Inside Job (Ferguson, 2010)

From the Director of No End in Sight

Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job helped helped open the 2010 Toronto International Festival, garnering an enthusiastic response from a mostly sympathetic crowd. As one would expect from a follow up from the director of the terrific No End In Sight, the film, about the global economic crisis begun in 2008 is a more probing than kamikaze and more intelligent than the partisan screeds that pass for much political commentary these days. If I have reservations about the film–and I do–they lie on two fronts.

Much as with An Inconvenient Truth, I found the the eleventh hour transition from argument to application to be unsatisfying. To the extent that the one of the film’s theses–that the people who caused and profited from the economic cataclysm are still running the economy–is true, the nebulous populist call at the end of the film for “the people” to do…well, something, comes across as a little flat.

Given that two prominent topics in the Q&A following the film were the difficulty in (but importance of) making complex systems like credit default swaps comprehensible to the average layperson and the seeming reluctance of Barack Obama to expend political capital on even an attempt at economic reform, one might be forgiven for coming away from the film with a sense of fatalism about the intractable nature of the problems faced.

I realize, though, that I am a bit on the pessimistic side to begin with, and I don’t know if it is ultimately the documentarian’s responsibility to offers solutions to the problems he brings to our attention.

The second concern I had is that the documentary is a little more diffuse than No End in Sight. Perhaps because of attempts to be less partisan–the film criticizes both Bush administrations, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama for not enforcing laws that are present, not exercising oversight, and, especially, not holding those who manipulated the system responsible–it ends up without a real central focus for its outrage.

In the documentary’s defense–it is one of the first accounts of this theme that plums the academic connections between the financial sector and the public (non-)response to it. Ferguson began as a political science academic and it shows in his interest of and understanding of think tanks and how they, as one commentator said, serve Wall Street by shaping the discussion by framing it (and the questions we ask) in ways more likely to lead to answers they want.

This element of the discussion reminded me of Edward Russo’s wonderful little book Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Brilliant Decision Making and How to Overcome Them.  Written in 1990, Russo’s book spends a good bit of time on the concept of “framing” problems as an important contributor to the sorts of (and quality of) answers we are likely to get. It’s quite true that we have become, perhaps, a bit too dependent on expert opinion to frame discussions for us and have thus placed ourselves at a disadvantage. One of the real pleasures of Inside Job is watching those “experts” who did agree to be interviewed twist under the scrutiny of an educated and informed interviewer. In fact, a significant response in the audience Q&A was surprise at who was willing to submit to an interview. A repeated hypothesis of Ferguson and his team was that such chutzpah comes from sustained periods of never being challenged–even as to obvious, verifiable facts–once one has been granted “inside” or “expert” status. As an academic myself, I have certainly noticed that phenomenon (to varying degrees) amongst people who work in academic circles.

Still, in the final analysis, the pleasure I felt at seeing some pompous, arrogant, influential figure twist in the wind was a bit of a hollow one. But it’s not like–as Ferguson himself repeatedly says–any of them had to give the money back. So they feel foolish/ridiculous for a spin, we all feel brave for speaking the truth about power (after the fact) and, in our umbrage, we all look around and say, “Somebody ought to do something!”

Then again, the cynic says to himself, Charles Ferguson did do something. He made a film.

What have I done?

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