Is the global financial crisis really an Inside Job?

Inside Job, a documentary that quizzes some major perpetrators of the global financial crisis, is being released this week in Canada's biggest cities and it raises major questions about accountability, Don Pittis writes.

What does it take to drive people to vilify someone, chuck them out their job and put in someone new? 

In the case of Toronto's outgoing mayor, David Miller, it was a garbage strike, too many bike lanes, an attempt to squeeze out cars and boost public transit. Give or take a few political mistakes, those were enough. 

What if you brought down the entire global economy, turned a large number of homeowners into paupers, wiped out pension savings, threw a few million people out of work — and, as if as an afterthought, destabilized a number of the world's most developed countries? 

Barney Frank, the Massachusetts congressman who heads the House Financial Services Committee, in a scene from the film The Inside Job. (Sony Pictures)

And then what if you ended up even richer than you started out?

Well, so far, it seems that isn't enough. 

Charles Ferguson, the maker of the film Inside Job, would like to change that. So far, it's not certain he will.

Inside Job, narrated by Matt Damon, the actor who plays movie action-character Jason Bourne, is being released this week in Canada's biggest cities after getting great reviews at TIFF.

It's a documentary that quizzes some major perpetrators of the global financial crisis. And Ferguson doesn't pull punches. He says they were crooks who got away with their crime.

The candy store

"There are a substantial number of financial executives who should be in prison," he said in the Huffington Post.

Ferguson says that not only are the people who caused the economic crisis not being prosecuted. And not only are they still getting rich, and richer. He says a bunch of them actually remain in charge of the candy store, running U.S. President Barack Obama's financial administration.

It struck me, shortly after the economic meltdown how few of the people in key positions had been vilified or prosecuted.

Having read much about the fallout from the crash of 1929, I expected worse. In those days, following the Great Crash, captains of finance like stock market president Richard Whitney were thrown to the wolves, descending from conquering heroes to villainous criminals.

In the 1930s the entire financial profession was stigmatized by the evil that people believed had been done.

I am one of those individuals with a strong social conscience who think business people do an essential and excellent job.

Ferguson, a millionaire businessman himself, insists there are many good and honest people in business and finance.

But as I have said before, it wouldn't hurt to divert a few more clever people away from finance and into something more productive. A little less respect for captains of finance, and a little more for, say, school teachers, might be a good thing.

Perhaps a bit of stigmatization would help with that.

Well documented

Ferguson also makes the compelling argument that there is little to choose from between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to battling the dirty side of finance.

Here in Canada we see the same thing. Having never formed the government, the New Democrats may shriek about corporate welfare bums, but our main two parties remain cozy with the financial elite. You just cannot govern a complex capitalist country without the help of people who understand how the machine works from the inside. 

Financial insiders can be complacent about the practices in their industry, seeing things like selling securities for more than you think they are worth as foibles rather than something worse. It takes a lot of popular will to push politicians to crack down on their rich and powerful partners.

I don't believe Ferguson's claim that his movie tells us things we didn't know. Informed business news junkies watched it all happen. 

What Ferguson does is put the information all in one place, telling the story simply and making the connections. He also piles on the mood of moral indignation that is essential to changing the modern habit of hero worship of the rich and powerful to something a little more realistic.

Maybe my surprise that so few financial bosses were fingered following the 2008 fiasco was premature. Perhaps Ferguson's film will act as popular and political call to arms. Maybe once again, Bourne will get the bad guys.

Revisiting the 1929 case mentioned above, I notice that Richard Whitney remained head of the New York Stock Exchange until 1935. He wasn't convicted until 1938.