The Best Movie You Haven’t Heard Of: Inside Job

Here are the ratings (% who liked) from Flixster for some of the movies playing this weekend:

90%            The Social Network

88%            Inside Job

81%            Unstoppable           

78%            MegaMind

78%            Jackass 3-D

77%            Red           

75%            Skyline

65%            Due Date

65%            Morning Glory

64%            The Next Three Days           

54%            Saw 3D

You know The Social Network. But how about the #2 movie, Inside Job? Ever hear of it?

96% of the critics liked it. Rotten Tomatoes rated it 96%.  It’s narrated by Matt Damon. Feeling out of the loop yet? Why haven’t you heard of this movie?

More on obscurity later, but here’s the official synopsis:

‘Inside Job’ is the first film to provide a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis of 2008, which at a cost over $20 trillion, caused… ‘Inside Job’ is the first film to provide a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis of 2008, which at a cost over $20 trillion, caused millions of people to lose their jobs and homes in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and nearly resulted in a global financial collapse.

Through exhaustive research and extensive interviews with key financial insiders, politicians, journalists, and academics, the film traces the rise of a rogue industry which has corrupted politics, regulation, and academia. It was made on location in the United States, Iceland, England, France, Singapore, and China.

There has been no shortage of books and articles about the meltdown. But most of those have had a reporter’s flavor to them—here’s what happened, then here’s what happened next.  I felt that no one had really pulled it together with a narrative theme and the data to back it up. Until this weekend, that is.  

The theme is now clear. Bad things happened. They were not an accident. They were the results of bad people behaving badly. They knew what they were doing. They did them anyway. And to this day, they refuse to acknowledge responsibility.  The issues of trust that became so manifest were not just about systems and markets; they were inescapably about people as well.  It’s one thing not to trust a system; it’s yet another to not trust those who inhabit it.

Think of this movie as what Michael Moore would produce if he had a PhD in economics and a career as a Federal Prosecutor. It’s the project of Charles Ferguson, who in fact does have a PhD in political science from MIT (he has also consulted to the White House and the Department of Defense, was a Senior Fellow at Brookings, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations).

You may know Ferguson as the director of No End in Sight, a powerful documentary about the Iraq war. He’s confident enough to interrupt an economist and say, ‘You can’t be serious about that. If you would have looked, you would have found things.’ Or to tell a former Bush administration under-secretary of the Treasury, “Forgive me, but that’s clearly not true.”

Here is a review by A.O. Scott, in the New York Times. calls it “a masterpiece of investigative nonfiction moviemaking — a scathing, outrageous, depressing, comical, horrifying report on what and who brought on the crisis.

Here’s Kenneth Turan’s review in the LA Times.

Go see for yourself; see the trailer here.  

The Role of Ideology in the Meltdown

There’s much to say about this documentary; I’ll limit my thoughts to just one—the role of ideas in the meltdown. 

In this day and age of neuro-explanations and insistence that only measurable behavior is relevant for management, the role of ideas gets pooh-poohed. Big mistake. 

I’ve written before about the power of strategic doctrine taught in business schools to negatively influence our general business thinking. But after seeing this documentary, I’m newly persuaded. Ideas have huge power: especially when those ideas happen to greatly serve the economic interests of patrons.  

In the pharmaceutical industry, it’s become well accepted that a researcher or writer who takes money from a drug company is at the very least subject to rules of disclosure. Failure to do so constitutes an immediate presumption of conflict of interest.

Yet somehow, we have never held our nation’s leading economists and business school faculty to the same standards. One of the most eye-opening aspects of Inside Job for me was to put this issue front and center. 

Some of Fergusons’ hardest-hitting interviews are with the elite heads of academic institutions: Frederic Mishkin, a former Fed governor, now at Columbia Business School; his boss Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush; John Campbell, Harvard’s economics department chairman; and fellow Harvard economist Martin Feldstein

They come off, respectively, as incompetent, blustering, inarticulate, and smug. None of them seem to have noticed a disconnect between their laissez-faire ideas and the disasters engineered by those who quoted them; much less any sense of impropriety at the comfortable financial relationships they shared with those very firms. 

Somewhere there is a researcher at Harvard Medical School screaming at the injustice of his not being published in NEJM because of some disclosure requirements, while his academic counterparts in business and economics were happily and openly opining on the health of the Icelandic banking system and the liquidity of the US subprime mortgage market, all the while getting very well paid. (Note: b-school profs provide functional consulting services to companies all the time; I don’t see that as an issue. This is vastly different; more another time). 

Results of the Meltdown

Ferguson touches clearly, albeit briefly, on one enduring outcome of this decades-long debacle–the increased gap in the US between the haves and the have-nots. 

