"You were robbed. There was a bank robbery. And the bank robbery wasn't done by someone who came in with a gun, it was the bank president." That is the conclusion of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Charles Ferguson ("No End in Sight") whose doc, "Inside Job," depicts one of the largest heists in history, breaking down the complexities that led to the rise of an out of control industry and the financial meltdown of 2008, plunging the world into crisis at a cost of $20 trillion and along with it millions of people's jobs, homes, and dignity.
A world premiere earlier this week in Cannes, "Inside Job" (partly financed through Sony Pictures Classics, which will release the film in theaters) is a comprehensive look at the roots of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Through interviews with politicians, financial insiders, and journalists, Ferguson argues that the collapse was completely unavoidable. Reagan-era deregulation, which gained momentum in the '90s and early 2000s, gave rise to an industry fed by greed. Ferguson points out that there was no financial crisis in the forty years after WWII when the government oversaw the financial services industry with a firm hand. Yet, under the banner of "innovation," President Reagan began a process of deregulation, stripping the government's traditional role of providing stability to the system that cradles the financial well-being of millions leading to the S&L crisis in the '80s and the financial meltdown of 2008 that is still being felt today.
"There's a new American mentality; it didn't used to be this way," said Ferguson in Cannes, chatting with a small group of journalists. "This is all relatively new. Part of it was greed and part of it was ideology and part of it was the economic difficulties of the early '80s."
One of many interviews in the film is with the Bush Administration's Chief Economic Advisor Glenn Hubbard (now Dean of the Columbia University Business School). A supply side economist, Hubbard was central to the Bush tax cuts of 2003. Under heavy questioning by Ferguson, Hubbard increasingly becomes irate as he's peppered with inquiries about the administration's responsibility in allowing the system to implode.
"We received many retractions from some of the people we spoke with," said Ferguson in Cannes. "They even tried to take back their permission, but of course it's too late. They had signed off and gave their permission." Ferguson said he was able to speak to a lot of insiders who are regularly treated with deference by the media, so many people he speaks with are caught off guard.
"I think in many cases they are used to being deferred to and therefore never challenged. They are used to being treated the way they are usually spoken to by White House correspondents and they're used to people being nice. I think they were surprised."
One group he was not able to reach was the Obama Administration which he says is being duped by the same titans of finance responsible for the collapse that preceded the current President's ascension to power, some of whom have joined the current Administration.
"I'm not sure how much Obama knows about the people he's surrounded himself with," said Ferguson. "When he became President he had only been in government for four years and his training is as a lawyer, not as an economist. When you're President you have an awful lot of people around you trying to control you...He chose these people, which was a real shock and disappointment for a lot of people, and they don't necessarily provide him with the information he needs to know."
Ferguson said the proposals backed by the Obama Administration that are currently floating through Congress do "not impress" him and that the speeches and condemnation uttered by Obama are simply a result of public anger. "I do think the American people are getting angry. Power has been abused and there is evidence that they will demand the government do something about it." Ferguson pointed out that despite the economic calamity that impoverished millions, nobody has been prosecuted or held accountable.
"One thing I had hoped to immediately do is demystify finance and make it accessible to everybody," said Ferguson, who hopes once people grasp what took place (with the ramifications still very much being felt) that society will demand the government again regulate a financial industry that is still poised to spin out of control. "I hope [the film] makes people angry and it forces the government to take action...I'm optimistic that the film will have that effect."
Continuing, he added, "Do we need the financial system? Yes we do. Do we need banks? Yes we do. But they don't have to act like this. It worked for forty years and we didn't have a financial crisis."