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6 March 2019

From Vice director Adam McKay, a new series captures the Obama administration’s neoliberal worldview

Capitalism, so the story goes, faltered because of moral deficits.

By Hettie O'Brien

“Are rich people dicks, or do dicks get rich?” It’s a question that effervescent comedian-turned-Obama-staffer Kal Penn ponders in This Giant Beast that is the Global Economy. Day-Glo diagrams, yachts and dollar bills punctuate Penn’s interviews with economists and criminals about 2000s-era capitalism. This is a documentary about economics, sure; but it’s one injected with the bombastic texture of The Wolf of Wall Street.

The new Amazon Prime series comes from Adam McKay, director of Vice and The Big Short, and continues the thread of his work that self-effacingly explains finance. On-screen depictions of the economy have tilted towards free marketeers in suits, with few mainstream fiction films critical of capitalism.

Those that are tend to tell the story from the perspective of an overworked protagonist sick to death of office culture and daydreaming of unionisation. Mike Judge’s under-celebrated 1999 film Office Space showed us a corporation where authoritarianism is masked with deceptive informality. This ethic prevails in the coffee shop next door where staff are required to wear “seven pieces of flair” – a “handy illustration of the way in which ‘creativity’ and ‘self-expression’ have become intrinsic to labour,” the theorist Mark Fisher thought.

More recently, Boots Riley’s brilliantly audacious Sorry to Bother You set its exploited protagonist in a bizarre telemarketing suite with golden lifts to dystopia. His promotion was a pyrrhic victory: more money, yes, but at the expense of selling out to a system that genetically modifies employees into more efficient laborers.

The Big Short addressed the economy as a structure rather than an individual’s workplace culture, which likely makes it Hollywood’s most radical critique of financialised capitalism. It deployed self-consciously toe-curling explainers: Anthony Bourdain filleting a halibut and Margot Robbie in a bubble bath deliver seminars on collateralised debt obligations at key pivots. A postscript reveals that the post-crash banking system, far from abandoning the toxic practices that precipitated the crisis, has continued to repackage low-grade debts, ad infinitum.

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McKay’s new series is replete with vignettes that mock rent-seeking and financial corruption. Depending on your tolerance for smugness, this is either entertaining or irritating. Penn skids across mosaic floors, interviews FBI agents on Segways and floats atop a unicorn lilo. He speaks with money launderers in Cyprus: laughing, drinking coffee, breaking the law. Suitcases of dollars fall from the sky and Penn exits a tiny plane. He gets a pedicure with the founder of silk scarf company Pretentious Pocket and is fitted for a suit patterned with tiger heads; the CEO of Sunbeam, who did so much downsizing “people called him chainsaw Al,” also loved “a jungle motif”.

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As with The Big Short, a Hollywood narrative demands moral goodness or individual redemption, and the divide between good and bad people set out in McKay’s new series reflects this Manichean attitude. The “real dicks” are the people who rig the game; the airlines that prevent passengers sitting together while extracting profits from a captive market, or the mobile phone companies that charge exorbitant contract fees. A scene with two warring balloon sellers is a zealous illustration of the series’ moral premise: that market competition is a sacred good allowing greater consumer choice and constraining rent-seeking monopolies. (Curiously, Amazon and Jeff Bezos go unmentioned.)

This moralising economic worldview was perfectly attuned to the Obama administration in which Penn served. According to its logic, capitalism faltered because of malign exceptions and moral deficits that could be remedied with liberal balance. This is underscored when Penn speaks with journalist Jon Ronson, author of The Psycopath Test, who reveals that 4 per cent of CEOs display psychopathic traits. “Capitalism channels the power of dick energy and can actually help us all get better goods and services,” Penn later muses, cutting to a brief history of Thomas Edison. The billionaire CEO is narrated as a pathological yet brilliant exception upon whom our light bulbs depend. Less attention is paid to extreme wealth concentration.

As the writer Mark Greif has noted, prior to the 2008 crash, Americans witnessed multiple television programmes premised on “house flipping” (Flip this house, and its rival, Flip that house), where normal people bought second houses, spruced them up, and sold them on for profit. These were a pure illustration of the speculative impulse from which the financial crisis flowered. After the crash, Greif observes, house flipping gave way to Storage Wars, where fraught families bid on storage containers left abandoned by mortgage defaulters for what treasures might lie therein.  “These shows would be our tea leaves or rabbit entrails for the next shock, if we knew how to read them,” he says.

If McKay’s latest programme is a prophetic tea leaf, it portends that the next financial crisis won’t originate from the actions of a corrupt few – but from our blindness to the structural vulnerabilities of the entire system.

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