In 1976, the richest 1% of Americans had 9% of the income. Now they have 24%. From 1980 to 2005, 80% of the gain in income went to the top 1%Guess what industry disproportionately accounts for that gain?

But the most significant casualty, I think, is a great old American belief: the belief that you can make it here in the good old USA, land of opportunity, where anyone can be what they want. You don’t have to be limited by the circumstances of your birth, like in all those Old World countries.

Sorry: no longer true. By one study, it is harder for someone to get ahead now in the US than it is in Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Spain, and even France. Only Italy and the UK are more class-bound, and I’ve seen other studies where even the Brits are less class-bound than we are. That decline in opportunity is another result of greater income disparity. Again, one of the legacies of the financial industry. One trust expert states very clearly that a key driver of low trust is high income inequality.  And here’s a good explanation of just why that is true.

You may disagree with a lot of what I’ve said here. You may think this movie won’t change your mind; and since it’s extremely hard to change people’s minds, you may be right. But if so, may I suggest you owe it to yourself to see it—if only to write back and point out the flaws in the movie.

Mini-Madoff Scandal Scales New Linguistic Heights

R. Allen Stanford, head of Stanford International Bank, has been charged with fraud by the SEC.

Another day, another Ponzi scheme. Stanford’s take: $8 Billion. Not chump change, of course, but neither does it put him in Madoff’s league (up to $40 billion).

I think I shall call him mini-Madoff.

But the Stanford scandal has set a linguistic record—a record for creative disingenuousness. According to Securities Docket:

…one of Stanford’s own lawyers has emerged as a key figure in the matter. Bloomberg reports that last week, Thomas Sjoblom, a partner at law firm Proskauer Rose doing work for Stanford’s company’s Antigua affiliate, told authorities that he “disaffirmed” everything he had told them to date. According to his bio on his law firm’s website, Sjoblom spent nearly 20 years at the SEC, and served as an Assistant Chief Litigation Counsel in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement from 1987 to 1999.

“Disaffirmed” (italics mine). Doncha love it?

I hereby nominate “disaffirmed” as the new leader in the “Mistakes Were Made” category at the forthcoming Creative Language awards ceremony.

This is no trivial honor. It outpaces such classics as “the dog ate my homework,” “I have no recollection,” and “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

In my humble opinion, the only one that comes close was “modified, limited hangout” from the Watergate days.

It is a distant descendant of the old IBM (or was it GE?) culture that used “concur” and “dis-concur” as part of its decision-making process. But that was for standard business processes; this is for excusing $8 billion of malfeasance—clearly vaulting the term into another category altogether.

Sjoblom, a 20-year SEC employee, originally affirmed certain facts to his old employer. Enquiring minds want to know–where did he learn “disaffirm?” Was it at the feet of Stanford? Did he bring it with him from the SEC?  Was he–oh, this is juicy–speaking Ponzi-talk?  Or was he talking bureaucrat-speak?

And what’s to make of the syntax? Does it truly confound logic, as in "have you stopped beating your wife?" Or is it just a fancy "I lied?"

Never mind–let’s be practical. Where else can we put this word to use? After all, if you can undo a legal affirmation by using it—why, the sky’s the limit!

  • That affair I had back when I was married? I’d like to disaffair it, please.
  • Remember when I said I’d pick up the tab? Distab that, if you don’t mind.
  • The vows we made at our marriage? Disavow them, please (oops, that one’s a real word). Yes, I know I said "I do," I’m just saying "I dis-do."

You get the idea.

Language evolves marvelously to fit the circumstances requiring description. So it is here.  Double-talk is as double-talk does.

Mini-Madoff financially, perhaps. But in a league of its own in AOL—Abuse Of Language.

How Not to Regulate Untrustworthy Industries

I haven’t done an analysis on this, but it feels like the financial sector has had more than its share of responsibility for scandal in the most recent economic “troubles.” Which makes it even more tempting to regulate by compartmentalizing and dictating specific behaviors.

In the broadest terms, that would be a mistake.

Say you have a 17-year old son who wants to take the family car out at night. You’re worried about alcohol abuse and aggressive driving—things occasionally associated with teenagers.

Do you say:

a. Absolutely not, and I don’t care what Louie’s parents are doing, you’re not going out at night with the car until you’re 18 / have your own car / etc. Period.

b. OK, but here are the ground rules, and if you violate them, here are the consequences; they will be severe and immediate, and I’ll check randomly.

I think most of us would prefer b. If not, just add a year to the age. Eventually you’re going to have to let the kid out at night.

More broadly, the question is: do you regulate by dictating behaviors, or combining audits with enforcement and sanctions?

You could answer this with ideology, or with a cost-benefit analysis. But there is one factor that I don’t think gets mentioned enough. And that is trust.

