The Incomplete Story of the 2008 Housing Crisis

When we first began Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, I was quite apprehensive while reading it as I had no clue about what was happening with all of this business/finance talk. I found myself referring to Google searches or Investopedia trying to identify certain terms to help me understand things a little bit better such as a credit default swap, but it was still difficult to follow along as the material was heavy on the business side of things. I feel as though this was Lewis’ intention, emphasizing the idea that people had no idea what was happening unless you were a banker yourself. While I enjoyed the language (mostly metaphors) that Lewis uses in discussing the events leading up to the housing crisis, I couldn’t help but feel as though the story was incomplete or missing something from it allowing me to feel connected with the work and feel fully satisfied with the story. While we saw what led up to innocent people being hurt by the housing bubble burst, we didn’t really get to see how they were affected and if they recovered from it. Yes, there is some mention toward the end of the book in how the people on Wall Street knew this would broadly affect the average American, but we didn’t get to see beyond that. We did not get to see a more human aspect to it, which as a result added to my sense of disconnect from The Big Short

Directly after reading The Big Short, we jumped into Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, a novel that turns its attention toward an American family that would be affected by the actions of the investors. To some level after reading both The Big Short and The Turner House, I would say that they work well together to tell somewhat of a complete story and nearly complete Freytag’s Pyramid that we have discussed in class in explaining the housing market crash. Each work tells one half of a version of the story (The Big Short telling the first half and The Turner House telling the second) that nearly completes Freytag’s Pyramid where there is a rising action, a climax, and a falling action, except in this case there does not seem to be any real resolution to complete the pyramid, therefore showing the 2008 housing and financial crisis does not really follow the complete storyline structure we are accustomed to.

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2008 Housing Crisis rejects the Freytag Pyramid structure

The 2008 housing crisis in the United States had major effects on everyone involved. After reading The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, and The Big Short by Michael Lewis I was able to see and understand two different perspectives on the housing crisis, one being the Turner family and how the housing crisis impacted them, and the other being the bankers and investors involved in causing the crisis. I don’t believe that The Turner House sheds light on what is missing from The Big Short, instead each novel offers a different perspective on the housing crisis. For the purpose of this essay, I will discuss how the housing crisis of 2008 as told through The Turner House and The Big Short is complex and does not follow the classic Freytag Pyramid structure as seen in most novels (refer to next paragraph). Instead, these two novels allow for several ‘mini Freytag Pyramids’ or individual character plot lines throughout the text. Both novels do not display an overarching resolution, similarly to the housing crisis in that there was no true resolution. 

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What’s the Difference Between a $1 Chip and a $100 Chip? The Risk Factor

The Big Short describes the 2008 stock market crash from the points of view of those who work on and around Wall Street. Michael Lewis, the author, tells the stories of multiple people in the industry such as Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager, and Steve Eisman, an investor. Contrarily, the Turner House by Angela Flournoy details the story of a Detroit Family and their house a few months before the same stock market crash. While the Big Short depicts investors and banks in charge of CDOs to be egotistical and self-centered, the Turner House humanizes the other side of the crash. The Turner House, in doing so, inadvertently clarifies why the investors made the risky choices they did which caused the crash. 

The Big Short details how the investors and bond traders helped cause the stock market crash by slowly performing riskier trades. These investors would trade other people’s loans and mortgages. To create more beneficial trades, they would bundle large quantities of loans and mortgages into Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). People had jobs where they had to assess and grade the contents of the CDOs and therefore ensure that the CDOs were understandably stable. As investors and stock market traders realized CDOs were highly profitable, the trading of them multiplied. As the trading of them increased, the availability of CDOs to be traded decreased. Traders then realized that they could put riskier loans and mortgages into these CDOs and still trade them as stable CDOs. Soon, the economic world was filled with toxic CDOs being traded all over the United States. This toxicity was a primary cause of the 2008 Stock Market Crash. 

