So, neutering bank reform was essential in order to protect their rent seeking ability. Shifting the focus of debate onto the national debt was essential in order to mask their collective culpability and graft. Imposing austerity on the rest of us was essential in order to avoid paying the consequences of their ineptitude and indifference. In order to protect themselves they had to stand together and spew out platitudes and patronizing homilies about how tough we all need to be in order to dig out from the crisis. A crisis that their ideas, their actions, and their greed caused.
All around the world everyday people are suffering a loss of wealth and, or, income as a direct result of the ability of this small group to impose its own agenda on us. Yet that group has emerged unscathed. They still rotate through the same jobs. They still teach at elite schools. They still control the academic agenda. They still run the same banks. They still staff the Treasury or the Federal Reserve Board. And they still dictate how our national wealth will be divided: 95% for them, 5% for the rest. Just the way it ought to be in a society where democracy has been weakened by decades of free market dogma, slipshod oversight, defunded government, and an extraordinary collapse in ethical standards.
No wonder the Tea Party is up in arms. Our social fabric is beginning to fray. Anger permeates debate. Reason flies out the window. Facts become opinions. Opinions become facts. We stopped being we. Instead we became them versus us. Turned in on ourselves by the needs of the system.
Only one group wins when society turns on itself: the elite in charge. That dark and amorphous group we dare not contest for fear of the unknown. Or at least that is what they tell us.
America is not what it was. It’s political system is horribly corrupted by the flow of money. Rich companies and individuals impose their views simply by dint of their ability to spend. The rest of us, those who object, are muted by the flow of cash that drowns out dissent. Supreme Court justices cavort in private jets and take cash sums for speaking to lobbyist groups. They then ask us to believe they are impartial. Politicians view fund raising as their primary task. They then ask us to believe they are impartial when they vote. Professors write papers supporting the objectives of their sponsors, and then see no conflict of interest. Business leaders pay themselves whether their companies succeed or fail. Boards of directors stand idly by as CEO’s leave with millions – hundreds of millions – even though they are unmitigated failures. Managers stay put even though they are manifestly incompetent. The concept of shareholder control is laughed at: the SEC actively prevents shareholder democracy. It might destabilize the system. So no one owns big business. There is no control. The system just is. It is a mockery of capitalism. It is a mockery of democracy. But especially of democracy.
And all the while they preach that this is the land of opportunity.
Once America embarked on its great experiment with illusion, back in 1980, it deliberately stepped away from a fact based narrative. It plunged into Hollywood. Or Disneyland. Politicians realized they could cast balm across fears by talking in hopelessly unreal dreamlike terms. They also learned to demonize the opposition and the government. Words were recast with new and derogatory meanings. Alternative ideas and views were systematically eliminated or stifled. Their new way was simplified, black and white, and unrelentingly self regarding. Gradually the great utopians were able to kick away reality. They were able to shut out what Judge Brandeis called the disinfecting capacity of sunlight. In the shadows they constructed a version of laissez faire, updated and outfitted for the modern era.
They have persuaded regular people to vote consistently against their own best interests. They have led the country into decline. They have started wars on a lie and a whim. And they have shifted the national wealth in unprecedented amounts into their own pockets.
The crisis did not hurt them at all. It hurt us. It was their mess. It is ours to clean up.
And we agree to do this, why?
Because we are told the system must be preserved. The nation is fragile and we must surely understand the need for tough austerity action. We must take our medicine. We must sacrifice those pensions.We must give up those immature dreams of rising wages. This is, we are told, a global economy. We must suffer the consequences of the dreams of the poor who aspire to be like us. Capital is free to shift around the world. Profits are to be found abroad. If that hurts us here, then that’s just the system at work. And we must never disrupt the system. Never, ever, disrupt the system. It is a work of nature just like the oceans or the mountains. The market is an artifact, not of humans, but of the natural world. It is invisible to us. But we are caught in its dehumanizing grip. If the mechanism requires that you accept a lower wage, please do, it makes the model work so much more smoothly.
