Thursday, November 25, 2010

Inside Job (2010): A Review


Cash And Carried Away...

One watches Inside Job, the documentary about the economic crisis of 2008, with a certain disbelief; it seems absolutely incredible that people with Master's and Doctorates in Economics, those who are suppose to be captains of industry, could have been so utterly foolish, downright deranged, about how their actions were bringing about their own destruction.

It brings to mind a saying my mother has: translated from Spanish, it goes something like, "You are so smart that you're dumb". In short, one may have a great deal of knowledge about how things work, but you don't ever apply it to reality.

Charles Ferguson's film starts us in Iceland, a wonderful little country that was doing rather well, until deregulation came, allowing the corporations and the banks to rape the land (which is what they always do) and take people's money to do as they wished. The collusion between the banks and the government meant no one was watching the store and when the banks became insolvent, chaos erupted over the once peaceful and once thoroughly regulated land.

We then shift to the United States, where Matt Damon narrates us the bizarre story of how banks decided to use their patron's money to create an unsustainable housing bubble that when it burst, took people's life savings, homes, and jobs, while those who walked away from it left with millions of dollars in compensation and those who created the situation (such as former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and current Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner) are there to help clean it up.

It just hasn't been Larry Summers' year in film. Besides being one of the villains in Inside Job, he wasn't all that helpful as the Harvard President in The Social Network. He'll just have to cry on his money.

Director Ferguson and co-writers Chad Beck and Adam Bolt take us in Inside Job through five parts: How We Got Here, The Bubble 2000-2007, The Crisis, Accountability, and Where We Are Now. Unlike most 'documentary as advocacy films', Inside Job doesn't ask me to take the filmmaker's position and take action minus at the end where Damon tells us we don't need the same people who created the problem to try to fix it, strongly suggesting we get them out (whether in favor of someone like billionaire George Soros, unwitting madame Representative Barney Frank or former Governor/Hooker Solicitor Elliot Spitzer is not made clear, although all three were interviewed for the film to offer their perspective on the financial meltdown).

Ferguson makes his case slowly but steadily: deregulation, starting under Reagan and right on down to even Obama, created an atmosphere in Wall Street where men starting grabbing the dough without a thought about what could happen in the future. The collusion between banks and the government, which turned a blind eye to the impending explosion, was a monster that fed itself until it teetered on collapse and needed rescuing by us taxpayers.

One aspect of Inside Job that came as a surprise was how academia was wrapped up in Big Bank's pocket. Studies extolling the virtues of whatever actions the banks were taking were made by educators, who in turn received high financial compensation. It basically is bribery by another name, but even after all the evidence is presented to those in charge, there is a total denial. John Campbell, the Chair at Harvard Business School, tells the interviewer he sees no conflict between consulting for private industries and teaching on the same subjects. He, in fairness, does see a conflict if a professor of medicine also worked as a consultant for a drug company.

The most fascinating thing about Inside Job is the sheer and massive amount of denial by everyone involved. No one appears to understand how any of this could have happened: those in the banking industry or the Federal Reserve or the federal government appear to live in what can be called reality. There is more than enough blame to go around, with the central cause being greed.

One watching can't help laugh at some of the offbeat things being said by people who should know better.

Ferguson also did a good job explaining just how, bit by bit, through charts, the industry created the situation that eventually would nearly break the bank. Such concepts as Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) and the Securitization Food Chain, while still a bit perplexing, become easy to follow thanks to the animation created. Ferguson, to his credit, trusts his audience to follow the money so to speak, and show us where things started going wrong.

He offers no real solutions (aside from casting off those in power who nurtured the situation to fruition), since providing the solutions would be the work of more than one man.

If I would find any fault with Inside Job, it's the digression it took in Part V: Where We Are Now. There was a lot of discussion about how we today are a more unequal society than in recent memory and how the Bush tax cuts are a source of said inequality (it wouldn't be a political documentary without slamming Bush, which is de rigueur nowadays). I figure Ferguson and Damon believe in a more equitable society, though I wondered how they would go about achieving a goal of having more people have the same amount of money. I kept thinking, 'Are they in favor of wealth distribution?' which is a deal-breaker for me.

I will change my view if multi-millionaire Matt Damon is willing to give some of his fortune to me, but I digress.

It also struck me strange that the film would downplay Elliot Spitzer's sexcapades merely because he shares a similar worldview to Ferguson/Damon. It's OK that the Governor of New York was using his taxpayer funded salary to have sex with prostitutes with whom he wouldn't wear a condom (but would wear his socks): at least he wouldn't hire prostitutes and use cocaine like those guys at Lehman Brothers. I'll be frank: I think a crime is a crime and don't distinguish between soliciting and theft.

Inside Job is a fine film: intelligent, direct, easy to follow. Information is vital if we are to avoid a repeat of the economic chaos that we lived through in 2008 (and which we are still being affected by).

It's so true: the love of money is the root of all evil, and Inside Job shows us how that is a most twisted love.

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