Prairie Messenger Header

Screenings, Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

A look at the money game and why it is important

05/25/2016

Gerald SchmitzMoney Monster (U.S.)
Boom Bust Boom (U.K./Netherlands/U.S.)
Jane Mayer, Dark Money:
The Hidden History of the Billionaires
Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
(New York, Doubleday 2016)

It’s been 40 years since Jodie Foster became a global star as a child actress in Taxi Driver, which won the Cannes film festival’s coveted Palme d’Or. This year she’s back as a director with Money Monster, which had its world premiere May 12 at Cannes on the eve of its North American release. The same day she led off the festival’s “Women in Motion” talks. Last month she also participated in a series of talks at the Tribeca festival where Taxi Driver had a special anniversary screening.

“Money Monster” is the name of a crass TV show whose host, Lee Gates (George Clooney), is a bombastic Trump-like huckster dispensing hot stock tips in a carnival atmosphere. He’s about to interview Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), spokesperson for Ibis Clear Capital, about its stunning sudden $800 million loss — deceptively blamed on a computer “glitch” with its high-frequency trading “algorithms” — when an aggrieved young truck driver, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), storms the set. Brandishing a gun with his thumb on a detonator, he forces Gates to put on an explosive vest, demanding on-camera answers. Budwell wants an accounting for why he lost his life savings in the crash of a stock heavily promoted by Gates. “It’s not the Muslims, the Chinese,” rants Budwell, but a rigged financial system that’s stealing from people like him. Gates’ lifeline is his constant communication with control-room director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) who talks him through keeping the situation from blowing up. She’s his ace, though preparing to leave for another job.

As the hostage crisis unfolds in reality-TV fashion, attracting a huge audience, the game also becomes about chasing down Ibis Capital’s deceptively unreachable CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) and the real reasons behind the loss. While a SWAT team moves into position Gates tries a money-monster gambit and the cops stage a histrionic intervention from Budwell’s pregnant girlfriend. The tactics fail miserably but meanwhile Fenn has initiated a furious pursuit for the truth. Budwell and Gates become strange allies, breaking out of the studio leading to a climactic scene in which Camby is cornered into an on-air confession.

Is Budwell a symbol of the populist rage against high-finance corruption that is easily exploited? In a way, yes. There’s a TV end clip of Robert Reich warning: “Wall Street is a casino. It’s gambling with your money.” A pointed rap song, What Makes the World Go Round? (Money!), plays over the closing credits. But the show will still go on. The movie, with its elements of parody, isn’t so much an attack on the system as a black comedy of flawed characters. As Foster has said in a May 11 interview with Mike Fleming of Deadline: “Both men (Gates and Budwell) are filled with self-loathing; they don’t understand their own value so they’re looking for money to tell them that they’re valuable. That’s what the financial markets are. Dominic West’s character, Camby, feels the same thing. People see themselves as failures and have to create these personas that have to do with money and winning.”

In her Tribeca talk Foster called Money Monster her “popcorn Hollywood genre” movie. It offers strong performances and a dose of well-crafted entertainment, not deep social criticism. Yet the portrayal of a money-mad and media-manic world is just close enough to reality to carry a sting of sympathy for the Kyle Budwells who are its casualties.

***

Boom Bust Boom (http://boombustclick.com/) is co-directed by Terry Jones, an original member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python, and co-written by Theo Kocken, an economics professor and entrepreneur. Humour is cleverly applied to understand the cyclical crises that are “the Achilles heel of capitalism.” In a brisk 70 minutes the documentary uses sprightly animation and a jazzy score to enliven the points made by a range of experts including Nobel Prize-winning economists.

Puppets like those on the BBC series Spitting Image help to explain the machinations behind the subprime mortgage meltdown that triggered the 2008 financial crisis. It’s a lesson in the hazards of deregulated market mania without the character complications of last year’s drama The Big Short. Bad loans and risky investments were pushed by those earning fat transaction fees until the bubble of toxic assets burst. Enormous losses froze credit, spreading shock waves across the economy and the recovery required massive bailouts from government.

Capitalist markets have a long history of booms and crashes — periods of “irrational exuberance” in which speculation encourages the illusion that everyone can get rich, followed by a panicked implosion causing fear and deep recession if not depression. It’s an inherently risky game of unequal rewards. In 2008 inequality in the U.S. had reached levels not seen since 1929. Surely there must be a better way to manage economies to avoid such financial crises.

