If it’s impotent white-man rage you’re looking for this election season, and somehow you can’t find a tea party rally, may I suggest the spluttering bravado of a cornered academic economist? It’s almost as funny, and far more satisfying. Inside Job serves up Glenn Hubbard, the dean of Columbia Business School, offering him as a sort of finger food, like a very angry watercress sandwich. “You’ve got three minutes,” a snarling Hubbard tells director Charles Ferguson at the end of an increasingly confrontational interview. “Give it your best shot.” That’s a stupid gauntlet to throw down, tough guy: Ferguson has two hours, and it only takes him about 30 seconds to tar Hubbard with the revelations that the dean makes $250,000 a year consulting for Met Life, and served on the board of mortgage lender Capmark until 2009. For the record, Hubbard sees mortgage-backed securities—packaging home loans into bonds that investment banks can sell on the global market—as a great economic stabilizer. Certainly they have been for him.
Inside Job, a primer on securitization and other Wall Street follies, amounts to a wonk-on-wonk assault. Before Ferguson directed the sober Iraq war documentary No End in Sight, he scored a fortune in Internet software development, and he has a fundamental gripe with bankers. It’s not that they’re rich. It’s that they don’t make anything. That is, they don’t make anything except ornately convoluted and exponentially risky methods of speculation—new ways of betting on loans, and betting on other people’s bets on loans.
Ferguson’s aesthetics here are nothing special—he veers, like many political filmmakers, between drab PowerPoint graphs and tacky music—and his explanation of how the shenanigans went down doesn’t compare to the gold standard of investigations, a collaboration between This American Life and NPR News called “The Giant Pool of Money.” What makes Inside Job worth squinting at, then, is Ferguson’s gusto in calling out the regulators and academics—like Hubbard, or fellow Columbia professor Frederic Mishkin, paid $124,000 by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce for authoring a paper praising the country’s doomed banks—who pretend to be watchdogs when they’re actually lampreys. In the salad days of Iceland, Inside Job notes, a third of the nation’s bank regulators quit their jobs to go work for the banks. What a quaint system! In America, they don’t need to quit their jobs. PG-13.