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Heads we win – tails you pay: Bankers’ motto

Inside Job – Charles Ferguson (Oscar 2011)

Angry at Bankers? See this devastating, meticulously researched Oscar winner for best documentary feature 2011 and find out why you, we, are not angry enough. By a long chalk. ‘Heads we win – tails, you pay’ – the Bankers’ motto.

Inside Job is no Michael Moore polemic. Like the earlier brilliant indictment of the ethically bankrupt world of capitalist excess The Corporation (2003 – Mark Achbar/Jennifer Abbott), Inside Job lets the toxic mixture of predatory greed and arrogance manifest itself through the words of the protagonists themselves. It is also free of the credibility-sapping paranoia of Chris Smith’s cultish film Collapse about Michael Ruppert – another crisis whistle-blower.

The sheer accumulation of proven, evidenced facts here beggars belief. IJ establishes beyond a shred of credible doubt, the clear responsibility not just of individuals but of the endemic corruption of the system they use, abuse and manipulate to line their own pockets at the expense of the decent innocent majority in society. Disturbingly IJ shows the corrosive, incestuous links between key elements of American power: political, academic, regulatory and legal. The moral and social cancer that brought the economies of not just companies but countries to their knees is shown at least in the American context as systemic, widespread and more disturbingly, self-perpetuating. While the pathology of corruption Ferguson reveals is authoritative and convincing, our hopes that perhaps this exposure might prove cathartic and salutary are dashed when he points out that no one has been or is likely to be charged and almost all the key figures are still in positions of power and influence, many of them at the very heart of the Obama Administration as they were with Bush and Clinton before him. And tens of millions of people around the world lose jobs, homes, and hope.

I must assume a mixture of vanity and moral obtuseness led to the participation of many of the people in this film. Perhaps they share that patronising chutzpah of our own politicians – the incredulous astonishment that anyone could possibly doubt their God-given integrity, probity and saint-like incorruptibility of purpose. Again and again Ferguson leads them fact by disreputable fact to a point where they are reduced through evasiveness and supercilious indignation to embarrassed silence. The underlying power of Ferguson’s film rests not on what he says but what he shows. These men who used all their power and influence to kill regulation or keep it impotently vague and ill-enforced, seem shocked to find themselves subjected to questioning that is carefully prepared and rigorously validated by interviewers with a clear sense of moral and professional purpose. It comes as a kind of delicious surprise to discover how intellectually gifted men, and it is mostly, though not exclusively men, can be so stupid. But rich. News and film clippings of Congressional hearings, which in a sense make the necessary point even more powerfully, compensate for the fact that many of the worst offenders refused to appear.

Importantly, Ferguson silences the specious mantra of complexity: one of the many defensive rocks under which the Bankers hide their venality. With well-chosen graphics and carefully paced narrative, a superb Matt Damon by the way, IJ breaks down the various steps and financial instruments through which the key leaders of the Banking system constructed this elaborate scam. We may not learn enough to become hedge fund managers or derivative traders overnight – but we can see how the smoke and mirrors were set up and used. We understand for example why US sub-prime mortgage lenders Fannie May and Freddie Mac not only didn’t care that they were lending to people who had little chance of repaying their debt but even preferred them because they could be induced to pay higher, so more ‘profitable’, interest rates.

If that seems odd just imagine: you are paying poker and someone loses a hand to you and writes an IOU for £100. You say you need to go and therefore sell the IOU on to another player in the game. Then you go off and join another game. But it gets better: you decide to buy up a few IOU’s for say 80% of their value and then use them at full value in a game where the mugs playing are willing to bet good money against an IOU from someone they’ve never met. All you have to do is tempt the players in the new game with the idea that as you have some cash and say £500-worth of IOUs they have a chance to win big against you. You just keep going, siphoning off all the real chips/money as you go and playing bigger and bigger with the endless supply of IOUs. You naturally notice first that everyone is playing for IOUs – no chips in sight. So you go to some wealthy friends who like to play poker, tell them they can win big in these games and that the IOUs are safe and secure and tell them you can get them into a game for a fee. That’s called customer care in Goldman Sachs.

OK so some of the cleverest minds in Wall Street known technically as devious bastards, put in a few more moves and mixed a little real money with the crap IOUs and sold them on – but in the end it ain’t rocket science guys. You just have to be clever, without scruple, without honour and have access to vast sums of other people’s money you can play with while they’re not using it. At heart it is a simple scam: it is fuelled by greed and deceit. And there is no world shortage of either. Then or now.

This superb film asks all the right questions and misses none of the targets. The collusion of much of the Academic establishment, American and elsewhere, is well illustrated by the squirming academic economist paid $130,000 to write a report validating the security of Iceland’s banking system which was carrying debts 100 times their total Gross Domestic Product: and his colleague at the London Business School who rode the same gravy train. As Goebbels said: if you’re gonna lie – lie big. I paraphrase.

You’ll spot easily enough the occasional tendentious edits, justified by the slippery sophistry of the subjects. Matt Damon as I said, is superb: cool, dispassionate, authoritative. He is also to be congratulated for the commitment his participation represents. Although this film is in no way anti-Obama it does point out his ineffectiveness so far in tackling the biggest issue of his campaign. Worse, he has re-appointed some of the old self-serving gang of ‘advisors’.

If you get the chance – don’t miss this film. It may be one of the most important films of the year. Widely enough distributed it might even generate enough anger to tell ‘Call me Dave’ that we don’t want the shallow PR of the nebulous ‘Big Society’ but a serious re-formulation of the ‘Social Contract’ between government and people. A contract that we make clear will not include provision for people who can without shame claim that one person in any organisation is worth 1000 times more than a junior staff member. One in which people who appear to need an extra few £million every year to be motivated to get out of bed, will be told to bugger off an evade tax somewhere else.

See it and boil.

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