Study Guide

Steve Eisman in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

By Michael Lewis

Steve Eisman

We know that Steve Eisman is a big Spider-Man fan, but we see him more as a Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark type. Rich guy? Check. Super smart? Check. Seems snooty but is actually the biggest champion of the underdog you'll ever meet? Check, check, and check.

And He's All Out of Bubblegum

The idea of Eisman as a superhero might seem far-fetched, but it's really not too far off the mark. Beginning with his time as an analyst at Oppenheimer and Co., Eisman earns a reputation as someone who speaks truth to power and who "identified with the little guy and the underdog" (1.6). We see both of these qualities on display in The Big Short, with Eisman always armed with a verbal assault for any corrupt Wall Street suit who crosses his path.

Eisman's the kind of guy who might just up and say, ""You built a castle to rip people off. Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience" (10.25). He's also not afraid of interrupting polite company and just announcing his thoughts to the world: "Jeff is still giving his prepared remarks and Steve just blurts out, 'Well, your models are wrong!' This very awkward silence comes over the room" (7.25).

Of course, depending on your perspective, that kind of behavior might just sound rude—and you wouldn't be wrong if you thought so. While we love Eisman's take-no-prisoners attitude as much as the next 99-percenter, we wonder if he might have been able to inspire change more effectively if he had taken a more diplomatic path.

On the other hand, we doubt there's anything that could have stopped the big banks from succumbing to their own greed, so maybe the louder the voice, the better.

Origin Stories

Like all good superheroes, Eisman has an origin story steeped in tragedy. His son Max dies while he's still at Oppenheimer and Co., and many people close to him note that he becomes "noticeably more negatively disposed" after this traumatic event (1.28). Furthermore, we can relate Eisman's personal feelings of injustice regarding his son's death with his feelings towards injustice in general. He mixes the personal and the political. Again: shades of Batman.

Ironically, Eisman is obsessed with a different masked vigilante. He sees "himself as a crusader, a champion of the underdog, and [...] as Spider-Man," due to the many similarities he perceives between his life and Peter Parker's (6.35). It's a little cray, maybe, but who hasn't imagined him- or herself as a superhero before? Uh, because we totally haven't.

Jokes aside, Eisman's personal obsession—not to mention his self-identification with a superhero—is yet another reflection of his hatred of injustice.

Over–Underdog

Yeah, economic injustice totally becomes an obsession with Eisman. He's long hated the financial world as a whole—and the subprime mortgage market in particular—which means that "his bets against subprime mortgage bonds were to him more than just bets; he intended them almost as insults" (10.3). The irony is that Eisman's credit default swaps don't actually do anything to help the people hurt by the subprime mortgage market—they simply get him rich.

Once his bets pay off and he does become rich, however, Eisman's perspective changes entirely. He's no longer the angry and ignored prophet of profit—he's just another guy making money from others' suffering. Even after his insult to Wall Street, the economic injustice just keeps trucking along at full speed. At least Eisman gave it a speed bump, we guess, and it's partly because of Eisman that we all know the nasty business the Street was (and basically still is) up to.

Instead of depressing him, however, this fact releases him, freeing from the internal pressure he places on himself to bring justice to every injustice. Check out his feelings after laying into a Wall Street exec with one of his patented rants:

"I felt bad about it," said Eisman. "It was obnoxious. He was a lovely guy. He was just wrong. I was no longer the underdog. And I had to conduct myself in a different way." (10.66)

That's a first for Eisman: he still recognizes the problems, but now he's more into treating everyone involved better, particularly given the fact that many people on Wall Street don't even really understand the stuff they're doing. As in, a lot of them literally don't even understand the complexity of things like CDOs.

Anyway, dude should enjoy a little rest and relaxation after what he's been through over the past few years. Even Spider-Man needs a day off every once in a while.

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