’d add to that people buying shovels and salt and what the highway departments will be doing to the roads when a snowstorm is predicted. When I see something like that, I say, to no one in particular, “My, wasn’t THAT informative?” I am glad I’m not the only one who finds such reporting dumb and annoying, but I’d be happier of someone would elevate reporting to maybe at least a third- grade level. 

By the way, and I guess this is a recommendation for a third book, I highly recommend Dave Eggers’ The Circle, which is a novel about a Google world taken to the extreme.

Incidentally, I know people are reading this blog. I’d really like to get some discussions going, so please feel free to comment.

© 2017 Larry Roth

1 comment:

  1. "The Big Short" was amazing. Having worked as a state financial regulator back before Clinton signed NSMIA amd took the states out of the regulatory business I was amazed and delighted how they showed how things got out of control (intentionally because they pre-paid for the fix) and the fraud continued until it couldn't any longer - and they took the jargon out so everyone could see the scam. I have watching it more than once - it is that good, and I think I learn a bit more every time.

    I cannot bear local news either (or national news any more) because it all seems so scripted, and each generation of talking heads starts thinking history began with their own experiences. Hence the same "crowded mall and snow removal" stories year on year. (And don't forget the fuzzy animal stories to end the newscasts.)

    The Democrat leaders are just like the Republican leaders - they are all more concerned with retaining power that risking change that may diminish it. That likely says more about human nature than either party's platform.