Thursday, September 15, 2011

Inside Job

In his 2007 documentary No End in Sight, filmmaker Charles Ferguson chronicled the failures and mistakes made by high-ranking government and military officials during the early days of the Iraq occupation and how that led to catastrophe. In his 2010 documentary Inside Job, Ferguson turns that same critical approach and methodology onto Wall Street, and the result is a film that is sobering, infuriating, shocking, and troubling.

The 2008 global economic crisis resulted in the loss of trillions of dollars and millions of jobs, brought the world to the brink of financial chaos, and destroyed countless lives. Three years later, not one bank CEO or president has been convicted of any crimes despite strong evidence most of the financial industry's most prominent firms and companies knowingly and willingly perpetuated the crash. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Treasury Department, and other government entities responsible for regulating the industry were/are embedded with former bank bigwigs, gutted by an extensive campaign of deregulation, or ignoring all the warning signs of impending calamity.

Ferguson interviews many familiar faces: Eliot Spitzer, Barney Frank, George Soros, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (prior to his recent legal troubles), and Paul Volcker. We also get some foreign finance ministers, watchdogs, private citizens, and others telling their stories. There's a sizable list of people who refused comment: Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner, Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, and the various CEOs of Goldman-Sachs, AIG, CitiGroup, and other firms. Ferguson incorporates a lot of stock footage, news reports, graphs, and highlighted documents, and through all this, he effectively conveys the information needed to understand why things went bust.

Long story short: in the 1980s, deregulation became the buzz word, and the financial industry grew larger, more powerful, and more influential. By the 1990s, new technology allowed for more complex and riskier investments that weren't covered by regulation. Efforts to fill the vacuum with new laws were defeated or watered down. Banks and investment firms began selling investments they knew to be bad, but by betting against them, they stood to profit hugely while their clients and the public were left holding the bag. In the short-term, CEOs walked away with millions, and long-term, their companies went bankrupt. These companies were so large and felt on the global economy, the government stepped in with bailouts, and it was back to business as usual.

The most disheartening aspect of the film is how many of those individuals at the center of the crash remain in influential positions today, continuing to push for policies that made them and their supporters rich while bankrupting the nation. Ferguson also covers two lesser known aspects of Wall Street. First, many of these top traders use company money on prostitutes and drugs, often writing both off as a company expense; it's just another example of how self-absorbed and immoral these men are. Second, a number of economic academics at places such as Harvard and Colombia who write "objective" papers praising the soundness of certain companies and their strategies are often on their payroll.

If you want to understand why the economy is in the state it's in, Inside Job is the movie to watch. It will make you angry. Narrator Matt Damon concludes the film with a call to action, but at this point, after seeing just how entrenched Wall Street has become, what can be done?

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