And the corruption stinks. Yet it exists. The lack of ethics reeks. Yet it persists. Just recently the economics profession failed to come to grips with its ugly lack of ethics. Apparently market forces will impose some form of ethics. So economists don’t need to abide by the same rules that the rest of society seems to think are important.
When you have sunk so far down the free market rabbit hole that you believe it will fix everything, ethics becomes just another exogenous variable to be assumed away. When you assume that all social ends are best met by efficient outcomes from constrained optimization models, ethics is obliterated by the great machinery that guarantees that optimum. And when you become irritated by the niceties of reality and its inexorable muddiness such that you treat it as an unfortunate intrusion into the sublime order of your theory, you have left behind both humanity and the need to balance work with an ethical view. Mad science is mad, however complex or elegant its math.
All of this stems from my viewing of that movie.
I guess it put me in a bad mood.
My distemper stems from the grim truth the movie tells. It reveals just how far America has lurched from its earlier, more prosperous, trajectory. It tells us how hard it will be to get back, if we can, to a more balanced, less extreme, less unequal state.
And economics, at least its orthodox brand, isn’t helping. Indeed it has been co-opted, willingly so, by the system and those who benefit from it. Many of our most renowned economists are guilty of aiding and abetting the gutting of our democracy, and of feeding at the same trough as the bankers who destroyed the economy. There are some, well meaning, that claim economics is apolitical. Possibly. They claim the bourgeois values of capitalism are worthy of protection and nurture. After all we are all so much better off. Perhaps. But they ignore the ease with which orthodox economics has been turned into an ideological exercise. They ignore the inequality. They dismiss social remedies as pathologies eating away at the fine muscle of capitalism. Maybe they are right. But they are not politically neutral.
Democracy and capitalism are in conflict. The one protects the weak by giving them power. The other exploits the weak by concentrating that power in the hands of the wealthy. The two groups fight. Those who deny this struggle deny reality. They would prefer a pleasant world where the rich and poor cohabit in joint interest. Where labor and capital are equals. Utopia. Harmony. Quiet. And not the cacophony of the real world.
I do not seek the supremacy of either democracy or capitalism. Either, in extremis, can be volatile and unhealthy. I seek a balance. And when I watch the “Inside Job” I am reminded of how far from balance we are. Right now it is our democracy that is lost. We have a surfeit of capitalism. We are bloated by the corruption and lack of ethics that it has brought. We need to change.
In my world, that means economics has to change.
But you all know that already.
I believe that films are works of art, no less than plays or novels. It’s harder, though, to maintain that claim when you’re dealing with a documentary.
Can a documentary like this one, that relies so heavily on interviews, be a work of art? It surely differs from a story film. There’s no plot. There are no characters developed, just brief interviews. The camera work is just what’s necessary. But, in literature, essays like those of Emerson or Montaigne or, in our own time, David Sedaris or Adam Gopnik are surely works of art.
Documentarists have styles just as story-movie directors do. For example in Michael Moore’s documentaries, the interviewer (Moore) gets in-your-face to the interviewees. There is as much focus on Moore as on the person he’s talking to. Here, the interviewer is offscreen; the focus is entirely on the interviewee. Leacock or Pennebaker pioneered with their own distinctive cinematic styles, ostensibly “neutral.” With Frederic Wiseman, there is drama without any interviewer at all. Then there are feature films that read like documentaries, for example, Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Hurt Locker.
Just as, in an essay, a writer chooses words, so in a documentary the filmmaker chooses texture, themes, imagery, structure and lots of other elements of the story film. And as in a story film, in a documentary what the artist chooses expresses his themes—and his personality.
As with a story film, pay attention to the opening and closing shots. An opening title card states the theme of Inside Job: “The global economic crisis of 2008 cost tens of millions of people their savings, their jobs, and their homes. This is how it happened.”
Okay. But then Ferguson deftly misdirects. Cut to a landscape in Iceland. Iceland?? Why Iceland? The onscreen text says:
GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT $13 BILLION
BANK LOSSES $100 BILLION.
Then Matt Damon’s narration begins: “Iceland is a stable democracy with a high standard of living and, until recently, extremely low unemployment and government debt.” Then he turns to a couple of Icelandic professors to explain what happened.
