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An astute video essay on the state of financial security these days in the good ol' United States of Uncertainty, Broke: The New American Dream is a quality show made by Michael Covel, of TurtleTrader.com. The picture begins with Covel lecturing the camera from an empty office space high above the city streets, and proceeds through 85 minutes of somewhat meandering observations about the Shape of Things We Fear in the world of finance. Broke does a good job explaining the kinds of problems that brought on the crash of the economy in 2008, visiting Wall Street, various real estate experts and stock traders, hedge fund managers, reporters, magazine editors and Congressman Richard Baker. Covel's arguments go in some interesting and unexpected directions. He doesn't claim to have solutions for the problems but he certainly has a lesson or two for the average citizen concerned for their vulnerable nest egg: think Albert Brooks in Lost in America.
Covel's website http://www.brokemovie.com/ asserts that, unlike Michael Moore, his docu doesn't have an ideological or partisan axe to grind, which is basically true and a possible reason for the positive reviews by outlets like The Huffington Post. On the other hand, the specific marketing text uses the phrase, "Now is not the time for more false promises from DC, scams from Wall Street or cheerleading from the media". Covel's movie doesn't come near discussing anything about false promises from the government; his docu skates over the bailouts issue with little more than an expression of unsubstantiated disapproval.
The actual agenda of Broke is much more narrow -- it examines the psychology of Americans and their money. After brisk visits to the various battlefronts of financial collapse, the show zeroes in on its prime objective of discussing YOUR chances of staying afloat in the present economic miasma. Covel's primary analogy -- sheep in a herd -- is used to explain how even experts tend to follow the best guesses of a crowd. Covel brings on Nobel Prize winning economists to explain that advanced analysis in stock trading doesn't guarantee success.
One of the best episodes centers on cable TV stock trading gurus and celebrity tipsters. Real economic experts assure us that the shouted predictions of the video hucksters have more to do with psychology -- humans respond to voices that demand acknowledgement of their authority -- than reality. One expert ranks the TV personalities by their entertainment value, and dismisses their advice as worthless. The most famous "stock evangelist" is shown shouting out a firm endorsement of a brokerage house that collapsed entirely just a few days later.
Covel's big lesson becomes clear when his docu camera abandons trading floors and foreclosed houses for the green felt tables of gambling casinos. We meet a number of successful stock traders whose personal approaches are based in experience so ingrained that it's become "acquired instinct". The most frequent shared quality of successful stock traders is that they're like practiced poker players. Economists tell us that the likelihood of winning a lottery is so slight as to make the difference between buying a ticket and not buying one irrelevant -- the chance of winning is so slight that one shouldn't bother buying a ticket. But poker is a game in which one's skill, intellect and gamesmanship can yield positive results. Winning poker players lose a lot, we're told, but make distinctions between bets; they learn when to fold and don't invest their egos in the process. Covel's experts compare this to stock traders that hang on to plummeting shares out of pride, instead of admitting a bad deal and dumping them at an earlier stage.
The gambling analogy gives Broke a structural backbone but also delivers a message counter to Michael Covel's general conclusions: the sober lesson for the average viewer-investor is that finance is for experts. One isn't going to get rich by investing in mutual funds or doing what "everybody else is doing" (cue the sheep) because the media impression of what's happening has little to do with reality. Covel's final advice is to become an independent investor-player-gambler like his successful rogue examples. They aren't all guys in three-piece suits. Although we wonder if the va-voom models in bikinis at the poolside don't piggyback their stock picks with a helper (sexist bias intruding here), Covel points us to a multimillionaire who began trading while working at a gas station. The man still looks like he's working at a gas station, only in slightly better clothes and wearing a grim face of mental concentration.
Covel avoids political conclusions. His one anti-advocate, anti-partisan jab at the end is to say that the existing system isn't very equitable; he's already shown us that only wealthy people are permitted to "play" hedge funds, a riskier market that requires a steep investor buy-in. But that statement alone should lead us to some conclusions that are fundamentally political. A big factor in the economic meltdown were the hundreds of thousands of first-time homeowners bilked into thinking they could "buy in" to real estate ownership without an initial cash outlay or other financial requirement. It's fairly obvious that deregulation brought on a massive greed-storm that enabled the players in the $ food chain to turn our financial system into a pyramid scheme -- everybody on top raking off huge profits from "promises of payment" on debt incurred further down the slope. Covel's advice is that more of us should join the ranks of the profit-takers.
Nowhere in Broke is it acknowledged that any of this financial wealth amounts to anything tangible unless it is based on real economic expansion and production. Washington administrations and big business alike saw opportunity (profit and political), so the big bubble was encouraged. When America stops producing products, eliminates the jobs of people who can buy those products, and tries to finance the future with astronomical debt, nothing's gonna work. Michael Covel's real message is that capitalism is grossly unfair; and he acknowledges that nobody cares as long as they're personally seeing some of the benefit.
Covel sketches the shape of a financial-political philosophy, but then limits his docu to a statement about the psychology of finance. Informed viewers will take his information much further. I haven't the desire to outwit the system financially and make myself rich, but I have more faith in our system of government and economics: the country will get back on its feet sooner than later because doing so is in the interests of greedy capitalists, and making money is what makes America Go. Our system is best suited to the human animal, because it has the potential to steer our inherent self-interest (i.e., galloping greed) into constructive channels. Broke has something of a downer ending, which seems wrong. We have a heck of a great system here, even with its occasionally gaping flaws.
I like Michael Covel's explanations and opinions, and have differences only with his motives. The show's concentration on the subject of money is of course appropriate and proper. But its presentation as an ultimate value is exactly what keeps this reviewer (and most people) away from capitalistic endeavors. Anybody remember what it was like when our country had at least the illusion of higher values, like service to society and helping others? Naïve, weren't we. 1
"Nature Nurture's" DVD of Broke: The New American Dream comes in a quality heavy-card and plastic folder; the production of the packaging is matched by the encoding and finishing of the actual disc. The show has no extras, just a single launch menu. Marketed by a website, the show is expertly produced and presented.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Broke: The New American Dream rates:
1. Perhaps this is a lesson learned by Mr. Covel from his web experience ... people don't want larger conclusions, they want facts that directly affect them. Still, Broke's only "do this" advice is to change one's life and transform into an independent stock trading poker player. The fascinating ideas of Covel's experts might not satisfy viewers doggedly demanding exactly what Covel says they shouldn't seek: quickie road map directions to instant financial security.
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.