Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

La Jolla Playhouse Explores Economic Excesses In 'Junk'

Jim Carmody
A scene from the play "JUNK: The Golden Age of Debt" at the La Jolla Playhouse.

La Jolla Playhouse Explores Economic Excesses In ‘Junk’
La Jolla Playhouse Explores Economic Excesses In 'Junk' GUEST: Ayad Akhtar, playwright, "Junk: The Golden Age of Debt"

The play chug is having their world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse inset explaining nothing less than how debt became America's biggest product. The theme of the plate is not the only thing about junk it has of the cast and all 60 for scenes telling a story that critics say explains a lot about the politics and ambitions of modern-day America. Joining me is Ayad Akhtar who wrote junk the Golden age of debt. In thank you for having a. It was a set up of the play. What is this team of lawyers in 1985 try to accomplish? What I did is I took a takeover deal. I put that entire thing on stage. The accountants, lawyers, investment banking, legal for investment banking, management, corporate raiders, and I started -- at the end of the deal and the idea was to sort of show the ship from when social order and when political order to another. That happened in the 1980s is we began to approach value and began to approach our own thinking about economics in a different way. Finance began to take over in many ways. That process -- That's why the plate is set in the 80s. Why do you think that mindset began in the 80s? There are historical reasons for it. Some habits you with dignities in the late 1970s. Some having to do with the fact that we got off the -- the gold standard in 1972 and Paul fighting inflation letting interest rates rise to more than 20% or go he created a different thinking about what it meant to get return. One thing that become a mainstay of economic thinking today and I think it's intuitive for most people who follow this stuff is that will growth operates at 2%. When you're making things, your economy grows in 2%. Capital makes money 5%. The gap between that 2% of 5% explains and equality but explains the way in which the American economy has become about capital not will growth. So for example, automakers will make cars, not just to make cars, but to make something that can be financed so that it can get 5% return. So this gradual process with finances of the American economy is something that began in the 1980s and had to do with the kind of unbridled embrace of access when it came to profit incentive. Now, many questions that the play is render raise shareholder rights, the ultimate see a profit motive, all of those things were unsettled questions in the 19 it is . They are very settled first now. Nobody asked these questions anymore. Public education and institutions should have nothing do with what am I thinking are thinking about their bottom lines. The justification is that there is no money. There has never been more money so where is that money going. That money is not going where it used to because our values have changed. There is a rapid and evangelism. It is enshrined right that accumulation of wealth. It seems that audiences have been kind of brought into this world before. I think it a movies like Wall Street more recently the big short. What angle this is play take on the finance and of the traders themselves. Are the villains? No. It is a complex interweave or go one-story the best play is telling is a young -- so that accumulation of wealth disruptive innovation within the financial sector as a means for ethnic mobility. That's part of the story that's been told because it is part of the story of America. What is the great equalizer in American life? Money. Money. The unholy alliance between Democratic meritocracy in the accumulation of wealth is an untold story in America. I feel like one of the problem when it comes to political change is that we all realize on some level the accumulation of wealth. We extol and praise folks like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett for really no other significant reason than the fact that they have accumulated wealth. The making of money seems to be expression of personal -- that's an impediment to us because that puts the individuals accomplishments ahead of the collective well-being. We are now seeing the result of 30 years and not taking care of our collective -- There are probably audience members were very unfamiliar with finance and I might say the concepts you've just been talking about how economics transfers into political reality into the reality of our daily lives and into our psyche. So how does this play and engage people who are not used thinking in these terms. There is a lot of craft involved. It is clear that one character is doing very basic things to one character. There trying to form an alliance or still something or somebody is lying to 70 or dissembling. The audience can follow that human reality. Whatever overlay you sent in the statistical gamesmanship of a small as Michael Lewis did for Moneyball. -- Or whether you sent it on Wall Street about the financing. If the human interactions between the characters are clear audience understand what is humanly I think . One thing that I tend to do in this play is to tell them what you would column and then tell them in a tell them what you told them. There is a repetition of a -- for example debt financing using the cash flow of the company as collateral on a loan to that by the company is something that comes up three times in the first three things in said three different ways by three different characters up a tiny get to the end of that movement, the audience understands these guys are trying to buy something by taking out a loan against the company they don't yet or go great. That is not financing. So it has become woven into the very fabric of the play. Nobody has to go when with advance understanding of any of this. Hopefully some folks had said on that sure I totally get what is going on but I got it. It is about a shift in thinking and about seeing the world a little differently. It is not about the nitty-gritty. One problem I've had with the way that people describe what would I with a margin -- mortgage crisis is getting into the technical details. In some ways it is a very simple thing that happened, but because the finance of American reality is been done at the hands of folks who have it in their interest to make things very complicated and interesting to make things very boring. The more boring it is, the less interest those on the other side of the deal are going to pay to the details. That's part of the strategy and part of a legal strategy of negotiation. When I talk about how American life has become so infused by finance in the thinking of finance, there are ways it is steeped in 20 are being that we are not even called this some of that. Is he was plate John the Golden age of debt is playing out to August 21 at La Jolla Playhouse. You can hear a full conversation online at

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar wants to explain how debt became so engrained in the American psyche.


On its surface, his newest play, "Junk: The Golden Age of Debt" at the La Jolla Playhouse, is about a team of lawyers in the mid-1980s using junk bonds, along with some illegal tricks, to wage a hostile takeover of a major manufacturing company. Junk bonds are high-risk, high-reward financial products that can help upstart companies raise money. But Akhtar said the play isn't meant as a period piece.

"The play is called 'Junk,' but it's not about junk bonds," Akhtar said. "They're not important. What's important is the notion of debt."

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates to 21.5 percent in 1981, the highest ever, in order to fight inflation. But it drove Wall Street to chase higher and higher investment returns, Akhtar said, because the sale of debt became a viable business model. Even as interest rates fell, the U.S. remained enamored with debt, he said.

"The making of money is a very compelling human action," Akhtar said. "The experience of making money on Wall Street has often been compared to a drug rush. There's an enthusiasm and a compulsion to it. I want the audience to experience the process of capital creation as a rhythm. That's why there's 64 scenes. You get lost in the back and forth."

Akhtar joins KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday with more on how the takeover tactics of the 1980s still resonate today.