This is Ferguson’s method: state the facts, often by means of a graph, then turn to experts, both good guys and bad, for explanations of how and why. Ferguson has also introduced, as in the opening notes of a symphony, his major themes: numbers as opposed to people; big vs. small; and the role of human beings as spectators or as participants. Here the professors are spectators; the creators of the mess are invisible, a pattern that will repeat.
Just as shots of the sea or a landscape or birds might serve as “incidental imagery” in a story film, here numbers make up one major cluster of images—necessarily. Numbers are what this film is about. While all these things, people, numbers, and bigness, form parts of Ferguson’s argument, from an aesthetic point of view, we can think of them as like the plot or characters or imagery of a story film.
Here the numbers begin by contrasting bank losses with gross domestic product. The losses are seven times greater—big vs. small, one of Ferguson’s major themes and the core of his prescription for the future: deal with bigness. Iceland: small; U.S.A.: big. But what happened there images and prefigures what happened here.
This contrast between big and small runs all through the film, most cruelly in the contrast between rich and poor. The immense mansions of the rich have swimming pools, tennis courts, and yachts. The poor live in a wretched tent city or foreclosed houses.
Less central to Ferguson’s theme but just as telling are his many cutaway shots to aerial or panoramic views of New York City buildings. Again, the scene is vast, the numbers of people huge. Contrast the pristine landscape and simple houses of Iceland. At the same time, the pictures suggest complexity and secrecy. What goes on in these buildings? Who knows? Again, they contrast bitterly with the pathetic tent city in Pinellas County on Florida’s west coast. One critic says that the blocks of New York City skyscrapers, shot from above, “begin to look like rows of dominoes.” Well, maybe. To my eye, these buildings echo (or, as film critics like to say, rhyme) with the bar graphs that have the same kind of vertical structure. But the graphs are simple, the buildings complex and secretive.
These closed buildings point to another theme: good guys and bad guys. (Yes, the villains are almost all guys.) The first good guys we meet are the Icelandic professors who explain what happened there. Later on, we hear from Nouriel Roubini, of New York University, and Raghuram Rajan, then chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, financier George Soros, and government figures in the U.S. and France. They warned of the crisis and now damn the banks and bankers and politicians who caused it and profited from it. (I am reminded of Jonathan Franzen’s novels, The Connections and Freedom on the amorality of the idea of unchecked freedom.) We never hear, though, from the banks and bankers who profited. They hid. This pattern will run all through the many interviews in this film, the core of Ferguson’s argument.
The good guys give their information in a straightforward way with a certain amount of resentment or sadness. The bad guys come across as shifty. They hem and haw or, occasionally, defy. One asks Ferguson to turn off the camera before he will answer. Again and again, title cards tell us that key players in the debacle refused to be interviewed for this film: Greenspan, Bernanke, Geithner, Summers, Paulson, the CEO and senior execs of Goldman Sachs, and others.
The anti-regulators that do agree to be interviewed come off badly. They dodge questions or alibi. Ferguson concentrated intensely on individuals this way in his similarly infuriating documentary on the Iraq war, No End in Sight (2007), but there he had to rely on television clips of public moments by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Wolfowitz and the rest of those who dreamed up the invasion of Iraq. Here, because he can use interviews, Ferguson plays the honest but probing reporter, subtly adversarial. He makes speech itself, its manner, part of the reinforcing imagery of the film, honest speech, shifty speech.
(I have to sympathize particularly with my fellow professor, Frederic Mishkin, an economics professor at Columbia. He quit the Federal Reserve Board just as the crisis was beginning. He gives his reason, “to revise a textbook,” and he looks like a fool or a knave. But then professors of economics make so much more than professors of English . . . I withdraw my sympathy.)
By contrast, Eliot Spitzer, when he was New York’s attorney general, tried to prosecute some of these bad guys. The Feds were doing nothing, although everyone knew that these high-flying bankers were enjoying cocaine and prostitutes. Diligent prosecutors could have used those petty crimes as levers to pry out information from low-level villains about the far greater financial crimes at the top, the crimes that Spitzer was trying to prosecute. Instead, it was Spitzer whose dealings with prostitutes were used to pry him out of office and the hopes of state prosecution of the financial crimes.
