Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Financial crisis was criminal, even if not against law
IT was the fabled gangster Al Capone who pointed out that "you can get much further in life with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone."
Little did Capone know that a United States was coming in which sophisticated crooks would need neither kind words nor guns to rape and burgle the country to their hearts' content.
All they needed was the quietly purchased co-operation of government, academia and the media. Imagine Capone's further chagrin if he learned that, instead of going to jail for essentially defrauding the entire world, the same sophisticates would not only walk away unpunished, many would keep their fortunes and earn big bonuses to boot.
It is that astonishing and true scenario, the great boondoggle of 2008, that inspired author and entrepreneur Charles Ferguson to produce his 2010 Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job.
The film, narrated by Matt Damon, put paid to the lie that the whole mess was well-intentioned and too complicated for ordinary people to comprehend. It helped to inspire the Occupy Movement, and research for it produced the data and anecdotes that comprise this persuasive polemic.
Ferguson writes consistently in a no-nonsense, plainspoken style reminiscent of a softened, more circumspect Edgar R. Morrow. While acknowledging there are now plenty of good books published to explain Wall Street to Main Street, he is clear about his personal motives for writing Predator Nation.
Summed up, he explains that somebody still needed to make the case in detail that the behaviour of America's financial class was indeed criminal, even if no specific laws existed on which to nail the perpetrators.
Somebody had to demonstrate that the failure to prosecute was as outrageous as the original crimes. And somebody had to connect the dots and document how the financial crisis has truly murdered the American dream. Ferguson has done it all with precision here.
He seems an unlikely candidate for these tasks, given his own massive wealth and success. A Californian now in his mid-50s and a graduate of both Berkeley and MIT, Ferguson acquired the wealth that facilitates intellectual independence when he sold his innovative software company to Microsoft for $133 million in 1996.
Not surprisingly, he has no problem with wealth attached to merit and hard work. The predator elite of whom he writes, however, are merely well-connected, canny and crooked.
Ferguson writes evenhandedly about America's political duopoly, explaining how both traditional parties helped to sell out the financial protections previously enjoyed by ordinary citizens. Fans of presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama may be equally taken aback by the actions of all of these men, actions intended to maintain the support of the finance industry.
Toward the end of Predator Nation, Ferguson redirects the reader from the rapacious actions of public and private individuals to their practical impact on American life.
The suffering is nightmarish: hundreds of thousands of lost homes, jobs, health care, pensions; families destroyed, educations wasted, hopes and dreams demolished.
For those still able to find jobs, the U.S. now ranks 95th in the world for income equality, just behind Nigeria, Iran, Cameroon and Ivory Coast.
Ferguson has produced a passionate, almost irresistible call to action. He concludes with a list of simple things Americans can do to reclaim their country, at the same time wondering whether they have enough energy and morale to answer it. Time alone, he admits, will tell.
Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg-based writer and broadcaster.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 J7
(1 of 23 articles for this week)