Review: ‘Inside Job’ works over financial industry
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Derivative markets, credit-default swaps, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and exactly how hedge fund managers bring home tens of millions of dollars a year is all complicated stuff. More than one insider – a Wall Street trader, a bank regulator, a politician – has been heard to quip, while holding an enormous sheaf of legal papers, “I don’t understand this myself.”
The appeal of “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s heated documentary about the financial meltdown, is the simple methods it uses to build its case. Anyone can understand the visual of a securities trader growing uncomfortable, and what it means when he demands that the camera be turned off. You don’t need to know anything about collateralized debt obligations to grasp the nuance of a U.S. senator berating the leader of an investment firm. The numbers used in “Inside Job” don’t require an advanced degree to comprehend: A Wall Streeter making $485 million as the economy collapses – on a fundamental level, there’s something that stinks there.
When the narrative does rub shoulders with complex technical points, it handpicks those that are the most morally clear. The dangerously conflicted practice of banks advising clients to buy securities, while another division of the bank does its own trading of those same assets, makes for a dramatic hearing-room showdown between U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and a Goldman Sachs executive. A professor who writes prominent papers in defense of the deregulation of banks, while accepting lucrative speaking engagements from the banking industry – that’s easy to digest.
To round out the picture, the film jumps outside the realm of dollars and laws. Among the talking heads Ferguson brings in is a psychotherapist with a deep background treating bankers and traders. “These people are risk-takers, they’re impulsive. I see a lot of cocaine, prostitution,” he says. They aren’t just screwing around with money; they are out-and-out immoral.
Cinematically – which is to say, emotionally – it is a sound case Ferguson builds. His premise is that the economic woes we have faced for two years and counting are not a natural disaster; this was man-made. In fact, given the structure of our financial industry – with bank CEOs and government officials marching through an ever-spinning revolving door, and Wall Street firms heaping campaign cash on politicians – the meltdown was inevitable. As was the fact that, when the pieces were picked up, the ones holding most of the money – still – were the bankers who caused the problem.
The economy, we are often told, has grown insanely complex, and enormous. How else to explain that the dollar value of credit-swap defaults – in essence, a form of gambling – issued was greater than the American economy itself? All markets are interconnected; a butterfly (one who has invested too much in Asian oil markets, say) flaps its wings in Tokyo, and the catastrophic reverberations are felt by a Glenwood Springs homeowner whose mortgage payment has just ballooned.
While not exactly dumbing down the presentation, “Inside Job” skirts complexities to argue some major, easy-to-relate-to points. It offers a similarly audience-friendly take on a solution: Will someone, for godsake, stop trusting that bankers, with absurd amounts of money within reach, are just going to keep their hands out of the cookie jar? Can’t we regulate some of this greed and arrogance out of the system?
It is a simple, maybe simplistic, approach. And maybe, someday, we’ll be fortunate to find out if it works.
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