Wall Street on the Edge: A Deadly Margin for Error

This posting is about a culture as far removed from roots or vernacular folk culture as one can imagine. But it is an “uncommon” yet ingrained upper-class culture we’ve been forced to come to grips with. Perhaps we can understand our roots culture, and its proper role, by examining its apparent opposite. Yes, I’m talking about Wall Street, the people who represent the reviled 1%. The film, Margin Call, now out on video, dramatizes how one brokerage firm nearly dissembles while grappling with the realization that all their mortgage-sale earnings will evaporate on the verge of the 2008 market catastrophe.

Jeremy Irons plays the cold-blooded CEO of a stock trading firm in “Margin Call”

What’s fascinating about the film is that it is about people more than cold economics. The excellent acting performances reveal how each market analyst, trader, middle-manager and even the CEO is personally affected by the situation. It starts with an analyst, played by Stanley Tucci, being fired as part of the first office purging in anticipation of tighter times. But nobody knows how suddenly bad things will get because Tucci holds the not-quite-understood secret in a flash drive, which he hands-off to his protégé as he is escorted out of the building, warning him, “Do something with this. But be careful.”

The younger analyst, who is the film’s everyman with a heart, soon figures out what Tucci had been groping towards, that the company holdings’ volatility rates will soon render its losses greater than the company’s entire worth. Tension ratchets up as this explosive information is passed up the chain of command, until the CEO — played pitch perfect by elegantly slimy Jeremy Irons — calls an emergency staff meeting in the middle of the night. Here’s where we see where people stand and how they are affected. Kevin Spacey is the office boss who realizes that the CEO is willing to sell off all these mortgage holdings even though he knows they are now essentially worthless — the ruse that destroyed the lives of countless ordinary Americans who put their faith in banks and the market.

But here’s where the movie gets interesting in surprising ways. Irons tell Demi Moore, one of the risk management analysts, that he needs “a head to feed to the traders” the next morning when everything is sold off and someone has to take the blame. He informs her that she is the sacrificial lamb — the only woman among the higher ups — perhaps symbolic of the patriarchal culture of Wall Street. To no avail, she reminds the boss that she had sent him several warning memos based on Tucci’s accumulating information, a while ago. “We all fucked up,” is Irons’ confidential share-the-blame concession to her.

We begin to see how human responses and decisions play out. Though a fictional film, it’s based on the actual experience of former Merrill Lynch trader Jeff Chandor, the father of the film’s writer and director, J.C. Chandor.

Aside from the drama and the stupendous damage such sell-offs produced, the film is compelling because it doesn’t judge the characters, as actor Zachary Quinto — who plays the young do-the-right-thing analyst  – comments in the “special features” commentary. I’ve begun to agree with Quinto. We see plenty of cold-heartedness but ultimately it is survivor’s behavior. They know what is at stake for the company. What about all the unsuspecting people will be hurt by this huge selloff? They are wonderfully signified by the cleaning woman who stands impassively with her cart in an elevator between Moore and a middle manager, who tersely discuss the fateful situation.

CEO Irons recites the dates of each of Wall Street’s market crashes and tells Kevin Spacey how American history repeats itself: “They’re just pieces of paper. It’s not wrong. We can’t help ourselves. We just make money and…there’ll always be the same percentage of winners and losers. Maybe there are more of us today but the percentages stay the same.”

Think what you will about this man’s self-serving historical analysis, and a harsh judgment may be in order because, after all, someone has to take some responsibility for all the greed and massive fraud we still suffer from.

But what most resonates in Irons’ speech is that phrase “We can’t help ourselves.” It implies several different things, depending on your interpretation. It may mean compulsive avarice, a craven lack of moral backbone. Certainly none of these people exhibit the sustained caring for vulnerable humanity shown by the lawyer-boss in Herman Melville’s classic story of Wall Street Bartleby the Scrivener. These contemporary Wall Streeters seem deeply acculturated to their abstracted manipulation of numbers, what one of them says “any crack head could do.”

But Irons’ phrase also can mean that these people — just like anyone affected by the market, which is probably all of us – is caught in a system. While brokers have bought into that system and are rewarded handsomely, the reptilian luxuries of free-market capitalism seem to, time and again, hoist us by our own petard, another implication of Irons’ speech.

One broker explains how readily he spends all his annual earnings — including $76,000 in hookers — so we see that, with their profligate lifestyles and the expense of living in New York, these people are paid just enough to keep coming back to work instead of walking away from this heinous high-stakes game.

You really may want to despise how the CEO administers the company ethos.  There are three rules in this business, he says: “Be first, be smarter, or cheat.”

But in his own way he takes his responsibility. “No one will ever trust you again,” Spacey warns him. “You let me deal with that,” Irons replies. Even this man agonizes, as he pounds his head against the wall in the company men’s room after Spacey tells him he won’t go along with the fraudulent sale. You sense, amid his growing desperation, that the CEO is suddenly faced with the cavernous hollowness of his position.

Ultimately the film portrays these people in relation to a bigger picture. Recurring scenes show these panicking characters peering down on sprawling Manhattan from high above. These beautifully wrought moments of contemplative vertigo suggest how the individual hangs suspended in a massive system of commerce that we have created and glorify and perpetuate — at least until the Occupy Wall Street movement began.  And here’s where our democratic folk culture rises and, one hopes, can make a difference. It has surely gained the attention of the powers that be.

Margin Call ends with Spacey’s character burying his dead dog in his front yard. He says he dug ditches before he became a stockbroker, but here he also symbolically buries his Wall Street life. The film is not bleakly apocalyptic; rather it seems to ask us to question the system that draws all these smart, talented people into it with the lure of lucre.

Whither social democracy? Economists note that many of the most financially secure advanced nations in the world have essentially socialistic systems. It’s hard to imagine “the land of the free” ever becoming socialistic but our under-regulated hyper-capitalism has gotten us into the mess we’re in. You see in these characters’ anguish a human questioning — that there must be a better way that we can learn from, ways to reduce all this built-in risk.

American ingenuity and resourcefulness is based on creativity but also learning. Learning implies open-mindedness to systems that may offer us wisdom, a chance to survive, and perhaps even thrive — as a society, not just as individuals in a Darwinian existence. If we survive only as individuals what are we left with? So what is our responsibility at this point in time? Watch this powerful movie and see what you think. Let me know.
— Kevin Lynch


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