You approve a bunch of subprime mortgages, package those loans together into a CDO, then pay to get your CDO a “AAA” rating. Then you sell that CDO to a retirement fund, and take out a policy with AIG…
Ok, I lost you. Let me try again.
You buy a bunch of dogmeat. Then you pay somebody to label it prime rib. So you sell it as prime rib, and make big bucks, because dogmeat is cheap, but prime rib is expensive. That’s bad enough. But after that, you call up a bookie and place a bet on whether the person who eats the dogmeat you sold as prime rib will get sick or not. So that when they go to the hospital, you get paid.
Essentially, this is what happened during the subprime mortgage crisis of the last few years. Charles Ferguson’s new documentary, “Inside Job,” does a fiery job of holding up the financial executives, government officials, and academics who brought this country, and indeed most of the world by proxy, to the brink of financial ruin. It’s infuriating to watch; enough to make you pull all your money out of the bank and hide it under your bed. Not that that would help the situation, but still.
To use another metaphor, the whole financial sector feels like the Wild West. The outlaws and gunslingers run the show, and lawmen are, for the most part, former (and often future) gunslingers and outlaws. They talk and fight about “deregulation,” ie, fewer laws, because laws get in the way of gunslinging. Of course the laws protect the innocent settlers just trying to scrape a living out of the land, but those people don’t carry guns, so they don’t really matter.
Ferguson’s last documentary, “No End in Sight,” was about the war in Iraq, and focused on the mid-level apolitical government foreign policy workers who watched in awe and disbeliefe as the politicos – folks like Wolfowitz, Rumsfed and Cheney – made such a terrible mess of the situation. It was a great approach; we got the perspective of the guys in the field year after year, administration after administration, who had nothing to gain or lose by telling the truth. Ferguson tries to do the same here, calling on dissenting economists, including the economic leaders of other countries and of the IMF to testify, but it’s not quite as effective, because it’s hard to believe that anyone in the economic sector is NOT complicit in the fraud that went down. He turns instead, to the guilty parties, putting them in front of the camera and asking them hard questions, then watching stutter and spit. “This is not a deposition,” one of them barks back. “And you’ve got three more minutes. Give it your best shot.” Clearly, the problem is there haven’t been enough depostions, or enough people – journalists, prosecutors, etc. – taking their best shot.
“Inside Job” is a little one-sided, and really goes after the CEOs and big money earners in the financial sector. There’s certainly plenty to expose and explore there, but what falls by the wayside is the responsibility of the little guys – the American homebuyers who took out mortgages and bought homes that far exceeded their budgets simply because the banks allowed them to. For a more balanced look at the financial crisis, I’d recommend NPR’s radio program “The Giant Pool of Money.” But for a compelling, factual, and infuriating send up of the financial “gurus” who just about ruined our economy, “Inside Job” hits the spot.