Judge Roy Hrab wishes he had an inside job because shoveling sand in the desert for a living is pretty lame.
Our review of Inside Job (Blu-Ray), published March 20th, 2011, is also available.
The film that cost $20,000,000,000,000 to make.
"Give it your best shot!"
Facts of the Case
In Inside Job, documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight) turns his attention to the financial crisis of 2008. The film navigates its way through the causes of the crisis, the development of the financial bubble, the crisis itself, the lack of accountability, and the aftermath of the global meltdown. It investigates the catastrophe through interviews with key players from industry, government, and academia, as well as footage from congressional hearings and the news.
Inside Job is a heist film with a twist; the twist being there are perpetrators and victims, but no justice and no trial. It makes for an extremely fast paced, arresting, but deeply flawed work.
Narrated by Matt Damon, Ferguson's film effectively creates a chain of events linking deregulation, the appointment of financial professionals and economic professors to high level bureaucratic and government advisory positions, arrogant greedy CEOs and traders, and the lobbying clout of the financial services industries in setting the stage for devastation.
The film methodically builds its case by revealing the mechanics of enigmatic financial transactions and the web of relationships between government and finance. By the end, audience outrage towards the action of banks, government and academics hits an overwhelming level. To his credit, Ferguson manages to deliver his sermon against greed by largely staying out of his own way. There are no off-putting, over-the-top Michael Moore stunts. As a result, it's difficult to argue against Ferguson's clear presentation of the ridiculously large volume of nonsense that went on during the years before, during, and after the collapse.
The most entertaining part of the film for me (a trained economist) is seeing academic economists being grilled about the very real conflict of interest that exists in the profession. Academic economists have made tremendous income over the past few decades by moonlighting as highly paid, expert consultants and advisors for governments, corporations, and lobby groups by accepting payment to author research papers and appear as "expert" witnesses at regulatory hearings. Ferguson confronts them with the obvious conflict arising from such activities. It results in three individuals in particular—John Campbell, Glenn Hubbard, and Frederic Mishkin—thoroughly humiliating themselves on camera. All are reduced to squirming uncomfortably as they try to construct (unconvincing) rationalizations for behavior that they would denounce aggressively if conducted by other professions such as accountants, doctors, and medical researchers. (Indeed, they would have used economic theory to illustrate why a conflict of interest existed!) Hubbard's nasty exchange with Ferguson is well documented. However, for my money, the interview with Campbell is the best one. When Ferguson interviews Campbell, chairman of Harvard's Department of Economics, about the subject, Campbell first denies that there is a problem, but as Ferguson presses him on the point you can literally see Campbell's brain break under the pressure of trying to resolve the dissonance.
Inside Job looks and sounds great. The colors are bright and crisp. The picture is detailed. On the audio side, the 5.1 sound delivers all the dialogue and pop soundtrack without any problems.
There is a decent set of extras. The main feature is a commentary track with Ferguson and producer Audrey Marrs. The pair talks about some of the technical aspects of making the film, plus their impressions of many of the interviewees. The featurette "Inside Job: Behind the Heist" with Ferguson and financial writer Charles Morris gives additional background about the making of the film. There is also a large collection of additional interview clips with an assorted group of interviewees from the film, including Morris, Dominique Strauss-Khan, Eliot Spitzer, Gillian Tett, Jerome Fons, Lee Hsien Loong, Satyajit Das, Simon Johnson, and Yves Smith. The theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Inside Job is not without fault. Its glaring, and nearly fatal, weakness is its almost complete focus on blaming the financial sector for all ills. Such a disastrous and widespread meltdown rarely has many innocent parties. However, Inside Job lays no blame at the feet of the millions of individuals who bought houses and other stuff they didn't need with money they didn't have. Just as the financial sector deluded itself into thinking that it had mathematically mastered risk and understood the consequences of the transactions being executed consumers deluded themselves into thinking that they could borrow and refinance at will. Everyone got greedy and there is plenty of guilt spread around. For example, Ferguson forgets that government policy in the United States partially encouraged such reckless consumer borrowing through the tax deductibility of home mortgage interest. Also, what about the lack of basic financial literacy by so many people? Who should take responsibility for that?
Unfortunately, Ferguson follows the easy path and decides to scapegoat the handful of incompetent CEOs and traders who walked away with millions while the savings and assets of millions of everyday Americas were ground into dust. To be sure, these rapacious individuals deserve censure, but by creating such a boogeyman, Ferguson allows consumers to avoid admitting to, and taking ownership of, their own poor decisions. Without taking responsibility for their actions they have no reason to change their behavior or take measures to protect themselves from future financial industry shenanigans. They can simply complain that they were conned, and powerless, and that their government doesn't care about them. This will pretty much guarantee that these same people will be taken in again when something too good to be true comes around.
Similarly, Ferguson blames the financial industry of "corrupting" politicians and the economics profession. Again, this is too simple an explanation and conveniently lets politicians and economists off the hook (although the interviews with economists somewhat compensates for this). The reality is that if these professions wanted tough ethical codes and standards to avoid conflicts of interest then they would develop and implement them, but they haven't and give no indication that they will. The question is, why? The answer doesn't lie with the financial services industry. Politicians and academics weren't unblemished paragons of virtue who were ruined by the appearance of devils in pinstripe suits, carrying bags of dirty money. No, these people were more than willing participants and rushed to get a piece of the action.
As the film draws to a close Ferguson laments the lack of real financial reform to prevent such debacles from happening again. He need look no further than his own biases to reveal the reasons for this outcome—when only one party is blamed when things go wrong, there is no incentive for others to change their own behavior. This almost ensures that similar events will happen again. As Ambrose Bierce mockingly remarked, "Responsibility: A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one's neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star."
When assessing the causes of the crisis and how to deal with it, Ferguson and all of us would be wise to remember the words of Josiah Stamp: "It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities."
Inside Job is a compelling film, but it defeats itself by directing the blame too narrowly. It could have been so much more.
Guilty of shirking its responsibilities and failing to shed its biases.
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