Friday, March 25, 2011

Inside Job (movie review)

I went into this movie already biased in advance to sound critical if it didn't focus enough on what I thought was the problem: any number of obese and/or sleek Americans crowded into hotel ballrooms listening to the self appointed real estate mavens yak up the lifestyle of buying and flipping for no money down.

All kinds of cable TV about it, just buy the tapes. It was a craze, sweeping the culture. I was there, and remember.

Yes, a Ponzi scheme of vast proportions, but one in which Mr. and Mrs. SUV-owning American were happily complicit, while goofball presidents went on their golfing and bombing sprees, a little bowling, always the LAWCAP dupe and/or puppet (sorry, insider jargon). So New York figured out a way to feed the greed. What else do you do with your uncontrolled brats? Reason with them? Good luck with that.

The film devotes all of about 8 seconds total to a quick shot of such a hotel ballroom (or was that a megachurch?). The people jump up and down like maniacs, enthused by their prospects in real estate. Yes, it was crazy time. But it was also "grass roots", like the dot com boom.

Then it interviews a tearful bottom-of-the-Ponzi evictee on the wrong end of a predatory loan.

Nowhere in the middle are the armies of mortgage brokers caught up in the frenzy of get rich quick, with these mythical lifestyles on Wall Street trucked out like so much celebrity pizzazz, with large-to-middle-sized gym-going Americans not-so-secretly resentful and jealous, trying to clamber and claw their way to the top of the heap.

Is this anything more than Hollywood getting back at a rival here? Is that why the Academy Award?

OK, now that I've gotten that out of my system, I found this an educational video, like one from Khan Academy about liquidation and refinancing of moribund zombie corporations. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Like Waiting for Superman, it paints this idyllic never-never-land of some recent past of financial security, just after nuclear and other holocausts and just before the lights went on around the world and other people decided to make cars as well.

Was that back when most people couldn't get loans of any kind, or go to college? Did women yet have the right to vote?

Yes, there was a period of sustained growth in North America, after much of Europe, as well as Japan, had been bombed and burned to smithereens. Is that all because people were more honest back then, or just more hard working?

That old canard about "shipping jobs overseas" is a little bit shop worn by now. Workers of the world unite already. This campus is yours. Don't forget to study hard and know thy enemy and/or thyself (if there's a difference).

But instead of more responsible analysis, it's a blame game again, with this broad brush Puritanical streak, this zealous going after of the medical records and addictions of these bully boyz 'n girlz on Vice Street, pursuing happiness in ways other mags market as "glamorous".

Hey, here's an idea, lets all fight a moral crusade against hormones. Doesn't work.

When the camera zooms in on the high heals of some supposed hooker wearing Prada or whatever it is, I fail to choke up with righteous outrage, like some swaggering Jimmy Swaggart on steroids. The sex industry may be ruthless and cruel, but neither was it born yesterday.

I'm against Prohibition, remember, think a lot of organized crime is nothing more than "good people" being hypocritical and moralistically unrealistic about human nature. The high incarceration rate is an index of cultural immaturity (imagine China without the martial arts).

Some maybe think it's "not Quakerly" to make room for Portlandia's TV-MA "party on" attitude. On the contrary, I'd call it "plain speech" (though it's also Asian in flavor).

To take another example, the narrator's voice goes a pitch higher in outrage because Credit Suisse doesn't grovel and obey some Uncle Sam edict that Iran's money must not to be laundered, and that its real and true energy needs must not be met by a domestic uranium enrichment program.

OK, tough call, as certainly the Americans betrayed our trust on that score (sorry Einstein), but it's at least an item of controversy. Why should we buy the narrator's "mind already made up" point of view? What does this know-it-all know about Iran that we don't?

And that's what a lot of the interviewees are quietly asking, in their evasive answers: what did you expect? What planet are you on? France? Tell me about it.

OK, I'm raving again. Hey, I admit it, I got angry. This very rude old lady behind me thought nothing of yakking on her cell phone when the feature had already begun. The story line was complicated and I wanted to concentrate, didn't see why I had to put up with her rudeness -- but I kept my mouth shut.

More than that, I agreed with the movie's analysis that Economics, as a discipline, lacks professional ethics, but so what? People have been saying that for years and hey, it's not the only discipline that goes un-policed (unregulated), given ethics has gone out the window in an anemic philosophy department. I'm the GST guy remember, offering a competing invisible hand.

And yet, despite the bankruptcy of the curriculum, people keep lining up around the block to give their life savings to colleges and universities, so junior might become a fancy pants on Wall Street or whatever the hell, with the Smedley Butler's of this world (a decorated Marine) expected to give their lives for free markets. Go figure. Hypocrisy strikes again.

The way everything got framed within the parable of Iceland was actually pretty brilliant, as was the analysis of conflicts of interest among academics. These sell-your-soul professors trade on their academic reputations by writing puff pieces for money. Their wallets get fat as their thinking becomes thin. Yet the filmmaker inconsistently berates these people for resigning when they're needed by their country. Make up your mind: did you want them running things (at least keeping up appearances), or not running things?

The parallel with corruption in the sciences gets made (by the interviewer) but seemingly without the same realization: that professional ethics aren't especially better there either. Scientists need funding and puff science is more the rule than the exception, where twisting arms in Congress is concerned. Junk science, like junk bonds, is big business.

The thing about ancient Rome was the hoi polloi wanted bread and circuses, had a somewhat insatiable appetite for same. You could have an emperor like Marcus Aurelius (played by Obama, say), introspective and contemplative, and yet it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference in the hinterlands, where the imperial legions were manifesting their "manifest destiny" (to rule the world), and still do to this day as Americans Gone Wild (in a theater near you).

How do you tell them the war is over? Maybe that's where this Youtube comes in?