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‘You cannot catch a fish in clear water’ and other lessons I learnt about money from Netflix documentaries

I watched the entire docu series called Dirty Money on Netflix with a sense of awe. How much money is enough money? How far will people go to make more money? Does money break everyone’s moral compass?

January 30, 2021 / 08:26 AM IST

The budget is around the corner and this weekend the government offices, big finance and us, the common men and women are all wondering about money. As always I turn to Netflix and other OTT platforms to share movies and shows that could help you get distracted from the big tax question.

We have seen all movies about men who ruled Wall Street and Dalal Street…On the other hand, there are men like Bernie Sanders in that one jacket he wears everywhere (including the memes!) and I wondered if we need to understand how our ideologies shape our attitudes to money. How differently do we choose to spend money? I watched the entire docu series called Dirty Money on Netflix with a sense of awe. How much money is enough money? How far will people go to make more money? Does money break everyone’s moral compass?

Dirty money: series that exposes financial frauds from VW clean diesel engines to Donald Trump’s great con about ‘making everything bigger and better than anything anyone has ever seen’.

No matter how strongly you feel about making public transportation better, it is a pleasure in driving a vehicle that promises less pollution. The Volkswagen Clean Diesel vehicles became all the rage in the US. and it took one skeptic to check the claims and what tumbled out had global repercussions and millions and millions of fines. The ‘VW’ in Volkswagen suddenly stood for ‘very worried’.

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We too have corporate culture and government office-like systems in our country just like at Volkswagen, where if you need a pen, you have to requisition one by signing three forms (at least!). Then how do companies like VW get away by saying some software engineer added a ‘defeat device’ without the management ever knowing?

The second documentary hit hard. If you’ve signed on papers without reading the fine print then you’d also understand why these poor Americans just clicked on the online loan papers without reading the links they should have for those small loans they needed. How easily they gave access to their bank accounts! They thought the company was deducting money towards the loan but it was only a service charge…

It made me shudder to imagine how many people fall for the scam when they share their bank PIN numbers to win a car or homes in India. How easily we trust the voices who say they are from the bank?

Martin the smirking drug fraud guy Shkreli is known as Pharma Bro and is finally spending his time in jail. But what about Valeant pharma who raised the prices of essential drugs by 300%, 400%? Should they be punished? What happens to the essential drugs they are making? Aren’t we punishing patients if we get them out of business?

$18 million worth of sweet, sticky deliciousness from a warehouse in Quebec! Thieves replaced barrels of maple syrup with water. No laughing matter because each barrel costs more than a barrel of oil. It costs about $1800!

In season one (there are two, because there’s no dearth of financial scams, no?!), there’s HSBC who laundered money for drug cartels and got away by saying sorry, we will try and do better, and in season two there’s Wells Fargo bank which used this technique of cross-selling banking products to their customers (without informing them sometimes!). Imagine stepping into the bank to send money to your child abroad and stepping out with a home loan, a credit card, a debit card and investing in mutual funds! And then having to pay for it all!

The last documentary in the first series is about men who sell snake oil to unsuspecting villagers and absconds with their money. It is about the latest con-man (a word derived from ‘Confidence Man’) that Americans lived with for the last four years. It is about Donald J Trump and tracks how his method of ‘the biggest, the best’ evolved, without getting into his personal life.

Geographically closer, in Malaysia they spent money made by fraud on Picassos, Monet and even a fancy yacht. He was a Prime Minister and his wife wore diamond tiara and giant diamond drop earrings that cost more than the GDP of a small nation. What amazes me is how these guys - Trump or Najib - have and hold public trust. And when you see Jared Kushner (Former president Trump’s son in law) use 70s Bollywood movie tactics to evict people from his rentals so that he can build fancy homes you are left seething.

The two other documentaries about dirty gold and plastic in the soil and water is sure to make your stomach turn. So I found it easier to watch The China Hustle, another brilliant documentary on how the Americans put their trust in Chinese companies getting listed on American Stock Exchange and using the shady Reverse Merger tactics to cheat investors of trillions of dollars.

‘You cannot catch fish in clear waters, you need muddy waters to catch a fish.’ The Chinese professor explains the concept of ‘Guanxi’ or quid pro quo. And you see how bankers and lawyers and even auditors just process paperwork. No one goes to the customer to check if they are satisfied. The documentary shows us how only one CEO of 400 companies went to jail for fraud.It also shows men who were part of the money making schemes acting on their conscience.

Speaking of discovering conscience, will our Finance Minister do right by the people? Will the cacophony of special interest drown out the already strangled voice of the common man? Are we going to view our world through the eyes of the stock market? Will the budget widen the circle of opportunity and include more of us? Will we never stop complaining about how money is never enough?

Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.
first published: Jan 30, 2021 08:26 am

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