This is a movie that gets at the heart of why the country I love has lost its character. The end-money-has become more important than the means- anyway you can. No morals or ethics. And our fucking government keeps letting these bastards get their bonuses (7 lobbyists for every congressman/woman and senator) on Wall Street (a place that produces nothing for a lot).
What is health care reform really about?
Well how to protect the insurance companies, and the fat people.
WOW, who runs the Federal government?
Not you or I.
That is why guys like Ron Paul are our only hope (well also Winslow Wheeler for President in 2012). But, people, do you want the the hard truth? I did not think so, keep electing the same dirt bags!
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for free enterprise and capitalism, as long as it is done with some ethics involved. Like “when is enough, enough?” How about giving something back to the nation that allowed you to get all that stuff?
Friends of my good friends Chuck Spinney and Winslow Wheeler (September leader of the month), Andrew and Leslie Cockburn (who I have had the h0nor to meet and talk too) have produced a blockbuster documentary describing the “social ecology” of the financial meltdown, in the words of David Denby, who wrote the attached review in the Sept 7 issue of the New Yorker. I urge you to read the review and to see “American Casino” at your earliest opportunity.
The Current Cinema Out of the Shadows “American Casino” and “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” New Yorker by David Denby September 7, 2009 http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2009/09/07/090907crci_cinema_denby
Leslie and Andrew Cockburn’s film looks at the social ecology of financial meltdown. The movies are still one of the best ways of giving body, flavor, and emotion to the abstractions and puzzlements of an enormous crisis. In the most fascinating scenes in “American Casino”—a terrific documentary chronicling the subprime-mortgage mess and the financial collapse of the past two years—a former banker for Bear Stearns sits in the dark, his face shadowed and his voice (I believe) slightly altered.
We might be watching a retired criminal or spy, a man both proud of his dexterity and ashamed of the disaster that it led to. Out of the shadows, he explains how such bizarre instruments as collateralized debt obligations (C.D.O.s) quieted the normal skepticism of investors.
Here’s the drill: when the bank assembled a group of mortgage-backed bonds as an investment product, it submitted them to a ratings agency. But the agency, rather than run its own computer models on the trustworthiness of such bonds, he says, merely handed the job back to the bank, which ran its models. Having received a fee of perhaps a hundred thousand dollars for not doing anything, the agency then signed off on the phony ratings.
You can read about a scam like that in a newspaper and be surprised, but when the perpetrator actually explains it to you your reaction falls somewhere between nausea and hilarity. It’s as if the Russian Mafia had paid a Colombian drug cartel to certify its integrity. The banker, apparently still a young man, grows more chagrined as he digs further into absurdity.
The debt obligation, thus packaged and affirmed, was divided into tranches—bonds rated from an inflated AAA at the top to worthless at the bottom. The bank then took one of the lower sets of tranches, consisting, say, of BBB bonds, repackaged them as a new instrument, and magically rated perhaps eighty per cent of them AAA.
In a final twist, some of the lowest tranches from this new instrument were spun into still another product, and once again some of the lower tranches were upgraded.
This final iteration of the product—based on ratings that had passed through three degrees of fakery—was known in house as a “C.D.O. squared.” By now, the underlying assets were leveraged, the Shadow says, at a thousand to one, maybe even ten thousand to one. “Who was buying those C.D.O.s squared?” an interviewer asks. “Idiots,” comes the reply from the dark. Idiocy is a great subject for comedy but a depressing and rarely instructive one for drama and documentary, and yet, as everybody in “American Casino” keeps telling us, we all got caught up in this stuff, as homeowners or as taxpayers financing a bailout; even if we didn’t initiate it, the idiocy enveloped our lives.
The movie was put together by the husband-and-wife team of Leslie (director and writer) and Andrew (writer) Cockburn, veterans of many documentaries on war and nuclear proliferation. The Cockburns have finally made a movie about a nuclear disaster that actually happened—their subject is the social ecology of financial meltdown. They filmed interviews with bankers, business commentators, and homeowners battling foreclosure, but they go much further than talking heads. They pull together sorrowful footage of stable neighborhoods—both prosperous and working-class—slipping into dereliction, with junk-laden yards, boarded-up doorways, squatters taking control of abandoned houses and charging rent to the homeless.
What happened at Bear Stearns or at Goldman Sachs affected the mosquito levels in Riverside County, California (the insects breed with special fecundity in abandoned swimming pools). With a rare cohesive power, the Cockburns fill in the lines of connection. They function a little like Raymond Chandler as he traces the corruption that produces, at the end of a long chain of circumstances, the lady in the lake.
A genial Baltimore man named Denzel Mitchell, a social-studies teacher, is interviewed on the day he declared bankruptcy, and, on this same day, we see his house auctioned off (in a dead market, there is only one prospective buyer) on the steps of a Baltimore courthouse.
Later in the movie, the financial reporter Mark Pittman, a sleuth sifting through Bloomberg screens, finds the C.D.O., issued by Goldman, in which Mitchell’s mortgage has been dumped into a pool of assets. Everything is connected: the movie embodies chaos theory for social pessimists.
The big picture is held together for us by Michael Greenberger, the director of trading and markets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the Clinton Administration. Greenberger, a talented explainer, charts the development of more and more complicated and preposterous instruments, ending with credit-default swaps.
As he reaches the climax of his tale—the collapse of the banks and the insurance companies—rage and amusement battle for control of his face. His passionate exposition gives us the strongest emotional release we get from the material.
It’s a little hard to know what to make of the eloquent sorrows of an African-American therapist in Baltimore who can’t meet her mortgage payments and eventually loses her house. The Cockburns don’t make it clear whether she was taken in by predatory lenders, who (as a variety of people explain) targeted minority groups and falsified income statements in order to grant unqualified people loans, or whether she simply miscalculated the amount of money that she had available to make her payments.
When the Cockburns turn to victims, they absolve them of responsibility for their troubles, which seems no better than a partial truth. After a while, one looks for straightforward citizenly virtue, and one finds it in the people who are left cleaning up the mess: the mortgage counsellors in Baltimore who try to help people climb out of trouble; the city official who mournfully boards up houses; the very matter-of-fact guy who controls the mosquito population before the insects spread disease.
When the recovery comes, all those people will still be there, without acclaim, helping ruined neighborhoods spring back to life. The movie is a lucid and comprehensive picture of a rotten system, but it’s a relief to know that some people in the midst of disaster were doing their jobs.