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Inside Job – Wall Street. Ditch Street.

January 4, 2011

As “Inside Job” (2010) rolls into end credits, a woman sitting behind me sighed heavily and blurted aloud: “Well, that was better than a soap opera now, wasn’t it?”

My back stiffened in the seat and I resisted the urge to look back. In the darkness as I came in to the cinema, the same woman had lean forward and loudly whispered if I can not sit directly in front of her (there were only three empty seats in the row in front of her, I sat in the outermost edge one), but that’s not why I didn’t look back. It was because at that very moment there were two possibilities: she was joking, or she was serious.

And at that very moment, I could not handle the latter. At that very moment, I could not handle a single more inconsiderate, self-entitled person.

Because for the prior 120 minutes, I endured many, many of those people. “Inside Job” was full of them. Draped in expensive suits, heads balding, temples silvering, brows furrowed, rosy-cheeked, they looked straight-faced into the camera and told lies, gave vague answers, made laughable statements, and were ugly, unsightly, messes of human beings. While they stumbled with their words and tried their best to look not guilty, lives of millions of people crumbled around them, and so did the world that held those lives.

Goldman Sachs. Lehman Brothers. Etceteras. The senior executives of those Wall Street companies will never meet the people whose live-savings they hold within their palms, and yet from the congregation of those tiny drops of hard-earned wealth the executives will pocket millions and bet and hedge even more. Billions. Trillions. Unimaginable numbers that seem foreign to an average middle-class citizen, and yet he and she are the warm bodies who collect these numbers — dollars — and then unknowingly pass them onto the silver-haired strange men who reside on a street with the name of a piece of integral, fundamental architecture, except those men no longer have any integrity left, nor do they care about the foundation of the country they live in. Instead of supporting the people who provide them of their livings, they gamble dangerously with the people’s. Instead of taking care of those who take care of them, the Wall Streeters slowly, knowingly, set them up for destruction.

Wall Street? More like Ditch Street. Dig at the foundation of a country: it’s economy and people, as deeply as you can, as frequently and recklessly as you can, build your own mansions on the fringe and then when the pit finally collapses claim: oops, I didn’t mean to! I didn’t know this was going to happen! And then go sleep soundly in your mansions while those in the pit stare up into the pitch dark sky.

Wall Street. What a joke.

Charles Ferguson‘s documentary takes the whispers and strands we have heard throughout the recent economic collapse and confidently spin them into a clear, sensible narrative, taking us from the inception of greed to its eventual collapse and continuity. This is strong, beautiful work, the telling of a fascinating story that distills very complicated topics into comprehensible issues, understood in lay-men terms. This is important — because the people who need to see this film, the people who may actually do something to change the course of their futures — need to understand how it works, and specifically how it works for them.

Because as you will see, the “experts” already knew how things worked, they just didn’t have the conscience to make the right choices.

And why didn’t they? Throughout the film, I watched the top echelon of our society — mostly individuals blessed with quality education, relative intelligence, and the infinite potential to do good — turn away from the-right-thing-to-do time and time again. Instead  they buy houses with too much space and planes with no directions and splash monthly salaries on nightly prostitutes and cocaine. Why?

I guess the obvious answer is greed, but that can’t be it all. Someone explains in the film that a recent study pinpoints the parts of human brain that are stimulated by the pursuit of making money as the same areas stimulated by cocaine use. Does this mean that these money-hungry Wall Street executives get a free pass because their behaviours may be biochemically reinforced? That, gosh, they are just addicted to living large?

And to that I say a resounding NO. To that I call bullshit. Love can be traced back to a biochemical reaction too, but no one high on love is putting ten million migrant workers out of work in China, or forcing a father of three to work over-overtime to support a shitty mortgage, or emptying the pension benefits of retirement homes of an entire state. This is too important. This. Is. Too. Important.

In the end it comes back to the people: the people who were robbed of what they thought were safe; the people who put their trust in a system that they thought was sound, but wasn’t. In the end, it is these people who need to use their electoral votes to put people who will make the right choices, into the right places, so that when the right time comes, they can make those right choices and make things right once again. Those are a lot of Rights that need to line up for change to happen, I know, but don’t the people deserve them? Don’t they deserve change and reform of a corrupt system that is public knowledge?

