Unpacking and Relating Moral Hazard and Swapping in The Big Short and The Turner House

Reading The Big Short and The Turner House back to back, allowed for us to be able to compare perspectives of people partaking in two opposite ends of a spectrum regarding their role in the housing crisis. Both books shed light on “the other side of the story” and the cause and effect nature of big bankers’ decisions that affected so many people including the Turner family. To people like Eisman and Burry, those in the financial situation that the Turner’s faced were but mere concepts to them; too distant from their own lives to be considered human. The decisions they made in their offices were risk factors, but not necessarily as risky for them. They saw their own personal gain and ran with it. They may have also seen the idea of fraud surrounding what they were doing, but since it was still only a concept, something not yet materialized, and was not directly affecting them, the negative impact of it did not seem so bad. However, relating all of this back to the idea of moral hazard, it seems that the bankers in The Big Short, relished in their protection from risk by their wealth. So, would those who weren’t protected by those means (The Turner Family) act differently if they were? Reading these two books back to back seems to highlight the concept of human nature being something that sits on a selfish foundation, but yet even at the end of the day, setting the scale of that selfishness aside, we all take part in it; alongside the pain and beauty of human existence.

The Big Short is obviously a story that recalls real events and the storylines of real people. The basis of the book is obviously the events that occured and decisions that people made that all led up to the 2008 recession, that negatively impacted so many people. However, something that Micheal Lewis does to give the book and the people who took part in those actions more depth and human-like characteristics, was to dive into elements of their lives outside of Wall Street. What was their family life like? What was their childhood like? How did they even become a banker or stock broker in the first place? Lewis made it a point to provide readers with information along these lines. Even if many of these men had committed actions like fraud, diminishing any trust people had within them; Lewis attempted to show they are still human at the end of the day, with their own set of emotions and traumas. Diving into Eisman’s life, we see he faced a terrible circumstance in regard to his son dying soon after he was born. He stated that prior to this he had always thought he had an “angel on his shoulder,” but this tragedy made him start to believe otherwise. Another example would be when Burry found out that he  had Aspergers, which changed his entire outlook on his life and his career. “After a few pages, Micheal Burry realized that he was no longer reading about his son but himself… ‘My wife and I were a typical Asperger’s couple, and we had an A perger’s son’” (Page 182). Both of these incidents were life altering for these men, the death of a child is a pain no one should experience and finding out about something that alters your self perception and identity can definitely have a huge impact on many areas of your life. 

However, they weren’t known by society, or their co-workers on the basis of these facts. They were known for selling subprime mortgages, and making millions of dollars without losing anything, and ultimately were viewed as selfish terrible people. At their cores, as the insight we get from learning their backstories, they may not be that terrible, but rather blinded. Blinded to a world outside their own, which is something they could’ve tweaked to be a more empathetic person. Eisman, we see, does this to an extent by the end of the book. “And he started being nice. And he liked being nice! It was a new experience for him” (Page 250).  However, at the end of the day they took advantage of the fact that they had an advantage, and tended to pay very little attention to anyone outside of that realm. Even if Eisman learned to “become nice” by the end of the book, that in many cases can’t replace the damage his actions had on people like the Turner family.

 The Turner family, as Flournoy displayed through many generations, struggled a lot with their finances. We are shown this as early on as Francis and Viola’s first  years as a married couple; when they had to live apart and Francis had to send money to Viola. However, we also see these struggles through their children, such as Lelah and Cha-cha, and how they were affected by their financial situations as they got older. They were a part of a generation who’s socioeconomic status was in many cases directly hindered by those in the realm and generation of the men we read about in The Big Short. Looking at Cha-Cha and even Troy as examples, they both, in a way, eventually had to take care of their mother, or at least made intentions to. 

Over the previous few days his original idea about the Yarrow Street house had crystallized into a plan. He and his girlfriend Jillian might not have the $40,000 needed to absolve Viola of her debt, but they had enough to buy the house for the price an interested stranger would be expected to pay. (Page 64) 

Viola had undoubtedly taken care of her children, especially in their early years, when Francis was out “working” and she was left to raise the children mostly on her own. “Viola had to work for white folks after all. She needed the money, and in the end she couldn’t bear to be in those fields” (Page 113). She worked the best she could, with the best she had. 

We see this financial struggle presented very vividly in Lelah and Francis’s early life as well. However, compared to Viola’s early struggle for example, it could be said that their financial problems were brought on by themselves. “What folks said about idle hands and the devil was true for Lelah; busyness was her best defense against the urge to fondle those chips” (Page 96). We as readers unpack a bit of Lelah’s life outside of her association with “The Turner Family” and are able to see a dark addictive side to her. “She did not think of Troy or Jillian, or Brianne or Viola. Only herself” (Page 134). These are tendencies that on a larger scale could be more detrimental to people other than oneself or those close to you. So in a way, Lelah’s actions are reflective of those of the big bankers. A sort of addictive need to always have more. However, she cannot perform anything on a drastically large scale, being that she has no protection from a greater force, the force of big business that those in the The Big Short were protected by for much too long. This protection allowed the big bankers to let their addiction flourish, an addiction that we can see through Lelah, that many if  not all people may suffer from in different forms. 

Both texts use a sort of “flipping through time” method to encompass different emotions pertaining to various time periods in the characters’ lives; this shows the effects of the past on their present-day selves. The Big Short does this in a more subtle way, whereas it’s much more obvious in The Turner House. It’s through these personal narratives that we’re able to see a more complex version of those written about than we would have had we not known their backgrounds. It is through this glimpse into their backgrounds that we are able to see the different struggles with identity, with addiction and greed, but also with heartache and sorrow all of the characters in each book experience to an extent. These universal experiences,  played out on different scales and settings, call into question the definition behind moral hazard. Had the bankers’ lives been swapped with those they were affecting, would each party see things differently and do things differently with such a drastic change in socioeconomic status? It isn’t a question with a trusted and factual answer, since this is not possible. However, what it does seem to bring awareness to is the neverending and ever-unfolding layers of human nature. We become so wrapped in our own realities and feed into our own addictions to bring about temporary pleasure, but they will ultimately negatively impact not only our lives, but those around us as well.

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