By: Hailey Bernet, India Roundtree, Mia Stout, Piper Cluff, Janiqua Morris, Lucky Ni, Nina Avallone-Serra
One of the most recognizable pieces of literature (and film) covering the 2008 housing crisis is Michael Lewis’s The Big Short. His book follows a cast of real-life individuals who began to notice and take advantage of the anomalies in the housing market which led to one of the most devastating crashes in the history of the country. The world of The Big Short is highly insulated, zeroing in on the specialized world of investment banks, stock and bond traders, and hedge funds, all of whom are wealthy, and a vast majority of whom are wealthy white men. The main cast of the book is estranged from the consequences of the crash, as are the peripheral characters and entities (like investment bankers and corporate heads) and as a result, we as readers of The Big Short fail to see the impacts of the actions of those on Wall Street in the context of the average American and can only theorize about the impending fallout.
The Big Short informs the reader about the events leading up to the housing crash solely from the perspective of wealthy investors, therefore providing an extremely limited viewpoint. Rather than providing the effects of the economic crash, The Big Short provides the cause by telling the stories of a few members involved, such as Michael Burry and Steve Eisman, and how they gained wealth and power through the manipulation of the market. The storytelling of The Big Short lacks the perspectives of the individuals and families who were directly affected by the actions of these wealthy investors, which adds to the idea that most of Wall Street was extremely out of touch with the rest of society. As mentioned on page 106 of The Big Short, “A tiny handful of investors perceived what was happening not just to the financial system but to the larger society it was meant to serve, and made investments against that system that was so large that they effectively gave up being conventional money managers and became something else.” This limited perspective demonstrated in The Big Short purposefully illustrates how egotistical the members of Wall Street were and how insensitive they were to the effects their actions would have on innocent families.
The Turner House shed light on what was missing in The Big Short by focusing on the Turner family as they cope with the economic troubles and ongoing misfortune in Detroit as a result of the housing market crash. The Turner House provides an important perspective because it shows a more relatable view of the housing crisis by demonstrating the unfolding of the crash in the context of a middle/lower-income family. The book, unlike The Big Short, also delves into the human emotions connected with the house itself and the subsequent loss of the house. Page 198 gives us an idea of the thoughts of one of the Turner children: “I’m too upset to pick up the phone. I hear you’re moving forward with the short sale. If you sell the house I will never forgive you. I don’t put down my foot on anything in this family, not ever. But you do this, and you break my heart. Not trying to be dramatic, just how I feel.” It also contextualized the lives of those who were hit hardest by the crash, discussing issues like race, addiction, and poverty. The Turner House provided us with a unique perspective to understanding the housing crisis of 2008, focusing on how family values and conflicts play into the issue at hand, whereas The Big Short doesn’t begin to approach these issues.
The Turner House also gives us insight into the outcomes of bad loans, like the ones mentioned in The Big Short: for example, we know in The Turner House that the value of the Turner family home was reduced to a measly $4000 as a result of the churn of bad mortgages in The Big Short. The Turner House sheds further light on the failings of The Big Short by demonstrating the impacts within the city of Detroit itself, the abandonment and demolition of houses, the rise in crime, and the increase in unemployment citywide. It also touches on racial disparities and exemplifies how these played into the impact on white people versus Black people. Flournoy writes, “Lelah had been laid off from her job at the airport in 2002, and when she had visited the unemployment office then, the overwhelming blackness of her fellow unemployed seemed to be clear evidence of injustice. But the proliferation of these new white jobless was more disturbing. If this many white folks couldn’t find a job, times were certainly tough” (117).
Both The Big Short and The Turner House give commentary on what happened in the events leading up to the housing crisis, but they each have a different style of storytelling, with The Big Short providing an informative storytelling structure and The Turner House utilizing a narrative structure to tell its tale. Together, the two books give a well-rounded view of the housing crisis: The Big Short shows a highly specific breakdown of the economic causes of the crisis while The Turner House shows the emotional, financial, and social effects on a more relatable scale through the analysis of a large family.
One reason why the storytelling of both books is important is because each sheds light on how people of different races and classes can be involved in the same event but experience it differently. In The Big Short, the Wall Street giants manufacturing the events leading up to the housing crisis are white and extremely wealthy. In the aftermath of the crash, the consequences that they face are very minimal as they still have the chance to leave their jobs with pay and go back to their homes, and in many cases, retain their jobs and even head efforts to revive the economy. In contrast, The Turner House demonstrates the negative consequences of the actions of Wall Street bankers and how these play out for a black family.
The book hints that white people were also affected in a way, when Lelah notes more white people than ever being at the unemployment office. But overall, status and access to wealth and power completely transforms the event: for the white and wealthy, in The Big Short, the crisis was an opportunity to continue to accumulate wealth. For the poor minorities, in The Turner House, the housing crisis was a devastating blow to their livelihood. All that they had worked hard for was now invaluable and being taken away due to the actions of those at the top. Additionally, The Turner House gives us an understanding of how the financial crisis impacted whole cities, describing declines in infrastructure, demolition of houses, fleeing of neighborhoods, rising crime rates.
The Turner House gives us a humanistic perspective of the crisis, an area in which The Big Short lacks heavily. The Big Short lacks the humanness in its telling of the crisis probably because during the fraud that was being committed, many wall street bankers were so far removed from their clients that they failed to see them as people, and rather viewed them as pawns in their game. They had a duty to their clients to tell them the truth, but their greed made them incapable of doing that, putting plenty of people in harm’s way. If the bankers were empathetic and sympathetic, they would have maneuvered differently. If they stopped to think that it could be them in the other person’s shoes, maybe they would have had a better conscience.
So as The Big Short discusses the financial and economic side of the crisis, The Turner House adds the humanity of how minority groups dealt with the housing crisis. The Turner House and The Big Short complement each other in a way that allows their storytelling to “fill in the gaps” that the other story might have left out. The Turner House provides a more intimate perspective, as it sheds light on how one individual family was affected by the economic crisis, and how they almost lost their family home as a result. The Big Short, on the other hand, provides the perspective of Wall Street investors who were directly involved in the economic crisis, and the book sheds more light on the inner workings of Wall Street and how a lot of issues were overlooked in favor of gaining more profit from their risky actions. Unlike in The Turner House, where familial relationships are extremely important and the characters are all emotionally connected in a way, the characters of The Big Short are all stuck in their own bubbles and have little concern for the consequences their actions might have. The characters of The Big Short care mainly about the profits they’re going to gain, yet the consequences of their actions fall directly on families like the Turners.