Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Film Review: Inside Job

"Inside Job"  **** (out of ****)

It is one of the most significant moments in modern history - the financial meltdown of 2008, when the U.S. government, thanks to the big banks and Wall Street greed, collapsed the economy. Yet, I fear Americans are forgetting the facts. People have "moved on" from this event and have become preoccupied with their daily lives and the importance of watching "Dancing with the Stars". These events took place nine years ago but for most Americans it might as well taken place 90 years ago.

How else can one explains recent U.S. events and Donald Trump? It is widely believed, by those humans which posses a brain, that one of the factors which lead to the collapse was deregulation. The U.S. government did not oversee what Wall Street was doing. And yet, the intelligent citizens of this country decided to elect a businessman, who was a reality TV show host, as president. A "man" that says there is too much regulation. A "man" that has filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs executives and others from large corporations. This was the same "man" that said he was going to "drain the swamp". I can only believe it is all yet another example of the dreaded disease known as "voter amnesia". A terrible disease known to strike every four years and holds millions of people captive.

Stories that revolve around the financial crisis fascinate me. Every documentary and feature film I've see addressing this topic simply makes my blood boil. To see how the system works. To see it is a chosen few that set the policies in the interest of the banks, all in the name of money, infuriates me. Nothing has changed. No one has been held accountable and now it seems, people have simply forgotten. And I wasn't the only one angry. From the economic collapse rose Occupy Wall Street. People started talking about the 1%. Americans started talking about the Federal Reserve. The term "too big to fail" (a reference to the banks that needed to be bailed out) became part of the culture. All that anger. All that energy. All those people. What happened?

History is not a straight line, constantly moving forward. History is a circle. It is a cycle. We face a problem, fight to resolve it, achieve a goal and then time passes. Slowly the progress made on an issue is reversed. With time a national conversation starts again, over the same issue and we start the process over and over again. Workers' rights. Corporate control over politics. Healthcare. Freedom of the press. Do you have any idea how long this country has been talking about these issues? I have read books quoting sources from 1860 discussing these issues. That's history. One step forward, three steps back.

I mention this because that was my inspiration to re-watch "Inside Job" (2010). I feel history is once again repeating itself. Donald Trump is going to repeat the mistakes of the past. Everything has been forgotten, presenting an opportunity for those motivated by greed. When the financial bubble burst (the stock market at 20,000 plus is too high not to bust) the "amnesia" will set in and we will all ask ourselves "how did this happen"? Another national discussion will engage us, involving how do we move forward. Rinse, wash, repeat. There is a moment in this documentary when discussing Ronald Reagan a clip is shown of a man saying Wall Street and the White House are in sync. Has Wall Street not been happy about Trump due to his promises of deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy?

The task of "Inside Job" is difficult. How do you explain an issue many believe is complex and worst of all, boring? Do people want to hear about collateralized debt obligation (CDO) and subprime mortgages? Do they know know what a derivative is? That is the beauty of Charles Ferguson's documentary. He explains this financial jargon to us in simple and direct terms. We begin to understand the effect and consequences of Wall Street's actions. Mr. Ferguson paints a picture for us, putting events in historical perspective. The economic collapse of 2008 was one in the making. It wasn't unexpected. It was the result of various laws passed starting in the 1980s under President Reagan, continued under President Clinton and exploded under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Ferguson, who also directed the Iraq War themed documentary, "No End in Sight" (2007), creates a picture suggesting the collapse was a perfect storm. A system feeding itself. The first step was to make sure there was no regulation. As pointed out in "Inside Job", after the Great Depression until 1980 there were no financial crisis. It was only after a system of deregulation did recessions and financial scandals become a common occurrence. After Wall Street got these laws passed the dividing line between the politicians and Wall Street becomes a bit blurry. Hence the quote of the Reagan White House and Wall Street being in sync. One would do the other's bidding. People from the financial world started to work inside the White House in various advisory roles and positions in the Treasury department.

One of the men behind the bailout of the banks, for example, was then Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, who had previously worked at Goldman Sachs, who stood to benefit from the bailout. Goldman Sachs was very active in CDOs. "Inside Job" suggest this was a conflict of interest, which was, to be fair, pointed out in the media at the time.

"Inside Job" further pushes the idea of conflict of interest on the part of many involved in Wall Street and economics. This "protective cloud" is what contributes to the problem in mainstream society. People don't realize the "opinions" they hear or read about from "experts" (i.e. economic professors) were paid to say those things. It is never disclosed however. So, when one "expert" speaks of a "sound economy" or the integrity of a banking institute, what you, the public, don't realize is, it is basically paid advertising. Those opinion are they presented in the media and given much credence. Well if so-and-so said it is a good idea, it must be.

While you or I may see the conflict, what is astonishing is, Mr. Ferguson interviews many of these people and when he presents to them their conflict of interest they sit amazed at the suggestion of it. They don't see a conflict. It is simply how the system is and should be. So what if I am paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to say something good about the very people who are paying me. To his credit, Mr. Ferguson pushes back, a bit, which is more than the media tends to do when confronted by these same people. Did you ever watch the Fox Business Network?

Which leads to a point. These people live in a bubble. They are oblivious to the consequences of their actions as long as a dollar is to be made. That level of greed is what caused this entire mess. Put aside the policies which were enacted. It was the people. People motivated by greed. A system was created that rewarded greed which creates an incentive to become greedier and greedier. And that system is still in place today.

What is also of interest are the people Mr. Ferguson was able to interview (also interesting and very telling are those that declined). Appearing are former managing director of International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who would later go on to be involved in a sex scandal), the Finance Minister of France, Christine Lagarde, who would become the managing director of the IMF, investor George Soros, congressman Barney Frank, former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer and the Under Secretary of the Treasury in the Bush administration David McCormick. Most are in agreement on what is wrong with the system while others are shown to make the opposite argument that all is fine.

While "Inside Job" won an Academy Award for best documentary and was named the best movie of the year by New York Times movie critic, A.O. Scott, my fear is the public will think of this documentary as too academic. It is what made "The Big Short" (2015) such a great film. This explains some of this same material but does it with humor and creates a dramatic story so as, one, to keep an audience interested and two, minimize the anger of the mob (the public). In "Inside Job" we see the individuals responsible for what happened. We hear their lies and cover ups. "The Big Short", while based on a true story, still was a dramatic film. "Inside Job" by comparison is a good piece of investigative journalism, piecing everything together.

It would serve in the public's interest if many saw this documentary. Please don't forget what happened in 2008 and how it happened. Don't forget the names and faces. And, mostly importantly, remember these people are still out there. No one was arrested for these activities. These people were given bonuses. Remember the bail out money was used for that. Be weary of politicians, that have former Goldman Sachs executives in their cabinets, that talk about deregulation. And, if you can remember, speak to your doctor about voter amnesia. It's not an election year, so you should be fine.