One City

I’m a buddhist. I read the Wall Street Journal as often as I can. I don’t see how anyone interested in interdependence can ignore the WSJ. I think any buddhist interested in relieving suffering in this world of relative reality can enjoy it.

And I think anyone interested in interdependence will enjoy the movie I saw this weekend: American Casino, an amazing documentary about the subprime mortgage crisis and the financial meltdown, featuring Phil Gramm, Alan Greenspan, and a variety of sweaty, business-suited guys and lower middle-class, mainly African American, former homeowners in Baltimore, Maryland.

Filmmakers Andrew and Leslie Cockburn interviewed both Wall Street heavy hitters and those on the street because they lost their homes in one of best movies I’ve seen this summer.

The Cockburns concisely show the crystal-clear connections between foreclosures in Baltimore, the bettors on Wall Street, and disease-bearing mosquitoes in Southern California. We are ALL connected. What we do, and with what intention we do it, matters. A lot.

Baltimore school teacher Denzel Mitchell walking through his foreclosed home, to California real estate investor Jeff Greene, who bet against the mortgage-backed securities market and made close to half a million dollars, there is a lot of interdependence. And a lot of interesting stuff.

Moneymakers don’t come off badly in this film; liars do.


Of course making money isn’t bad. I don’t believe buddhism means that. I do believe that buddhist thought points out that every action has a result, and that the intention with which acts are performed affects the result.

To me, it seems the source of the problem lay in the intentions: the intention to deceive, for the intention of satisfying greed.

It becomes clear as the film progresses that the lying that went on in generating mortgages for people who couldn’t afford to pay them back was the root. And the lying that went on among those who sold securities based on those mortgages was the branch. And the subprime meltdown is the fruit.

Investment isn’t evil. Bankers aren’t villains and the homeowners aren’t saints. I’m not even sure I’d say gambling (the securities market) is intrinsically evil. But lying to people about what they are gambling on? 

The results manifesting from such a fine mess of ignorance and greed are so obviously painful, so generative of suffering, that this film made me pause and think, specifically about every single bit of speech or email I produce in the course of a business day. About whether there is any intent to deceive, ever so small, about when something was done, will be done, or can be done. Because this movie is one big karma lesson.

The network of interdependence revealed by the film is far too much fun to watch as is plays out; I don’t want to spoil it here. Of course, I recommend seeing it oneself; in New York City it’s playing at Film Forum the first two weeks in September, and there will be other showings–and Netflix–soon. At Film Forum there are a few live Q&A sessions with the filmmakers, Leslie and Andrew, on the following dates.

Wednesday, September 2, 8:00 show
Thursday, September 3, 8:00 show
Friday, September 11, 8:00 show

I’d ask them what their next film might be. And I’d hope it isn’t about this article in the Wall Street Journal today.