In 2010, Charles Ferguson‘s powerful “Inside Job” arrived in theaters, hot on the heels of 2007-2008 financial crisis. It was an effective, scathing and furious look at the systemic breakdown of the very institutions that are supposed to protect us that led to a situation that put the entire world economy on the bring of collapse. Of course, nothing has really changed since then, and so another eye-opening, informative and detailed documentary is here, covering some of the same territory, “Money For Nothing: Inside The Federal Reserve.” And while director Jim Bruce‘s film is thorough and rich in context and detail from investors, economists and even former Federal Reserve officials, one can’t help but think it’s another small rock being thrown into a big ocean that nothing can seemingly can stop, even though many are aware of what needs to be done.
That’s not say that making a film about the misguided role the Federal Reserve has undertaken is an exercise in futility, but it may perhaps leave you with a lingering feeling of hopelessness mixed with cynicism when the credits roll. Because as Bruce’s film takes pains to point out, while the intentions of the Federal Reserve have always been noble, and though they have had some tremendous successes, the fundamental change from being outside regulators to an involved safety net has wholly redefined their purpose and not for the better. But before we can even get into the all of this, do we know what the Federal Reserve is? Or what it does?
As ‘Money For Nothing’ underlines, even the Federal Reserve isn’t quite sure what they do (a perfectly chosen “The Daily Show” clip shows two separate interviews with Chairman Ben Bernanke saying then Fed prints money… and they don’t). But essentially, the Federal Reserve was formed to lend stability to the banking system, particularly in the early days when the dollar was still tied to the gold standard. The institution was there to stabilize interest rates and to give the country as a whole a financial center, instead of a loose amalgam of banks that threatened to fold any time if some anomaly or minor panic took place. Later, the Federal Reserve struck a deal with a handful of developed nations, making the U.S. dollar the currency against which the world economy would rest. And for a while, this system mostly worked. By controlling interest rates and how much money was circulating within the economy at any one time, and watching inflation, for the most part, the Federal Reserve kept the value of the U.S. dollar strong, its value high against material goods and the economy on an even keel. Then two things happened…
The first was the Vietnam War which, without getting too nitty gritty, upended any careful economic planning throwing the economy into a tailspin. And while Fed honcho Paul Volcker is credited by containing inflation and helping everything rebound for the prosperous ’80s—thanks to some prudent, but unpopular decisions, including raising interest rates—once he was ushered out and Alan Greenspan was brought in, the Federal Reserve monumentally shifted. A bit of a study in conflicting ideologies—Greenspan is libertarian in spirit, anything but in practice—his ideology boiled down to sending the message to banks and other institutions that there would always be the Federal Reserve to step in and save the day should risky gambles like sub-prime mortgages or excessive trading in derivatives reach dangerous levels. In short, warning signs were more than apparent in the lead up to the 2007-2008 crisis, but they were summarily ignored. The system was too big to fail—especially if it continues to be bailed out. And now? To keep things afloat, Greenspan successor Ben Bernanke is trying “quantitative easing,” which is essentially taking on even more risk to maintain a damaged status quo.
As mentioned, Bruce’s film is definitely not lacking for the most part, though there are some questions left open. There is little discussion about how the United States’ continued military involvement abroad is weighing down the economy (something worth talking about especially in the wake of recent reports of the billions of dollars spent on surveillance, far beyond what agencies estimated). But really, that’s a minor complaint. ‘Money For Nothing’ makes the unmistakable point that trying to duct tape and do some blind guesswork with the system we now have and then hope for a recovery is perhaps a fools’ errand. The tried and true “solutions” to trying to turn around an economy continually on the brink in the last few years are little more than patchwork on an entire system that needs a good hard look.
With a blitz of talking heads and graphs and technical jargon, ‘Money For Nothing’ can be exhausting viewing at times, and it’s certainly not the most cinematic experience, though kudos to the filmmakers for at least trying with some animated excursions and fun edits when possible. But it’s never unclear, and while it quietly asserts that citizens should do more to understand the system that could be crippling their own wallet, employment and well-being, it also demands that the Federal Reserve perhaps get out of bed with the big banks and take a look at where the responsibility for all of this lies. The answer will be closer than they think. [B]