- Inside Job
- Production year: 2010
- Country: USA
- Cert (UK): 12A
- Runtime: 108 mins
- Directors: Charles Ferguson
- Cast: Matt Damon
The good times rolled. The banks ballooned. They offered their traders mind-blowing bonuses to encourage risk-taking chutzpah, corporate loyalty, and a neurotically driven pursuit of profit. Ferguson argues that crucially, the banks were allowed to insure against bad debts with credit default swaps – any number of these insurance policies could be purchased against one particular risk. Chillingly, the banks now had a vested interest in selling insanely risky products, as they themselves were lavishly insured with these swaps.
Perhaps the most sensational aspect of this film is Ferguson's contention that the crash corrupted the discipline of economics itself. Distinguished economists from America's Ivy League universities were drafted in by banks to compose reports sycophantically supporting reckless deregulation. They were massively paid for these consultancies. The banks bought the prestige of the academics, and their universities' prestige, too. Ferguson speaks to many of these economists, who clearly thought they were going to be interviewed as wry, dispassionate observers. It is really something to see the expression of shock, outrage and fear on their faces as they realise they're in the dock. One splutters with vexation; another gives vent to a ripe Freudian slip. Asked by Ferguson if he has any regrets about his behaviour, he says: "I have no comments … uh, no regrets."
This is what Ferguson means by "inside job". There is a revolving door between the banks and the higher reaches of government, and to some extent the groves of academe. Bank CEOs become government officials, creating laws convenient for their once and future employers.
Perhaps only the pen of Tom Wolfe could do justice to these harassed, bald, middle-aged masters of the universe, as they appear in Ferguson's film. The director shows how their body-language is always the same: somehow more guilty-looking when they are in the White House rose garden in their career pomp, being introduced to the press, than when they are facing openly hostile Senate hearings. They look uneasy, shifty, in weirdly ill-fitting suits, as if they are oppressed by the scrutiny, and worn out, possibly, by the strain of suppressing their own scruples. Their financial capacity far outstrips their capacity for enjoying themselves. They look very unhappy. Occasionally, British figures including Mervyn King and Alistair Darling are to be glimpsed in these photos, reminding us that we Brits have been ardent deregulators, as well.
One of Ferguson's interviewees is Charles Morris, author of The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown, who amusingly discusses the effects this mega-windfall has on the individual banker's mind. He became absurdly rich and "he thought it was because he was smart".
I was reminded of Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker, his very funny book about the financial mentality of the 80s boom. He noted that if a regular person won the lottery, he might roll around on the floor, kicking his legs up with glee, but when bankers won their arbitrary lottery, they instead became solemn, pompous, overwhelmed with their own importance and stateliness. Their recklessness and excess coexisted with an almost priestly sense of worth. Even more than rich lawyers, rich bankers felt that their money proved their superior cleverness and also moral worthiness as the generators of prosperity. Yet that prosperity didn't trickle down very far.
Generally, this is the sort of film that is praised because it is not as wacky and tricksy as Michael Moore. Yet it is clearly influenced by him – it's like a Moore film with the gags and stunts removed. And it's worth noting that without Moore's pioneering work, this documentary could not have been made.
Once again, the phrase that comes to mind is Milton Friedman's: socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the rest. An ordinary person defaults on his debt, he gets to live in his car. A banker defaults, and the taxpayer can be relied on to bail him out. No wonder the bonuses are back. But what can be done about all this? Ferguson has no answers, other than a faintly unedifying hint that bankers could be brought low if rumours about their systemic addiction to drugs and prostitutes could be made to stick legally – like Al Capone's tax evasion. But only a new political mood for regulation will do, and this still seems far away.