5 lessons We Can Learn From Financial Comedy ‘The Big Short’
Humour, according to Mark Twain, is tragedy plus time. Eight years after the 2008 financial crisis, now feels like the perfect time for Adam McKay’s The Big Short. Zippy and irreverent, frequently breaking the fourth wall and filled with star cameos, it allows us to laugh at the frankly bonkers world of high finance. But with millions still feeling the crash’s crushing after-effects, The Big Short never loses grip on its tragic roots. It feeds audiences’ desire to laugh, but also their desire to understand, and is shot through with a mounting sense of anger at the hubris and greed that caused the biggest financial disaster in modern history. It will leave you entertained, but also maddened, saddened and enlightened.
Here are some of the most salient points worth taking away from it:
1) Think you don’t understand finance? Maybe that’s the point.
Being 16 back in 2008, I’ll admit I wasn’t an avid follower of the fluctuations of the Dow Jones. Still, I had an overwhelming sense of not being shown the full picture, and anytime I did try to make sense of things, all the talk of stocks and easing and collateralized debt obligations made me want to assume the foetal position. However, as Ryan Gosling’s character in The Big Short puts it, ‘Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you to leave them the fuck alone’. If the public assume that finance is beyond them, that the economy is governed by unknowable forces, then they’re less likely to intervene and the people actually in charge are less likely to be held accountable. The economy has largely retreated behind closed doors since the liberalisation of the 1980s, but economist Ha Joon Chang estimates that 95% of economics is ‘common sense made complicated’. The wonderfully accessible The Big Short demonstrates how crucial it is for people to not become excluded from the processes that have such a monumental impact on their lives.
2) The entire financial system is built on human frailty.
One of the much-vaunted merits of a free market economy is that it is divorced from human interference. Supposedly rational, it feeds off people’s self-interest, with an ‘invisible hand’ (as Adam Smith dubbed it) ensuring everyone then gets their fair reward. The Big Short shows this invisible hand slapping the world in the face. From downplaying the possibility of negative outcomes to assuming that if something works it will continue working ad infinitum, the film exposes the numerous fallacies and human errors that prop up what is essentially a man-made, extremely culpable system. By avoiding regulation and hoping that the economy will sort itself out, we actually leave it more vulnerable to collapse.
With little widespread understanding of what actually occurred we can be easily misled
3) Bankers aren’t automatically wankers and sociopaths.
The Big Short is anything but easy on the bankers at the heart of the financial crisis. Wilfully ignorant of impending peril and confident of the public purse bailing them out, they’re a pretty sickening bunch. The film doesn’t presume, though, that they’re rogue bad apples, or that finance intrinsically attracts bad guys. Instead, it exposes how a system focused largely on short-term profit and fuelled by a never-ending desire for ‘more, more, more!’ is bound to draw out the worst in people. As Ha Joon Chang puts it, ‘assume the worst about people and you get the worst’; by centring our economies on greed and self-interest, we create a monster that, instead of benefitting society, actively harms it.
4) What was wrong then is still wrong now.
This film is by no means historical. For one, its events are achingly fresh for those still scarred by the crash. However (and it’s hardly a spoiler to say this), the practices it critiques are also continuing to this day. We learn in the closing credits that, when the American credit bubble burst, $5 trillion and 8 million jobs were lost. Since then, the banks’ lobbying power has halted most new regulations, their cosy relationship with their own regulators persists, and only one US banker has been jailed. The working public, after seeing their savings gambled away and their taxes used to bail the banks out, are enduring a huge squeeze in wages even as executive pay soars. It’s fitting, then, that The Big Short ends on a downbeat note. There are no great heroics in its world, and even when illegal practices are exposed, they soon retreat back into the shadows. With the hijinks subsiding to sober reality - Brad Pitt’s character points out that 40,000 people die for every point that unemployment rises - viewers are left with not just a sense of gross injustice but the fear that, without significant change, similar disasters could be just around the corner.
5) Are we really blaming who we ought to blame?
At the end of The Big Short, Steve Carell’s character fears that people will do ‘what they always do when the economy goes south: blame immigrants and poor people’. Sure enough, right-wing and nationalist parties have risen rapidly across Europe since 2008, while Donald Trump has based much of his Presidential campaign around the scapegoating of migrants. In Britain, the Conservatives have hijacked the financial crash, blaming it on excess spending in areas like public services and welfare (i.e. the areas most needed by the poor) in order to justify savage cuts. With little widespread understanding of what actually occurred we can be easily misled, and find ourselves targeting those we believe are eating into our slice of the cake without stepping back to ask why our slice is so small in the first place. The Big Short is many things, but above all it should be considered a vital piece of consciousness-raising.
The Big Short is in cinemas now. Needless to say, we highly recommend it.
About the author
Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.
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