What does it mean for something to be “too big to fail?” That phrase vaulted into popular consciousness after the 2008 financial crisis and how the big banks at fault were bailed out by the federal government. But the term is actually a bit misleading. Big corporations fail all the time. They fail to provide the services they purport to offer to us, they fail at earning our trust, they fail at being transparent. We know better now, that perhaps the more apt phrase to describe behemoth corporations may be “too big for consequences.” There’s no such thing as being too big to fail, but there is, we know, such a thing as being too big to be punished.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) tells the story of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small community bank that primarily serves the immigrant Chinese community in New York City. Banking is, of course, big business, but Abacus was founded by Thomas Sung in 1984 for largely altruistic reasons. When Sung came to New York, there was no bank that served the community, a burgeoning market of people looking for small business and home loans. Sung envisioned himself as somewhat of a George Baily—the opening frames of Abacus are actually borrowed from It’s a Wonderful Life, which Sung and his wife say they watch at least once every year. Sung saw himself as a leader who looked out for the community as a whole, and his reputation and popularity within the community seems to support his vision.
The bank was a success as a business and as a cultural institution. It became a fabric of the community in part because it knew the uniqueness of the community and served it accordingly. Many of Abacus’s clients had no experience with the banking system until they started working with Abacus. But in 2012, the Manhattan DA’s office brought charges against the bank, accusing it of committing fraud on millions of dollars of loans that were eventually sold to the federal government—a similar type of behavior the big banks participated in for years that led to the eventual mortgage crisis. This made Abacus the only bank in the U.S. that was prosecuted and brought to trial for crimes related to the mortgage meltdown.
While Abacus plays out somewhat as a real-life legal drama, what the film is really interested in is power, who has it, who doesn’t, and how its wielded. (Abacus is also sneakily a strong film about family dynamics; watching Sung’s daughters, who also work at the bank, help the aging Thomas through the draining legal battle is good drama. Add to the fact that another of Sung’s daughters worked as an Assistant DA prior to the suit adds a bit of ironic intrigue.) The absurdity of Abacus—a peon compared to Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns et al.—being targeted and used as a scapegoat hovers over the film’s every moment. In perhaps the most damning and shocking moment, the 19 individuals who were arrested are literally chained together and paraded out in front of media for a photo opportunity. There’s no way of knowing exactly why Abacus was targeted, but there’s no question that they were being made an example of, with everything from the choice of Abacus to the tactics used in the pursuit were ramped up, to almost comical effect. The question is, who exactly was supposed to be getting the message?
Race is inherently important element to the story Abacus tells. Of course, the DA’s office, led by Cy Vance (the man who was briefly back in the crosshairs earlier this year when it was revealed he likely looked the other way on Harvey Weinstein) denies that prejudice had anything to do with the case against Abacus. But immigrant and minority communities in the United States aren’t just unequal because of lack of opportunities and access to capital that the majority gets, but because they lack power. It’s plausible that the DA had no racial motivation to go after Abacus. But that’s akin to saying that the police who killed Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and Laquan MacDonald had no racial motivation in their actions. The individuals involved might not have. But systems and institutions are too often designed to funnel a finite amount of power towards the top. When you’re at the bottom, your infractions—if you’ve even committed any—are exacerbated. One character in the film compares Abacus’s infractions to that of jaywalking. In power structures, the rules are out of whack and consequences are doled out unevenly.
What will rightly anger those who watch Abacus is the specific injustice of Abacus bleeding millions of dollars getting itself exonerated while the big banks got billions of taxpayer dollars to not just stay afloat, but keep the status quo. Nine years on from the crisis, the banks are back to doing just fine. While Thomas Sung and his family got put through the ringer both emotionally and financially, Steven Mnuchin produced a bunch of Hollywood blockbusters and became the Secretary of the Treasury.
While Abacus focuses on this specific unfairness, its universality seems to be increasing. The end of 2017 has seen a number of major developments that look to have given the powerful even more power. The deregulators have taken an early lead on the scorecards in the fight over net neutrality. Telcos are licking their chops at the possibility of being able to charge more for premium internet speeds and content they own, while potentially being able to slow down or block rival or unflattering content. Even with net neutrality measures in place, the internet—like any other open space fought over by capitalist enterprises—has come to be funneled through a small number of major players. Giving some of those stakeholders even more power means that they can continue to screw up time and time again—we’re looking at you, Facebook—without any actual repercussions. And while perhaps not quite as societally crucial, the news that Disney is purchasing Fox will have a wide-ranging impact, making the biggest entertainment company in the world even bigger, making the behemoth closer to being a true gatekeeper.
What this means for those companies isn’t that they’ll never fail. Disney will make bad movies and TV shows, ESPN will continue to bleed ratings and subscribers. Facebook will still feed the masses bad information that will inform their viewpoints and actions. The banks will still commit fraud. But if Abacus shows us anything, the worry isn’t only that when they’re caught, they’ll get off easily. It’s that when the institutions need someone to make an example of, they’ll reach to the bottom.
Featured Image: Kartemquin Films