Of people and poker chips: American Casino explores the subprime mortgage game

By Roosevelt Institute |


It was really all just a game. Only we were the poker chips.

The newly-released documentary American Casino delves into the Wall Street wheeling and dealing that spun the economy out of control–a game begun when public enemy and erstwhile senator Phil Gramm pushed the passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, unleashing the fancy financial instruments that plagued us. We get to know the winners in the fast-moving game of subprime mortgages, like the Wall Street trader who jokes that he’ll be rich and retired before the shitstorm hits, and the losers, like the African-American schoolteacher forced to say good-bye to his home and his security.

The problem with the game metaphor is that it implies a scenario in which people know that they are taking risks. As Leslie Cockburn’s film poignantly shows, most ordinary people in the subprime mortgage game were unwitting players. They thought that they were applying their hard-earned dollars towards the dream of home ownership. But others cynically turned them into numbers, took bets on whether or not their mortgages would be paid, and sold their dream a thousand times over until it was worth nothing. And then sold it again.

Gut-wrenching and infuriating, American Casino makes you wonder about those big banks currently making record-breaking profits. Seems like they’re starting up the games all over again. And betting against us all.

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