Documentary 'Inside Job' flays architects of the economic crisis, examines causes & calls for prosecutions

Charles Ferguson, who rips into bailed-out banks in his documentary "Inside Job," will not be easy to dismiss as an antibusiness pinko.

He's a wealthy former businessman who made his fortune through productive innovation (a software company) - by creating wealth, by hiring people, by giving capitalism a good name.

His obvious anger at certain Wall Street miscreants stems from his disgust at banking practices that during the mortgage security bubble/meltdown destroyed more capital than Karl Marx could have imagined in a fever dream.

But what, besides cold fury, does Ferguson bring to the table?

Even three years later, there's some breaking news. About so-called Lehman Weekend, when the first big bank failed and we began to suspect the people running the country/economy were out to lunch. Suspicions confirmed, says "Inside Job" - when the feds put Lehman into bankruptcy, somebody forget to tell Europe.

The French finance minister reveals she learned of Lehman's demise on TV, indicating the administration had no idea a bankruptcy would freeze Lehman assets overseas, guaranteeing worldwide panic and setting the stage for the federal frenzy to backstop big banks at any (every?) cost.

"Inside Job" also goes much further than other documentaries in challenging the ideas and theories behind the newfangled instruments involved in the mortgage/credit collapse - the swaps, derivatives and other "innovations" that former fed chief Paul Volcker (featured here) has described as being less useful than the ATM.

Ferguson, a certified MIT brain, goes after men in academia who give intellectual support to the mad excesses of poorly regulated markets, while accepting money from megabanks that benefit from the system.

One is former fed Governor Fred Mishkin, whom Ferguson humiliates by exposing an outrageously fudged resume (he accepts money to write a paper pushing deregulation, then changes the title to make it appear he was against it).

"That's a typo!" Mishkin bleats. (You can check this exchange on YouTube, or on Ferguson's website, insidejob.com.)

It's wrong, I suppose, to take pleasure in watching Mishkin sweat his reputation out through his pores, but it does satisfy a need to penetrate the wall of entitlement and insulation that's protected many meltdown designers and apologists. For a group that likes to lecture on personal responsibility, they seem loath to accept any.

Even as the bailout recipients accept taxpayer subsidy, they offer a modified Flip Wilson defense of their bubble behavior - the government made me do it. (Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, the Community Reinvestment Act, etc.)

Clearly Freddie and Fannie were enablers. None of these players was a factor, however, in coincidental bubble catastrophes overseas. Ferguson chooses boom-bust Iceland to make his implicit case that aggressive deregulation was the main culprit.

And he calls for prosecutions here at home, in a way that turns puritanical at times. If we can't get lawless bankers on fraud charges, he wonders, why not cocaine and prostitution? He dredges up a Manhattan madam who served Wall Street bigshots.

To prove that it can be done, he brings in former New York governor Eliot Spitzer for an interview, and Elliot does his best to look sheepish and wronged.

It's one of a few strange choices that Ferguson makes - if you want to engage people on the right, and I think he does, you'd be smart not to trot out George Soros. (Ditto Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank.)

But Ferguson mostly stays on point, bringing heavyweights like Volcker and prescient economist Nouriel Roubini to attack the economic "science" involved. There is a particularly revealing bit from an International Monetary Fund economist who tried to warn Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan (pummeled here) and Larry Summers (Bush secretary, Obama adviser) about faulty assumptions pumping the mortgage bubble, and was bullied for it.

That arrogance is waning. Greenspan has retreated from his bizarre belief that less regulation would mean less fraud, a judicious withdrawal, as the poop from the shoddy mortgage securitization described in "Inside Job" hits the fan.

The chain of bad underwriting, fraudulent appraisals, phony lender documentation and dubious title transfers is unraveling, calling hasty securitizations formed at the height of the bubble into question. And it isn't just foreclosed "deadbeats" saying so - some of the big-time investors who bought the toxic mortgage-backed securities want their money back.

What to do? Ferguson calls for a restoration of sanity and productivity to the ways capital is deployed in this country.

That starts, he says, with diminishing the political influence of a Big Bank syndicate that serves itself before job-building businesses (and is about to gorge itself again on quantitative easing, round two), and now accounts for an insanely large, unproductive portion of our economy.

"Inside Job" joins a growing chorus of voices, left right and center, arguing that Big Business (specifically finance) and Big Government are not opposing forces. They have combined to form a supercolossus of mutual self-interest.

Ferguson brings the relatively neutral perspective of a disillusioned businessman. But if you're a lefty, you can read Matt Taibbi's new book "Griftopia." If you're a righty, you can read the work of Fox contributor Charlie Gasparino, "Bought and Paid For."

Or better yet, read this week's withering report (it's free!) on the Troubled Asset Relief Program by Special Inspector General Neil Barofsky.

They reach the same conclusion. Big banks exist to finance America’s growth. When America exists to finance the growth of big banks, something is seriously wrong.


Inside Job

Directed by Charles Ferguson. With Daniel Alpert, John Campbell, William Ackman, Kristin Davis, Willem Buiter, Satyajit Das, Sigridur Benediktsdottir, Patrick Daniel, Jonathan Alpert, Matt Damon. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hours, 48 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some drug and sex-related material).

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