Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Inside Job:" Don't Waste your Time

I went to see “Inside Job,” the newly iconic flic about the financial meltdown. I wasn't eager to go; a friend wanted me to and I was pretty sure my friend would like it and I would not. And that was pretty much the way things worked out. From a desultory search of the internet, I find little but praise for the way in which it takes the skin off the bankerly class. I thought it was awful.

Don't get me wrong here: the premise is fine. The banking system is broken, and we all suffer from its crimes and follies. I don't see how anybody, not even a banker can keep a straight face while denying it.

But that doesn't tell us very much. Knowing we're in a mess tells us next to nothing about how to get out of it, which is to say, nothing about what we want from a banking system nor, as necessary corollary, how we got into the mess in the first place. Right, yes, I forget: we need “more regulation.” But a particle's worth of reflection ought to be enough to tell us that we don't have a clue as to exactly what that sentiment dictates nor, by corollary again, just how we might achieve it. I suppose we might put the names of all the bankers in a hat and toss them all in the air and pick up the first ten and have them shot. That might provide some short-term entertainment, and I suppose it is possible that few aside from their immediate clienti would so much as notice their absence. But it is far from clear that even so cathartic an exercise in fiscal theatre would change much about the size or shape or function of the industry. Beyond that, I'd say we know almost nothing about precisely what sort of regulatory regime can be effective in the construction of the banking system we need.

So far, am I right, or am I right, huh? If you do think I am onto something then you recognize we need a clear understanding is to just exactly went so wrong, and how it happened. And that is precisely what you'll never get from “Inside Job.” Instead, you are left with a collection of loosely related video, all strung out along a thread of moody and portentous background music whose thematic device seems to be “hey folks, isn't it awful?”

Well, yes, of course it's awful, but where does that get you? In “Inside Job,” it gets you some cheapshot disembodied interview footage with Fred Mishkin from Columbia, I can certainly see why they wanted to stick with Mishkin: he certainly comes across sounding like an idiot. Again don't misunderstand; perhaps he
is an idiot (though he seeks to defend himself here), But that's clearly a side issue; the promoters obviously stuck with him because he looked so bad, no matter what he might be saying. Same goes for the industry lobbyist who got so much face time except here there was not that he looked like an idiot; I'd say something rather more in the lizard line, though looking like a lizard is perhaps exactly what he is hired for. FWIW, these problems of cosmetics both ways. It happens I've got a more-or-less good opinion of Carl Levin as a Democratic senator (though heaven knows it's a slow race). But the point is that Levin is not at his best when he is under the hot lights harassing a witness; yet that is exactly where the sponsors like to see him.

Aside from these bits of set-up staging, about the only thing you get from the presentation is the disembodied voice of a narrator from time interjecting with “but that's wrong,” or words to that effect—with almost nothing by way of particulars to show just why any point might be wrong. In short, there is nothing, exactly nothing, useful to be learned from a watching “Inside Job,” however effectively it may massage the spleen. My first instinct was to say “the subject doesn't lend itself to a documentary,” but I'm not sure that's true. The PBS account of the defanging of Brooksley Born, for example: partisan for sure, but a careful and detailed presentation of a case such that you could sink your teeth into. In “Inside Job,” you've got nothing but gruel.

So unfortunately, for once things worked out more or less like I predicted. My friend and I didn't talk about it afterwards, from which I infer that we disagreed just as much as we had before, only now more intensely.   

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