by Travis Vogt
True story: I once worked at a stock brokerage in Los Angeles for a year. This was about three centuries ago. It was an online day-trading operation—big tech meets big finance. Traders drove corvettes, did coke, talked openly about employing hookers; all of the stereotypes from movies were true, except I really like most of my co-workers. They were extreme, but friendly. Except for my boss, Ross. He made his first million while still in college and was the alpha-est of the alphas. When I started working there, the only way I ever knew he existed was during internet outages, when he’d bellow “ANSWER THE FUCKING PHONES!” in the deepest, most imposing voice imaginable. He was capable of unbelievable cruelty, like nothing I’d ever seen, particularly towards an upper-management toady named Keith, who was nature’s perfect abuse absorber. I once observed Ross throwing a stapler at Keith, narrowly missing his head, and then shouting “GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY SIGHT BEFORE I LITERALLY MURDER YOU!”
Ross liked me, though. He never once yelled at me. We actually hung out a few times—once, he bought me a $90 glass of scotch and micromanaged how I drank it. I think he confused my “I don’t actually need or want this job” vibe with a “strong and confident” sort of thing. Plus, I was the only person in the office he could talk to about music. Everyone else was listening to Saliva and Nickelback. I’d heard five Ramones songs, so that damn near made me Lester Bangs, comparatively.
In the early 2000’s, the dot-com bubble burst, resulting in a series of mini-recessions. These were always much more dramatic in the brokerage than they were to most of the rest of the world. During one worrisome period, when the market was tanking, Ross shouted across the office at me. “TRAVIS!” he bellowed. “WHEN THE ECONOMY COLLAPSES, WHO BENEFITS THE MOST?”
I offered what I would generously describe as a semi-educated guess. “You?”
“THAT’S RIGHT. DON’T EVER FORGET THAT. RICH PEOPLE ALWAYS WIN, NO MATTER WHAT.”
He wasn’t smiling. Ross was an abusive prick, but he wasn’t a bad guy, not in his heart. He didn’t come from money; he grew up lower middle class. For a big, swaggering, tech-mogul bastard, he was surprisingly sympathetic to the working class. He reminds me a little bit of Steve Carrell’s character Mark Baum (based on a real person) in the Academy Award nominated film The Big Short—playing the game, profiting from the market, but still acutely aware of how rigged and unjust that game has become.
I saw The Big Short for the second time on Monday. It’s my second favorite film of 2015 (nothing can top Fury Road). On second viewing, I really came to appreciate the way director Adam McKay was able to balance comedy and outrage, increasing the levels of outrage so incrementally that—like a frog in boiling water—you don’t really notice until the end, when you find yourself shaking with emotion at the pure insanity and rampant criminality that created 2008 meltdown.
The Big Short is an unusual kind of tearjerker. It’s not particularly manipulative. The number one goal of the movie is to make the mortgage crisis understandable to everyone, so that even an idiot like me can (nearly) grasp what happened. Early in the film, Ryan Gosling’s hotshot trader Jared Vennett tells us in VO that bankers have deliberately made this stuff seem complicated to ensure that their jobs are indispensable and to keep average people in the dark about what they are actually doing. It’s easy to understand why, when the depth of the greed, corruption and criminality that led to the Great Recession is fully revealed.
I had always assumed that the Great Recession unfolded kind of like the Great Depression: as an inevitable result of poor regulation and shortsighted investment practices. But there were regulations in effect against almost all of the mortgage malfeasance that nearly destroyed capitalism eight years ago. It’s just that nobody gave a damn. Nobody. It was rampant law-breaking, rampant greed, rampant corruption. You can almost understand why not one person (well, literally one person) was prosecuted for causing the crisis. If they’d actually pursued all of the people who had broken the law, they would’ve had to throw tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of people in jail, including many, many government officials. It was 100% pure, unalloyed greed, permeating every single nook and cranny of the system. And it turns out that greed of that magnitude is actually NOT good. For anyone. Well, except for the big bankers who likely knew that the catastrophe they were knowingly abetting would give the government no choice but to bail them out at the taxpayers’ expense.
I was living too close to the ground to be acutely affected by the mortgage crisis. Didn’t own a home or any stocks. My parents, however, who worked hard for decades and made all the “right” fiscal decisions, saw much of their retirement fund go up in smoke. I knew dozens of hardworking people who lost their jobs. And the billionaires did it all on purpose, knowing that this was inevitable, knowing that they’d still reap huge bonuses in the end.
After my second viewing of The Big Short, I went home and watched the first episode of the new X-Files reboot. Aside from the clunky writing, unsure acting and indifferent pacing, the thing that bothered me the most was that I simply could not get worked up about the conspiracy. Fox Mulder goes off on some classic rants about how “The aliens, in conjunction with the illuminati, in conjunction with the reverse vampires, are planning to impregnate and overthrow etc., etc.” but I couldn’t muster even a modicum of dread, not with what I knew about what was actually happening.
There’s a lot wrong with the new X-Files pilot. It gives us a Glenn Beck/Alex Jones right-wing conspiracy nut (Joel McHale) and then presents him as the genuine article—a real hero for the truth, instead of a huckster opportunist (unlike his the men he is modeled after). It makes Mulder seem more insane than inquisitive. It wastes Annet Mahendru’s considerable abilities on a thankless and perfunctory role.
Worse than that, it gives us a supposedly terrifying conspiracy that is only slightly worse than something that actually happened less than a decade ago. Billionaire bankers blew up the entire system out of pure greed, and the government officials charged with keeping the vampires in check looked the other way because government also runs on money. And nobody paid the price. They are still pulling this shit to this very day. It was purely, demonstratively illegal, but the perpetrators were too rich to go to jail. They bought their way out of being held accountable by a democratic society.
If people knew that some kind of weird cabal wanted to start fusing human genomes with alien DNA in order to take over the world, I feel like they would protest. Demand action. But the mortgage crisis happened out in the open, in plain sight. Some people knew what was happening long before it imploded the economy. Nobody cared. Most people don’t really care now. The Tea Partiers were happy to blame the whole thing on “idiot” homeowners who foolishly assumed that American financial institutions were even a tiny bit scrupulous. And immigrants, of course.
To this day, bankers continue running scams that allow them to squeeze the poor and middle-class in aid of their own lavish lifestyles, without consequence. This is not a kooky conspiracy. This is what actually happens. This actually happened. It’s on record. It’s a fact. Mulder can fight all of the alien illuminati he likes, but if he ever brings them down, he’s got absolutely no chance of stopping the bona-fide, undeniable, in-plain-sight conspiracy that currently, actually envelops the world.
The truth really is out there. Scary thing is, nobody cares.
Travis Vogt is the editor of the Scarecrow Wire. Follow him @travisvogt.