I remember the 2008 crash. I was ten years old. I remember the impact the stock market crash had on the U.S. and other countries. People lost their jobs. People lost their homes. Sure, the news is never too positive but I remember watching every night and being in shock. Millions of people’s lives were affected in some way due to these investors’ decisions. Michael Lewis humanizes some Wall Street and bank employees in the Big Short. For example, he details how Steve Eisman’s son died during his career and how Michael Burry lost his eye due to cancer. Understandably good people worked in the economic field. Yet, Lewis also conveys that this crash was much bigger than any one person, even any one bank. A mindset was formed on Wall Street where investors did what they needed to do to make money and the future effects of their decisions would be ignored. It appears as though they lived by the motto, “Ignorance is bliss…” except perhaps they would add, “Ignorance with a lot of money is bliss.” Mob mentality only supported the spread of this mindset. This infuriates me. Throughout Lewis’ depiction, I continuously asked myself, “How did this happen? Why wasn’t this stopped?” I held no respect for the people who traded away others’ home loans knowing that it was a risk, nor did I want to understand why they did what they did. 

In the Turner House, Flournoy details one of the Turner children’s gambling addiction. Lelah, once again evicted, goes to a casino just to look. Contrary to common beliefs, “Lelah knew she was an addict” (Flournoy, 47).  Yet knowing this, Lelah continues to bet and gamble. Lelah enters a mindset while gambling where she would “slip into a space of just her and her hands and the chips that she tried to keep under them” (Flournoy, 49). Everything would dissolve except her and the chips. She discloses that gambling for her is about finally winning and being a victor. She had a grandson to babysit, no job, and no home, but still she went to the casino. Lelah knows what she is doing is wrong but every part of her wants to gamble. Flournoy portrays Lelah’s addiction in a manner that makes it understandable. The Turner House describes this addiction in a way the Big Short did not. 

The Mayo Clinic website details compulsive gambling as follows:

Gambling can stimulate the brain’s reward system much like drugs or alcohol can, leading to addiction. If you have a problem with compulsive gambling, you may continually chase bets that lead to losses, hide your behavior, deplete savings, accumulate debt, or even resort to theft or fraud to support your addiction.

Both Lelah and at least some Wall Street investors suffered from this addiction. Lelah’s addiction impacted herself along with her immediate family. While the investors and brokers’ addictions impacted people all over the world. Yet, the premise remains the same. They were not able to assess the risk of their bets accurately using the devices available. After being evicted, Lelah makes $300 from $20. She initially had all of her chips in $1 and $5 chips, that is over 100 tangible chips. The dealer encouraged her to change those $5 chips to $20 chips. All of a sudden, chips that represented $1 now stand for $20. The risk of betting that one chip increased by 200 times, yet the risk visually appears unchanged. Similarly, CDO managers were able to build CDOs to be riskier yet hold the same appearance. The risk of trading those CDOs were greatly increased but they visually seemed to remain the same. This change caused managers and traders to not be able to recognize the impact of trading these CDOs. They could not visualize the houses and people whose lives would be affected. Just like Lelah, their goals were to walk away as the victors.The Turner House inadvertently humanizes the Wall Street brokers who caused the 2008 Stock Market Crash. Lelah’s story speaks to the case that everyone has flaws. Addiction is not just alcohol or drugs. Addiction can be gambling. Addiction can be risky trades. The lack of fully comprehending the risk of each piece in gambles and trades increases the likelihood of them going bad. If Wall Street brokers and traders could see the impact of just how incredibly risky their CDO trades were (before they traded them), would they have still traded them? If Lelah had to gamble with cash and not chips, would she still have gambled so much? The separation between actual and perceptual cost inflates the risk dramatically. From what I understand about Wall Street and the Stock Market, traders should ensure that they are understanding the risk of their trades. The economy depends on it. Moreover, gambling addiction, including participating in trades in the Stock Market, needs to be understood, recognized, and prevented/treated. When the stakes are high enough to cause people to lose their homes, there needs to be something secure to check the health of the people trading them. 

Understanding the Root and Understanding Each Other

Given the recent reactions to the spread of Coronavirus in the state, the schools, and sports, it has been increasingly hard to concentrate on one specific thing, unless that thing is Coronavirus. To have to swap so much of my routine lifestyle for a completely new way of life is going to be difficult. Yet, even with such difficulties, this class has allowed me to think through a lot. Today’s issues and the 2008 market crash are more connected than a person may originally think! 

The Coronavirus, like the stock market crash of 2008, felt like a rumor until it’s affects reached me and my friends. Although the virus came up sporadically on the news, it seemed too far out of reach to impact my own life. I admit that I was foolish to assume the virus’s power. In Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, Lewis conveys how unaware people were of the stock market crash and its impacts on the streets of New York City. Lewis explains, “The monster was exploding. Yet on the streets of Manhattan there was no sign anything important had just happened. The force that would affect their lives was hidden from their view” (251). Just like the market crash, the virus was out of my view until recently. Now that its impact is in full swing, it is all I can think about.  