The film dips into theoretical work on the causes of financial instability, notably that of Hyman Minsky, and elaborates critiques of the standard neoclassical economics model with its laissez-faire faith in the self-correcting nature of unregulated markets. Although the University of Limerick’s Stephen Kinsella worries that “nothing is ever learned for long,” hope is expressed that in challenging free-market orthodoxy a new generation of economists — reference is made to the “International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics” — will address the systemic failures at the root of recurrent financial crises.

Economics may be known as the “dismal science” but this sortie into what ails it manages to inform in a way that is highly entertaining.

***

The corrupting influence of money in American politics has become a prominent theme given the vast sums routinely spent in primary and electoral campaigns. The extent and the sources behind it are revealed in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money (http://www.jane-mayer.com/), the result of five years of research. Some of America’s uber-wealthy have promoted their libertarian anti-government philosophy as a populist cause through the funding of a vast network of organizations advocating for a right-wing agenda and working to block or overturn progressive legislation. The aim has been to infiltrate and influence opinion-makers, the media, academe and the political system at all levels. In conjunction with rising inequality and declining social mobility there is the irony of a plutocracy exploiting, indeed fanning, popular anger against government in ways that serve the interests and protect the fortunes of the one per cent.

It’s appropriate to call this gush of money “dark” since its sources are often deliberately obscured. Until quite recently extreme libertarian conservatism was at best a fringe ideology in American politics with little public support. To move these views to the centre of American political life required a concerted “stealthy effort,” often using tax-exempt philanthropy to funnel money through an array of benign-sounding organizations (e.g. Americans for Prosperity) harbouring the right ideological intentions.

Among the chief architects of this strategy are the Koch brothers, Charles and David, both of whom rank among the world’s 10 richest men. (Koch Industries is heavily involved in the energy sector and is the largest exporter of Canadian oil to the U.S.) Family patriarch Fred Koch had done business with the Stalin and Hitler regimes in the 1930s but was a member of the far-right John Birch Society. The brothers had also joined briefly but their interest was less combatting an international Communist conspiracy than the American welfare state. Their aim was to “destroy the prevalent statist paradigm,” as Charles put it in 1978. Yet when David ran for vice-president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980 it received only one per cent of the vote.

Part One of Dark Money details the solution of “weaponizing philanthropy” in order to wage a “war of ideas” to get libertarian notions into the mainstream. Ostensibly charitable donations would have the added benefit of minimizing taxes on huge estates. Private foundations were set up that found ways to distribute monies to organizations sharing the funders’ ideology. Especially effective for (disguised) political purposes were front organizations claiming to represent ordinary citizens and advance non-partisan objectives. The Koch network has been described as the “Kochtopus.” Mayer also outlines how a number of other secretive arch-conservative billionaires (e.g. Richard Mellon Scaife, John Olin, Joe Coors) have used their inherited empires to promote radical conservativism.

Part Two of the book on “secret sponsors: covert operations” focuses on how the 2008 election of Barack Obama galvanized the right’s richest funders into a determined counter-attack on government regulation as the problem not the solution. Unrest over fallout from the financial crisis proved fertile ground for stoking anti-Washington sentiment as in the growing “Tea Party” protests. The Kochtopus and similar networks were mobilized to turn public opinion against health care reform and action on climate change. Then the January 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision (a 5/4 split) set aside a century of campaign finance reforms in granting to corporations free speech “rights” allowing a flood of big money to influence the political process as long as it was not given directly to candidates. The Democratic party suffered major losses in the 2010 midterm elections.

The last section of Dark Money on “privatizing politics: total combat” details the success in terms of “Tea Party” influence in the Republican party, in an obstructionist Congress, and especially at the state level. (Significantly, states control the post-census redistricting process whereby congressional boundaries can be gerrymandered to maximize Republican seats.) Notwithstanding Obama’s 2012 presidential re-election and the failure of legal challenges to “Obamacare,” opposition to his legislative agenda became stronger than ever. Democrats lost the Senate in the 2014 midterms as radical right ideology became ascendant in the Republican majorities. What Obama’s 2012 win did do was prompt the Kochs to seek to broaden the appeal of this ideology through an “image overhaul” that would make it seem public-spirited, devoted to the nation’s “well-being,” not the self- interests of the ultra-rich. As a final irony, for all the Kochs’ antipathy to Obama, their wealth has roughly tripled since 2009.

It’s too early to tell whether a Trump presidential candidacy and takeover of the Republic party through a largely self-financed primary campaign will blow up this carefully laid strategy. In any event, the prospect of a belligerent billionaire in the White House promises an even more intense debate over the role of money in America’s troubled democracy.