Wednesday, April 27, 2011

It's a Horror Film -- Reflections on "Inside Job" (2010)

Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees need to take notes from these guys.

Imagine if I came to you and asked to borrow some money. For what? It doesn't matter. And, let's just say you found out that I probably wouldn't be able to pay you. Would you still lend me the money?

Of course not, you say. That would be stupid. You never lend money to those who can't pay.

But, for sake of argument, let's say you found another person who is willing to pay you back on my behalf (with interest), meaning that I would have to pay them back. Would you lend me the money then?

If it means getting back your investment, and pocketing extra, then my question almost seems rhetorical, right?

In this scenario, I imagine questions of right and wrong probably didn't occur to you. Is it right to give a loan that can't be paid? Even though you sold the loan to someone else, it doesn't make me any more or less capable of paying. I'm still not going to be able to come through on my end of the bargain, and someone is going to take the financial loss.

Should it matter to you, though? After all, you still got paid.

This is the central conundrum of Charles Ferguson's horrific, Oscar-winning documentary "Inside Job." He posits that since the 1980s, our economy has been in dire straits as our financial institutions have become de-regulated, thus allowing for such unethical business practices. His film is a scathing, rousing, and brilliant expose of an industry that has destroyed not just our economy over the last several years, but the world's economy. With millions out of work, out on the streets, and in obscene amounts of debt, this film couldn't come at a better time to garner attention for a cause that's not just worth fighting, but essential to fight.

Basics: Ferguson, with the help of Matt Damon's everyman narration, explores the causes, ramifications and criminality of our current financial crisis. We learn about how de-regulation (removing government controls and sanctions) of the business practices in the financial sector contributed to the wild and crazy rise in stocks and the housing market in the early 2000s. As everyone on Wall Street wallowed in their riches, everyday people were being given sub-prime loans they could not afford. Lenders and investors in turn sold the loans to other lenders and investors, then took out insurance policies to protect their risk-taking behavior. Eventually the bottom fell out and the world as we knew it came to an end. Financial companies, like Lehman Brothers, and AIG, claimed bankruptcy, forcing the federal government to bail them out. Meanwhile, even as the rest of the world grew poorer and devastated, the rich got richer and discovered that despite all the government's bluster about their practices, no one would be punished or held accountable. It's like Freddy or Jason murdering a slew of dumb teens and getting a slap on the hand before being allowed to make another sequel.

It's a Horror Film, Pt. 1: One of the film's biggest and best points is that the CEOs and Presidents of these financial institutions not only found themselves going unpunished for defrauding American citizens, but were rewarded with government positions. With the financial industry spending billions each year in lining the pockets of politicians (or what we commonly call "lobbying"), the conflict of interest is great and spellbinding. We have, in essence, put the inmates in charge of the asylum. And after campaigning to increase regulations in the financial sector, President Obama has not only done nothing, but has continued this grand tradition of trusting the very people who are responsible for our situation. Would you trust the mechanic who built your shitty car to fix it? He built it, though, you say. Yeah, but that doesn't excuse the fact that it's shitty.

It's a Horror Film, Pt. 2: I was amazed at the interviews Ferguson got with a variety of college deans, economics professors and Presidential advisors. And while I'm aware that he was able to use whichever footage he wanted to make his point, it didn't change the fact that I'm pretty sure that most of these talking heads, who are defending the current system, believe their own bullshit. And why shouldn't they? They're all profiting. Meanwhile, the class system in this country becomes more obviously rich/poor and the poor are still fucked.

It's a Horror Film, Pt. 3: What frightened me most about this film, though, was the section about the impact these Wall Street goons have had on higher education. When bigwigs at Harvard, Columbia, Brown, and Berkeley are all coming from Goldman Sachs, Lehman, and JP Morgan it becomes increasingly obvious which economic model they will be promoting to their students, many of whom they may eventually employ. And with public universities becoming increasingly more difficult for kids to attend without having to go into severe debt, we have a problem on our hands that may extend for a few generations. Education is the most important thing to exact change in this world, and when the educators are the ones creating the problems, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand they will be producing the next generation of problem-creators, not problem-solvers.

Inside Job is an effective, intense, and enlightening documentary. It tries to end on a positive note, but the evidence is so overwhelming that it is hard to see a future that isn't bleak. And when you consider that most average Americans don't spend lots of time watching documentaries (unless you count Jersey Show and Keeping Up with the Kardashians as documentaries), it makes me even more nervous. Nonetheless, this is the sort of movie that educates and inspires as it scares. If only most slasher films were this disturbing.