As the current crop of folks who want to be president talk about how we have too many regulations, we must try to remember that some of the most brutal crimes are not committed at night in alley behind a cheap bar on skid row or in the shower of a sleazy motel. Some of the biggest crimes —the ones with the most victims — are committed by guys in suits on their Blackberries.
Two relatively current documentaries examine what many would like us to forget — the bullying by some members of the rich and powerful class and how their actions are destroying the middle class and leveling more punishment for the working poor.
The first film is Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Before Bernie Madoff took the crown for high-stakes, extremely damaging criminal business behavior there was frequent Bush White House visitor Kenneth Lay and his crew at Enron. Lower-level employees were encouraged by management to sink their retirement into Enron investments. Shareholders were told lies about the worth of the company, and continued to support a house of cards. And the incredibly cynical behavior of some of the company’s top executives (they even played with the energy grid, causing blackouts, in order to increase profit) was enough to put long-trusted accounting and auditing firms out of business and force congress to pass laws to protect the public from this kind of avarice. But memories are short — and so-called conservatives are climbing over each other to rescind those regulations. (Apparently those damned rules inhibit creative accounting.) The movie was released in 2005 and should be a cautionary tale about greed and energy.
A few years later, lessons unlearned, the economy goes on the skids. Enron’s debacle, which should have been a serious warning, was merely a blip when placed in a global economic perspective. U.S. banks and other financial institutions engaged in some monumental hanky panky. Inside Job (2010), which won an Academy Award for best documentary feature, sets the broader stage by a explaining the period of deregulation that began in the 1980s, filling us in on how bad (and predatory) mortgage loans were made, bundled, bought and sold. It seems quite clear that the foxes were hired to guard the henhouses.
I’d love to lay all the blame for Wall Street and K-Street corruption on the Republicans. Certainly they have had the heaviest hands in the transactions and remain among the most vehemently opposed to oversight of our financial and investment institutions. However, it is not possible to overlook the fact that many of the same Wall Street characters played and are still playing significant cabinet, czar and consultant roles in Clinton’s and Obama’s administrations as well. And, in fact, the old-boy quid pro quo goes back to Reagan and Nixon. Now, with the endorsement of the U.S. Supreme Court — the Citizens United decision specifically — high public office will continue to accept what is little more than bribes to do Wall Street’s bidding.
In any event, there is a surprising amount of drama and suspense in these documentaries. They are worth watching. It’s all right to drink Scotch while you watch these two crime movies. Scotch may be the capitalist’s drink of choice. The thing is: it’s all right to be a capitalist. It’s just not all right to be a criminal. Kind of makes you want to Occupy some place.
Caption: Inside Job, starring Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner.