*. I’m not a huge fan of documentaries. That’s because film is an emotional medium. If you want to learn about a subject, or get information on it, print is still a far richer source. So if you want to find out about the financial crisis of 2008 there are any number of books I’d advise you to consult ahead of watching this movie, as decent as it is. There’s even a sort of companion volume to the movie written by the director, Charles Ferguson, called Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America.
*. But if you’re not a reader, or not interested in the details, Inside Job is a well-packaged outline, albeit one with a clear political agenda. It isn’t the full story, but then the full story, contra Charles Ferguson’s assertion that it was a simple bank robbery committed by the bank managers, is rather complicated, with a lot of moving parts.
*. I think what Ferguson means, mainly, is that the issues involved are morally simple. While the technical legality of what the financial industry was up to is in many cases debatable, there’s no denying the fact that the financial industry behaved very badly. Not irrationally, given the incentives, but badly.
*. The essence of Ferguson’s take is that the crisis was brought on by a lack of regulation, which was in turn the result of the dismantling of the regulatory state that presided over America’s economic golden age. Given this weakening, and even gutting, of the regulatory apparatus, the fallout was predictable: the useless theatre of the congressional hearings and lack of indictments, followed by the maintenance of the status quo under Obama. Nothing changed. There is still the same system of public losses and private gains, with the system backstopped by the taxpayer.
*. Of course in a “talking head” style documentary like this, with a clear political slant, some interviewees are going to fare better than others. But I don’t think this is because of “gotcha!” style interviews that ambushed people with new information. Instead, the most embarrassing moments in the film tend to come when the interviewee is an academic oblivious to having been got.
*. This leads me to an aside, or rant. Why is it that these people in particular — professors, deans, heads of departments — fared so poorly in their interviews?
*. At one point on the DVD commentary, producer Audrey Marrs even expresses wonder at this (specifically why the dean of Columbia Business School agreed to an interview in the first place). She speculates that, “like the others, he wasn’t used to being challenged.” Ferguson agrees with this assessment.
*. As a general point, I think this is an important observation. Academics work within an intellectual bubble. They are not used to being challenged. They are used to being held in a position of respect, their teachings accepted as dogma by classrooms of students. This breeds a certain level of arrogance and entitlement.
*. It is also a point worth stressing that a modern university is, in every meaningful way, a large corporation. I don’t mean by this that a university is an institution infected with alien “corporate values” (for example, a drive for profit), but that it is a corporation, which means it operates by rules that are essentially the same as those governing banks or insurance companies. Such people fit right into the corporate structure and mindset of those organizations, with the added benefit of having lifetime sinecures in the form of tenure.
*. To my mind the film comes off a bit heavy at the end, with the closing shot of the Statue of Liberty and Matt Damon telling us that “some things are worth fighting for.” I’m not sure what sort of mythic vision of America Ferguson is promoting here. The dream of endless, and ruthless, exploitation, has always seemed to me to be something deep within the American grain.
*. At bottom, however, it’s still the old dream of the philosopher’s stone. As Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore puts it, “when you think you can create something out of nothing it’s very difficult to resist.” Or, in the words of Don Henley: “It’s the lure of easy money, it’s got a very strong appeal.”