Driving through Beverly Hills the Saturday before last, I was transfixed by the spectacle. It was raining that night. Droplets of water on my car windows looked like a thousand shimmering diamonds scattered over the blur of designer fashion and dramatic glass storefronts whisking past. As a lifetime member of the American middle class I wondered who might be shopping at those stores and buying the myriad of bejeweled designer gowns displayed in the windows along Wilshire Boulevard.
“Look! Rolex.” I directed my husband’s gaze across the street to a modern building without windows. As an engineer he’s a fan of the precision watches, though not an owner. We pulled up shortly along the curb and stopped. As I gathered my things to head out, I noticed a heavily clothed man unfolding a blanket in the shadows of the building next to us. He laid it on the ground and then arranged himself clumsily upon it. In the midst of the spectacular wealth surrounding us, this man was lying down on cold wet concrete to sleep. Something about the stark contrast of his bleak bedding against such an opulent backdrop stopped me in my tracks. I wrapped an unopened applesauce squeeze pack my son had left in the car earlier that day in a couple of dollar bills, and placed them next to the sleeping figure as we passed. Then we were at our destination – the last movie theater in town screening the latest documentary from director Charles Ferguson, Inside Job.
I’d been wanting to see the film for ages. First, because since opting to stay at home as a full time mommy six years ago I rarely get out to see any movies, and secondly because the film offers a comprehensive breakdown of the whole financial crisis we find ourselves in the midst of and an analysis of why it happened. Luckily the film’s recent Academy Award nomination kept it in theaters longer than the usual run, so I was actually able to get it together to see the picture before it was gone. With a professional background in film and as an economics writer, for me it promised the best of both worlds… and it did not disappoint. The film tells the story of how Wall Street greed led to the financial crisis that’s left millions of people without their jobs, homes and life savings.
Much of the information in Inside Job is not new, but seeing it all put together in one presentation creates a profound impact. The astronomical extent of the corruption and damage to the global economy is driven home very effectively, though even when the film was over I was left with the sense we’d only skimmed the surface looking at how huge and systemic the problem really is. The audience was surprisingly staid. I had the hardest time staying in my seat, my level of outrage was so enormous at times. I wanted to jump up and shout at the screen! Here is a trailer for the movie.
I won’t present a full film review here, as you can find several online and I’ve provided links to a couple of good ones at the bottom of this page. Also, since Inside Job won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary last night, I’m sure you will hear more about it in the press now. I do want to comment on a couple of points I thought were especially interesting, however. I find them interesting because I have not seen so much attention paid to them in the press, yet from my perspective they are important to consider when studying the financial meltdown and thinking about where we go from here. The first is how intensely our current administration remains tied to Wall Street and the banking industry, the second is that academia has been corrupted by greed, and the third is the role addiction played in creating the mess we’re in.
As to the first point, I believe the depth and strength of our government’s ties to big business is overlooked to some degree because the Democratic party is not associated with corporate interests as much as it is with championing social programs for people in need and representing the underclasses. We just don’t expect a community organizer like Obama to be in bed with the super rich and focused on servicing their interests. But this is a mistaken assumption, which becomes evident the moment we stop to examine who he has appointed as the keepers of the country’s economy. In fact, the current administration has been more heavily staffed with Wall Street players and bankers than any in history. Some of these people were directly involved in creating the mess we are currently in. Now they are in charge of cleaning up that mess and preventing more trouble. It seems we have the fox in charge of the chicken coupe here. Is it any wonder we the people are going broke as banks are bailed out, corporations are showing excess reserves and Wall Street is giving out the biggest bonuses in history?
According to evidence presented in Inside Job, academia is another area that is not what it initially seems. Academia is often looked at as standing outside commercial interests. Teachers are public servants. Research is scientific and empirical. We have trust in the purity of the academic perspective to such an extent that it is used in court to provide definitive and non-partial expert witness. Because teachers are not involved in producing profits and catering to shareholders, we believe they are not subject to the pressures and temptations of big business. They’re obviously not in it for the money, right? Only, when we look deeper this seems not to be the case. Inside Job shows how academia has been corrupted in the grip of Wall Street’s influence with teachers from the most prestigious institutions being paid hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in Wall Street money to provide faulty witness, publish biased reports, and otherwise further the designs of the ruling economic class.
The third point I want to mention is tied to some research the director referred to concerning addiction. I find the psychological aspect of economics most interesting, and for some time I have been thinking about the parallels amongst those who chase wealth on the level we have seen in the ruling Wall Street class and the behavior of addicts. The criminal behavior, ruthlessness, denial and almost sociopathic lack of concern for others displayed in their pursuit of wealth mirrors the drug seeking and other behaviors we see in addicts. Well, according to the information in Inside Job, it turns out there is indeed a rampant use of cocaine and prostitutes within the Wall Street crowd as well as a deeply motivating sense that nothing is enough. The appetite for accumulation is insatiable for these people. “Do you really need six jets?” the film’s director asks one representative from Lehman Brothers. The denial and sense of entitlement is so powerful amongst these money seekers, it looks just like addiction. In fact, the film shows medical scans reveal that the high produced from attaining money activates all the same areas in the brain that the high from cocaine does.
My question is if extreme and ruthless material accumulation is an addiction or a mental illness for some people, could it be treated as such? What about rehab, therapy or a twelve step program for these folks? Let go and let God? I kid (mostly), but the disturbing fact is many of those involved in creating the hugest housing bubble in history are guilty of criminal activity that has affected millions of people’s lives. We have seen a few convictions of corporate misconduct and a few slap-on-the-hand fines doled out, but there have been no criminal prosecutions or even a satisfactory investigation regarding individual responsibility in this fiasco. As the director of Inside Job points out at the end of the film, many of these same people are still in full business and some are in charge of running the country.
The man sleeping in the building foyer had his back to us as my husband and I made our way to our car after the movie. I noticed he’d moved to another spot to get away from the encroaching rain. I wondered if he’d eaten the applesauce I’d left and what he might spend those dollars on. Booze, maybe. I thought about how so many people living on the street struggle with addiction and mental illness. It’s interesting how one man’s drug of choice lands him in a concrete bed in the rain – or maybe even in a concrete cell in a correctional facility – yet another man’s addiction lands him with five mansions, three yachts, a personal helicopter and a life outside the reach of justice. Granted, we did see Bernie Madoff go to jail, but you have to keep in mind he was ripping off his rich peers! He chose the wrong group to pick on, I guess… or maybe it was the right group. Maybe he’s hit bottom and he’ll be able to get some clarity about things now. Prison saved Robert Downey Junior’s life, by some accounts, as it has for many addicts. For Bernie Madoff it could turn out to be just what the doctor ordered. Now, who’s next?
Guardian, The Observer
Inside Job – Review
February 11, 2011
It’s Mostly Wonks
January 6, 2011
The New York Times – Inside Job Review
Who Maimed The Economy, And How?
A. O. Scott
October 7, 2010
Democrats Haunted By Corporate Ties
Jonathan Allen and Eamon Javers
April 21, 2010
National Coalition for the Homeless
Who Is Homeless?