Note: Tonight at 8:00 PM East, I will be interviewing David Dayen for a livestream event about his book, Chain Of Title. Visit Shadowproof.com to watch the live discussion or click here to watch it on YouTube.
The 2008 financial and housing crisis has not gone unreported. A series of books and films, of varying mixes of fact and fiction, have made their mark on the American cultural landscape—from dramas like Margin Call and Too Big To Fail, to documentaries like The Flaw and the academy-award winning Inside Job.
Perhaps the most successful media property to come out of the crisis was the book The Big Short, which became a commercially and critically successful film of the same name.
But in all these cases, the focus of the work was on the top tier players, be they regulators, speculators, or Wall Street executives. The victims of the crisis are mostly discussed in the abstract, barely mentioned let alone given substantive consideration.
Chain of Title by David Dayen is different in that and some other noteworthy respects. The book is, in a sense, the polar opposite of The Big Short. Rather than focus on the speculators shorting the housing market (odd choices for sympathetic characters), Dayen focuses on those victimized by the housing bubble and its aftermath.
And partly due to that human-level perspective, Dayen is able to give what is easily the most accessible point-by-point breakdown of what caused the crisis and how the banks and mortgage companies tried to cover up their incompetence and malevolence after the fact.
While telling the stories of a nurse, a car salesman, and other ordinary people who go from foreclosure victims to activists, Dayen takes the reader through the history of financial deregulation and engineering that led to the meltdown and the subsequent corporate crime wave popularly known as the fraudclosure crisis that saw people lose their homes even if they paid their mortgages.
He also shows how those victims fought back, using new media and cross-country organizing to blow the whistle as loud as they could on Wall Street and friends’ improprieties. Not surprisingly, some of those same activists ending up joining and starting Occupy Wall Street protests and eventual off-shoots as they continued to fight for foreclosure justice.
Unlike the re-appointed regulators, bailed-out bank executives, and handsomely rewarded short sellers, the victims of the housing crisis never got a happy ending. To his credit, Dayen doesn’t sugar coat the situation. In the final analysis, justice was not done and never will be.
Yet, there is something to be gained by reading such a well-written book, beyond the captivating storytelling. Chain of Title offers the reader a real chance to experience something previously quite elusive: a coherent understanding of the housing crisis.
Since the crash in 2008, there have been a series of explanations thrown at the public concerning what exactly happened. The initial response from Wall Street and the corporate media was essentially finance is complicated; these things happen. Later, after journalists and activists started presenting what was clear evidence of misconduct, the response was Wall Street was too dumb and greedy to know what they were doing.
Until, finally, we arrive at the truth after all these years: the crisis was a result of criminal fraud, and government officials at the highest levels took Wall Street’s side, not the country’s.
Chain of Title hammers that point home definitively and in exhaustive detail. Though the damage has been done and the culprits are rich and free, understanding what really happened may help us stop them next time.