Someone once promised that those changes would come, and I, along with a lot of people, believed him. Now it seems like those promises are still pending, and the status quo is still intact. So, now, I wonder: When? Who? How? I bet a lot of other people are wondering the same thing too, those who lie awake at night beside their loved ones, staring into the dark sky and wondering if, and when, morning light will come.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2011 7:12 PM

    One of the most fascinating and disturbing pieces of television in recent memory is Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman Bros., sitting down before Congress and testifying why, after leading millions of people into foreclosure and poverty, sending his company into bankruptcy, and triggering a global economic recession, he deserved a $484 million bonus.

    Does it occur to the Republicans or the Democrats that if a law is proposedthat might possibly create a world where incidents like that never have to happen, they should actually vote for it not because it is in step with their party but because it is the right thing to do? Are the members of Congress not called representatives, and are they not supposed to represent the people who elected them?

  2. gschmidtcleach permalink
    January 4, 2011 7:23 PM

    The most striking and potent part of Inside Job, to me, was the one where they interviewed academic economists. Not because I didn’t expect them to be any better or less responsible for the whole mess than the others ( after all, I spent a year at the University of Chicago, where Milton Friedman did most of his work, and where they considered naming a building after him well into the current crisis), but because of how utterly clueless they seemed throughout. As if they didn’t see anything wrong with what they’d been doing for decades. Conflict of interest? What is this thing you speak of? Watching them squirm was at once laughable and utterly depressing. Those people should never have been allowed to teach.

    Speaking of which, there was an article last week in the New York Times about discussions of a possible “ethics code” for academic economists (found it: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/31/business/economy/31economists.html?_r=2), which have been prompted, at least in part, by the movie. Some of the reactions quoted in the article elicited the same amused/depressed response from me…

  3. January 4, 2011 7:28 PM

    Haven’t seen this one, but ‘Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room’ covered some of the same ground, and that was even before the crash. Enron succeeded, then failed, because of a bunch of punk energy traders, fed on bonuses and so detached from anything outside their numbers game that they willingly caused energy crises to improve the company’s bottom line. Their environment was hyper-competitive and fixated on the immediate–there was simply no time for consequences to be considered, even if these people would have cared. The company’s corporate culture encouraged, and arguably required, a sociopathic mindset.

    Another point, which I’ve heard in that film and several other, similar docs, is that these people don’t really understand what they’re selling. It’s too byzantine even for them, but so long as no one is bankrupted, everyone presumes things are working. And they’re not encouraged to investigate or tinker, because they make their money selling *something*, not the *best thing*, and moreover, the *best thing*, by their definition, cannot be the thing that takes the longest to show profit.

    Not that I have an answer to any of this… though a good, necessary start is to ensure that CEOs’ salaries, however large, are linked to the fortunes of the companies they run. Really, that’s just smart business.

  4. Randy Masters permalink
    January 4, 2011 7:47 PM

    Why did you believe him? Is someone who has full use of Air Force One to travel the world, a round the clock staff, and an unlimited budget immune from the pull of “living large”? Our politicians are just as addicted, just as out of touch, and cause as much damage.

    I can’t wait to see the movie, and will have to find a way to see it.

    I’m a Republican, but I have no love for Wall St., none for the Dems who ran Congress during this time, and not much more for the GOP.

    I’m a working stiff myself. I walk into a factory every day – of which we have fewer and fewer – and with my coworkers put a product out the door. The Wall St. bankers deserved to have gone bankrupt during the crisis. Bailing them out was the wrong thing to do. Who bailed out the thousand or so that got walked out of my building?

    What I’ll be watching for in the movie, though, is full accountability. Are the actions of Congress that contributed to the crisis covered? Accurately? I’m skeptical, but waiting to see the film. I’m sure that I’ll be mad coming out of “Inside Job” too. Maybe for different or additional reasons. But, it’s hard not to get mad over the situation.

    Appreciated your anger, and your writing.

    • January 4, 2011 10:19 PM

      Randy, I followed the U.S. bail-out drama from cushy Toronto, so please correct me if I’m wrong here: weren’t all high-level politicians, in both parties, in favour of TARP?

      The bail-out strikes me as an extra-ideological issue. No politician who has achieved the level of power that Bush or Obama has, or aspires to, would dare put hundreds of thousands of lost jobs on his or her resume. even if letting those companies collapse was the right thing to do, purely as a matter of economics. Would the politicians who made that happen be around after the next election? Mind you, that sort of thinking doesn’t seem much different from the type that caused the financial crisis in the first place, or the various environmental disasters we deal with the rest of the time.