Charts and graphs and tables form another dominant image in the film. The evasive people in the film contrast with the information in these pictures (worth many thousands of words). The graphics reinforce the message from the good guys. The clarity of the graphics contrasts with the evasiveness of the bad guys.
Ferguson builds his documentary around these strong one-to-one contrasts, a style that differs from those of other documentarists, Michael Moore’s scattershot polemics or the narrative structures of Leacock or Pennebaker. I think it’s this clarity that so many people found so persuasive in this documentary. It’s black and white, and so it seems to me, are the facts on the ground. There really were good guys and bad guys. There really were horrible contrasts between the billions paid to the top bankers and the wretched poverty of those driven into tent cities. There really was—and is—a concerted effort by the banking industry to defeat efforts at regulation that would prevent this kind of appalling mess. Ferguson’s strongest weapon is, quite simply, the truth—as a practicing postmodernist, I use the term with suitable hesitation. But the truth is something he is eminently qualified to present.
Ferguson received his Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T. in 1989. He did postdoctoral work M.I.T. while consulting all over the place: the White House, the Department of Defense, and various hi-tech companies. He founded his own company, Vermeer Technologies, and there created Front Page, the leading software for making your own web site and sold it to Microsoft. He then decided to follow out a 20-year interest in films. In 2005 he made NO END IN SIGHT, his documentary about the lead-in to the Iraq war, which won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It is ironic that he is the man who created the leading software for making web sites, but if you go to his own personal web site, it says “This site is under construction.” Is he trying to be one of the evasive ones?
Not if you look at the finale to this film. By the way a transcript of the words in the film appears on the web . here That site also has an interview with Charles Ferguson, made before the film won its Oscar for Best Documentary.
The finale goes this way (I’ve put the visuals on the left, the narration spoken text on the right):
|Aerial shot of buildings being built||At enormous cost, we’ve avoided disaster and are recovering.|
|Banks’ CEOs testifying before Congress||But the men and institutions that caused the crisis are still in power, and that needs to change.|
|Suits walking on Wall Street||They will tell us that we need them and that what they do is too complicated for us to understand.|
|Facade of big office building||They will tell us it won’t happen again.|
|Capitol Building||They will spend billions fighting reform.|
|Statue of Liberty in foreground, the big buildings of NYC in background, but then pan so that only Lady Liberty remains over the last line||But some things are worth fighting for|
One reads this kind of documentary film, not so much for a centering theme as for the message, the moral of the story, so to speak, stated very clearly in this finale. The financial industry needs to be regulated. Scoundrels need to be punished. Re-regulate the [bleep]ing banks! And regulation won’t happen unless you fight for it.
Nevertheless, one can read even so factual a film as this as a work of art, and an impressive work of art it is. Ferguson mounts a series of clear contrasts. Big vs. small (for example, Iceland and the U.S.) Rich vs. poor. Numbers vs. people. Bigness and complexity vs. the individual. (They will tell us that we need them and that what they do is too complicated for us to understand.) Good guys (clear, direct) vs. bad guys (evasive, shifty, or hiding). Regulation vs. no regulation. All very cut-and-dried. To me, Inside Job comes together aesthetically around a centering theme that I would state this way: A fight against secretive complexity through a series of open, simple contrasts.
It is this strong one-to-one pattern that I think accounts for the emotional impact of the film. Granted, some of that emotion comes from the appalling facts: outright fraud and thievery and corruption. But the film succeeds in driving those facts home with infuriating clarity.
If powerful emotional response is the mark of a work of art, then surely Inside Job qualifies. Reviewer David Denby writes, “This movie has the rare gifts of lucid passion and informed rage.” “If you’re not enraged by the end of the movie, you weren’t paying attention,” wrote TIME magazine. “A powerhouse that will leave you both thunderstruck and boiling with rage,” said film reviewer Kenneth Turan. Can one ask more from a film than this big a response?