Let’s say an accounting firm is considered to have abused its relationship with its consulting branch. You could:

a. force accounting firms to sell their consulting businesses or build strong “Chinese walls (basically what Sarbanes Oxley did), or

b. increase the budget of the GAO, the Justice Departments’ enforcement branches, and the sanctions for violation of rules.

Others know more than I about the costs of Sarbanes; let’s just say it was high. But the real cost was that accountants won’t get to rub noses with consultants. Firms won’t have to develop their own policies. They have had to become compliance-driven, not outcome-driven.

The real trouble with structural regulation is that it removes the ability to evolve relationships, or trust, between business entities. Therefore it removes all possibilities for future economic improvement from trust.

Structural regulation is like putting up a concrete fence with your neighbor; it ain’t coming down anytime soon. The opportunity cost is bigger than the out of pocket cost.

In a really excellent NYTimes piece—The End of the Financial World as We Know It by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn (I find them the best source these days for understanding what just went down)–they nonetheless plop for structural approaches.

They are probably right in part; revolving doors from government to industry lobbying, for example, is a pretty sure source of corruption. But structural solutions ought to come as last options, not first.

There are tons of laws governing the financial industry that simply get buried in process, language, bureaucracy, small print. They simply do not get enforced, and if enforced, they are toothless, and even then do not get publicized.

Before we build concrete walls, invest some money in creative auditing, enforcement, and sanctions that really bite. It at least leaves the door open for good players to do something really good with relationships. To grow up and drive right.


From Mistrust to Cynicism to Corruption

Q. What do Mark Twain, Clint Eastwood and Bernie Madoff have in common?

A. They all tell tales of the path from mistrust to corruption.

In 1879, Harper’s Monthly published Mark Twain’s wry tale The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg—a dark, cynical sketch of a town whose pride rested on its reputation for incorruptibility. A stranger manipulates that pride into corruption, and makes the town the cause of its own ruin.

The Wikipedia summary makes for eerie reading in these past-Madoff days.

94 years later, Clint Eastwood channeled the same stranger/corruption theme in High Plains Drifter, his second directorial effort. Elizabeth Abele’s review nails it:

…not only is there little difference between the law and the bad guys, but the "good, decent people" [of Lago, Arizona] do not appear deserving to be saved. In their silence and passivity, they are as guilty as anyone. The approaching outlaws are in many ways a McGuffin. The Stranger’s true adversaries are the townspeople–who simplistically reward the Stranger for his opening slaughter of their hired guns by hiring him as their savior.

Cue the Good Townspeople burned by Bernard Madoff, financial crackhead (I mean "crackhead" in the sense of someone consumed by an ever-growing need for more and more money to feed his insatiable, and growing, need. If the shoe fits…).

Stipulated: Madoff’s a bad man, and many innocent people were harmed.

But a great many other people bear the same kind of responsibility as the citizens of Hadleyburg and Lago. Such as “feeder” funds like Fairfield Greenwich Group , which claimed in writing (and charged greatly) to perform high levels of due diligence on its Madoff investments.

And how about its sophisticated partners and customers at institutions like Banco Santander and Union Bancaire Privee? Like the Good Townspeople of Lago, it beggars belief that none among them had suspicion skeletons in their closets.

Here’s the roadmap downhill from broken trust.

In Twain’s and Eastwood’s stories, an organization starts out proud of its reputation for rectitude. Then someone descends into venality. It starts with “borrowing” to tide things over the weekend. But–as with any crackhead–it doesn’t stop there.

There comes a critical point when the bad guy is found out. The organization or society of which he is a part can go one way or the other. It can be horrified and reject the miscreant. (Let’s refer to this as the “right thing to do.”)

Or, it can choose “tolerance.” He’s really a good guy, he hasn’t done it before, haven’t we all cheated on our taxes one time or another? Just let it be.

And the crackhead steals the family silver.

Tolerance then leads to cynicism. Hey everyone does it, it’s nothing new, what are you, naïve, don’t you know how things work? Knock it off. It’ll work out.

And the crackhead knocks over a store.

Finally, you end up with corruption. Hey, Bernie’s making a ton for everyone. Not everyone can get in on it, but I know someone who can get you a piece of the deal. Shhh, everyone knows it’s a little “off,” but look at those returns. Waddya, nuts? Just sell a little to your cousin. Hey if you don’t, someone else will. Might as well be you. I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone, what’s the harm. Wink wink, nod nod, know what I mean, know what I mean?

And the crackhead corrupts everyone.

In the Eastwood version, the Stranger renames the town “Hell” as he rides off into the sunset. Twain’s Hadleyburg too gets a name change.

John Wayne didn’t care for this movie (or for Eastwood in general, I suspect). But while John Wayne was hell on bad guys, I’m not sure he knew how to recognize a helltown of crackheads. And just changing the town name won’t do the trick.