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What “The Turner House” Tells Us About 2008 That “The Big Short” Doesn’t

The texts The Turner House and The Big Short are both very effective in telling one perspective of the story of the 2008 financial crisis. However, they’re very different in their story-telling styles and the how they shape our view on the crisis. For example, The Big Short is mostly about the economic side of the crisis, explaining how businesses and the stock market works, while The Turner House gives a more humanistic approach to the situation, showing us how it really affected everyday people. Both are beneficial to read on their own, but having the advantage of reading both gives readers a more well-rounded understanding of the crisis and what it meant in different strokes of life.

Firstly, The Turner House sheds light on the personal, real-life experiences of families expelled from their homes during the crisis; a perspective that The Big Short didn’t emphasize. Viola, the mother of thirteen and a widow, faces a myriad of hardships which prevent her from paying the mortgage on the beloved Turner home, which in turn means she must give it up and vacate with her family. Not only does it give us a real-life example of what the crisis did to families, but it also emphasizes the relationships of the family members and the dynamics between each one while at the same time expressing their own narratives as individuals. The children’s father Francis, for example, struggled with addiction. That was part of his own individual story, but it affected the children and his wife Viola in terms of their relationships with one another. It also, of course, affected the characters individually. Everyone in the novel’s interactions with one another shaped their individual identities in one way or another; one action could create a ripple effect. As a young couple, Viola and Francis had moved to Detroit in the 1940’s with their newborn son, Cha-Cha. With intricate details and description, Flournoy illustrates the different stages of life in the Turner home; violence, labor disputes, economic depression, but also fun, loving, and joyous times. 

These details of the story are important because it gives perspective to the parts of the story that The Big Short didn’t cover. The main aim of the book was to help the reader understand the business side of things, giving examples and diagrams of how the financial system works. What it lacked was a humanistic, real-life example of what all of this meant on a small-scale, individual level. Most of the themes discussed were about the system as a whole, and what it meant in terms of numbers. Big figures such as “hundreds of thousands of homes affected” were thrown around, but it was never really dissected as to what that really meant for just one of those homes. One of those individual families whose whole lives revolved around their home being the epicenter of their lives, bringing everyone together and keeping them safe. And when one loses that, when families are expelled from their homes, it can be life-altering and change things from financial instability all the way to shifting familial relationships. One quote that describes this very well to me is when Angela Flourney said:

“Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to brick and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time. On frigid winter nights, young mothers walk their fussy babies from room to room, learning where the rooms catch drafts and where the floorboards creak. In the warm damp of summer, fathers sit on porches, sometimes worried and often tired but comforted by the fact that a roof is up there providing shelter. Children smudge up walls with dirty hand prints, find nooks to hide their particular treasure, or hide themselves if need be. We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit the houses when we’re gone.”

To many people, a house is more than just a house. It’s a home, with immense sentimental value to the people who spend most of their lives in it. This is why the story told in The Turner House is so important when learning about the financial crisis; it wasn’t all just about financial instability and losing money.

One term that comes to mind when discussing The Turner House is sonder – the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. When talking about the housing market and foreclosures and expulsion in a broad, general sense, you don’t think about the families individually affected by such things. But the novel gives the reader a sense of sonder that we don’t get from reading the analytical approach of The Big Short. There are a plethora of things included in The Turner House that weren’t expressed in The Big Short, and that’s why it’s so beneficial for people who’re interested in learning about it view it from all angles, really taking time to understand what these large figures and fancy terms meant in an everyday sense.

The Reality of Literary Sin and Consequence

By: Ashley Daddona, Allie Flanagan, Katie Haefele, Denis Hartnett, Margaret Hall, Brian Vargas, and Quentin Wall 
 

There is often a line when representing real life concepts in literature. Literature allows the reproduction of complicated systems in life that are far more chaotic and unorganized in the physical world outside of literature; furthermore, it enables the establishment of heavily systematic devices to represent these systems/concepts that exist in reality, because of the qualities of fiction which remove the boundaries of non-fiction in regards to complete control over creation in a story. One particularly large life concept that is often represented in literature is that of sin and its subsequent consequence; this is one of the main principles in Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic Divine Comedy, particularly the Inferno—in this work, it is Hell and its nine circles that function as a representation of sin and consequence in reality. Continue reading “The Reality of Literary Sin and Consequence”