Lessons I learn from Margin Call | Bleader

Lessons I learn from Margin Call


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In honor of money week at the Reader, I watch Margin Call, which tells the tale of a group of ruthlessly slick, money-grubbing Wall Street types who make gazillions by producing nothing of value for the larger public.

Which, as I think you'll all agree, sorts of sums up the American economy today.

For me, the movie's high point comes in this scene where the chairman of the board—played by Jeremy Irons—marches into a conference room where his subordinates are sitting around a table, and launches into this great speech about how he didn't get to be where he was by being smart, so just explain what the fuck is going on in terms so simple that even a dog—say, a reasonably smart Labrador retriever—could understand.

Man, I love that line about the reasonably smart Labrador retriever so much that I've been repeating it ever since, even though I usually get it wrong. Which is how things generally go when I try to repeat great lines I've heard in movies or songs.

The problem, as it's explained to Irons, is that somehow or other, while no one was paying attention, his company tied up almost all of its money into some sort of convoluted mortgage-derivative shit that's now virtually worthless. A fact that some guy in research discovered at about 11 PM, which is why Irons has convened the emergency meeting at five in the morning.

And if they don't do something right now—as in immediately!—they will be as broke as, oh, your typical writer for a weekly newspaper in Chicago.

Well, they don't actually say that thing about the weekly newspaper in Chicago, but you get the point.

Like I said, this all takes place at five in the morning. Apparently, rich people don't sleep. Actually, I don't sleep either—so it's good to know I have something in common with rich people.

In fact, I'm writing this at about five in the morning. But I don't look nearly as sleek and nattily attired as Irons and the other guys sitting around that conference room table. For the record, I'm wearing a ratty, gray sweatshirt and a torn T-shirt that says "Beat New Trier" (got it at an Evanston Township High School basketball game—long story).Though this is pretty much how I dress even when it's not five in the morning. One more time—this is the year I upgrade my look!

Anyway, Irons decides to sell all of the worthless junk to any and every one dumb enough to buy it ASAP—as in, before the buyers realize he's selling worthless junk. That way he can dump his problems on to someone else and emerge from this disaster with about half of the gazillions he had before.

As for the other half, he'll make up for it by firing a whole bunch of the "little people" in his company. Which, now that I think about it, is sort of how Mayor Emanuel runs the libraries. And the schools. And, well, pretty much everything else in this town. I guess ol' Rahm learned a thing or two from the sons and daughters of the Captains of Industry he hung out with in the cafeteria at high school—speaking of New Trier.

Well, it was an entertaining flick and I recommend it to one and all.

It sort of reminds me of an exchange I had years ago with an old pal I'll call Teddy.

Teddy was your prototypical, fast-talking, wheeling-dealing, rich-as-hell commodities trader, who had a thing for the ladies—with at least one wife and a girl or two on the side at any given time.

On his advice, I bought Kmart stock for about $10 a share. At one point it rose to roughly $15, prompting the following exchange....

Teddy: I sold my Kmart stock, did you sell yours?

Me: No.

Teddy: Sell it—you'll make 50 cents on the dollar.

Me: I'm not a day trader—I'm a value investor.

Teddy: No, you're a schmuck.

Well, guess what—he was right and I was wrong. Kmart tanked and I lost everything I invested. And Teddy, having made out like a bandit, spent the weekend at one of those pleasure palace sex hotels in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, with a lady who may or may not have been his wife.

Some cats know how to live.

All of which leads us to the big question for the day: should Teddy be taxed at a higher rate just because he was smart and I was dumb.

And the answer is: Hell, yes!

Why? Because the more the Teddys pay in taxes, the less people like me and all those little people who get fired by the Jeremy Irons and Rahm Emanuels have to pay in taxes.

It's so simple that even a reasonably smart Labrador retriever would understand.

Oh, that more people were as smart as dogs....

Read more from Money Week:

"Against all odds," by Kate Schmidt

"An awesome gesture of 'Fuck you, poor people,'" by Mike Sula

"Five great songs about money," by Miles Raymer

"Obama in town this evening for the usual reason," by Steve Bogira

"'What happened to the U.S. employment miracle?'" by Deanna Isaacs

"The euro crisis? You bet it's important!" by Michael Miner

"Money: What do you want with it?" by Ben Sachs


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