      • Randy Masters permalink
        January 4, 2011 11:48 PM

        Hi Chris. Regarding the TARP bailout of Wall St., all of the politicians panicked, and did probably the wrong thing. I’m not convinced that there were not other mechanisms.

        Start with Bush. When your Treasury Secretary – who is from Wall St. – walks in to your office and says essentially that he’s screwed up his department so badly that he needs a check for a Trillion dollars to bail out his Wall St. buddies and that if you don’t give it to him the entire American – and perhaps world – economy may collapse, you don’t give it to him. You fire him on the spot. You find an immediate replacement that has a better plan than relieving the scoundrels of their bad risk and creating an endless unaccountable slush fund in the bargain. Leadership was required, and Bush failed that test.

        If McCain, who suspended his campaign and raced to Washington, had opposed the bailout of the Wall St. scoundrels and championed a better plan, he would have won the election. Again, leadership failed. He sputtered and waved his arms and did nothing and his candidacy was dead.

        The government has, again, created a moral hazard where the bad actors were not allowed to fail, and average people were. We’re not done with the long term consequences of that foolishness. You think the bad actors on Wall St. learned a lesson from this? You think the Congressmen who disabled risk in the housing market in the first place learned anything from this, and are capable of overseeing Wall St.? Count me skeptical.

        Again, I haven’t seen the movie yet. Wanting to.

      • January 5, 2011 6:59 PM

        I’m not sure anything could have won the election for McCain, short of Obama french-kissing Jeremiah Wright at a Muslim prayer service in Kenya, but I see your point. Opposing the bailout might have restored him to the maverick he used to be, instead of the desperate shell he became, and has remained, ever since.

        What Grace (and really, everyone else) seems to be calling for is one person or group to step up and lead a reform movement–which is great, but truly opposing the status quo means not only railing against bad CEOs, but also the means by which they achieved their wealth and power. If people are honest with themselves, many will admit they, too, would employ those means if they could.

        It’s easy to be a hypocritical politician, but it’s still surpirsingly hard to be a hypocritical voter. Ignorant, yes; hypocritical, no.

  5. January 4, 2011 11:13 PM

    Go get ’em, Gracie! Good writin’. XOXOXOX

  6. Ravi permalink
    January 5, 2011 9:49 AM

    Correction: the prostitutes and lamborghinis were purchased with corporate money, not from monthly salaries: http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi3928922393. Furthermore, the very top levels of all the Wall Street firms knew about these practices according to the film.

    • Grace permalink*
      January 5, 2011 10:22 AM

      I didn’t mean literally monthly salaries of the Executives. I meant, in contrast, the amount spent per night on those activities are comparable to monthly salaries of ordinary folks.

  7. Randy Masters permalink
    January 5, 2011 8:49 PM

    “Obama french kissing Jeremiah….”

    Gee. Thanks for that vivid word picture. :)

  8. January 10, 2011 6:07 PM

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who does indeed knows what they’re talking about on the internet. You as a matter of fact know how to bring an issue to light and make it compelling. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

  9. January 10, 2011 11:41 PM

    I saw Inside Job and Fair Game the same week, so imagine how pissed off I was by week’s end.

    An infuriating movie, but only because nothing is still being done.

    As for letting Wall Street fail, Randy, when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, they pulled down a lot of other companies with them, which is what led Europe into the recession. That’s the problem. Most large American companies are global companies, so their financial health affects not only the U.S.’s financial health, but the health of the entire world.

    It’s in the film, so if you’ve seen it since you commented here, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this. I, for one, would have been fine if the companies that were in financial trouble had made their CEOs give back their salaries, sold off all their private jets, and thrown these same CEOs in prison. No one responsible for this debacle has gone to jail, and none of the architects of this collapse on the political end have been held accountable, either.

  10. January 12, 2011 11:44 AM

    I haven’t seen the movie but I know the story pretty well.

    I think it comes down to the politician’s ability to stop it. No one is willing to step up and do “the right thing”. They fear losing campaign donations and party support. The pundit media would most likely destroy anyone who did come up with a solid plan to stop the reliance on Wall St (if one exists) or to hold people accountable for their actions.

    And you’re right, promises were made. Like you, I believed them too. Right now, I don’t. I fear the same thing will happen again, only worse.

  11. January 12, 2011 1:01 PM

    Very well written despite the complexity of the subject, you should write more often. Your blogging manner is pleasing and the way you managed the subject with grace is memorable.

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