Recently Teri and I watched “Inside Job,” the film that took the Oscar for Best Documentary of 2010. The award was well deserved. “Inside Job” is riveting, beautifully photographed (get the Blu-ray version if you have a player) and thought provoking. It is also incredibly disturbing. In case you hadn’t heard, this film explains the genesis and impact of the recent financial crisis that has caused such great distress worldwide.
Not long ago I listened to about a third of the audiobook version of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, which tells much of this same story. Though Lewis is an entertaining writer, I got bogged down trying to understand the financial physiology of subprime loans and credit default swaps, and finally gave up on it. The good news is that “Inside Job” clarifies a few things about the big players on Wall Street and elsewhere, and what they were up to. The bad news is that, in so doing, it paints a depressing picture of greed and testosterone1 gone wild, of financial rapaciousness turned loose by a fatal convergence of deregulation and moral relativism. Energy and creativity were given free rein to invent unsustainable and fraudulent schemes that reaped astronomical fortunes for a few, and left millions high and dry.
The film makes the case that those who should have blown the whistle didn’t, or were simply reaping too much of the gravy to want to stop the train, or even slow it down a little. One exception was Elliot Spitzer, the Attorney General and later Governor of New York. Spitzer was starting to pursue the schemers, but was upended by his own disastrous moral failure — also involving testosterone, reckless compartmentalization of his life and well-paid prostitutes2 — which ultimately forced his resignation. (Another excellent documentary, “Client 9,” tells Spitzer’s story, and hints that his downfall was expedited by investigators serving the financiers he was about to go after.)
“Inside Job” is an equal-opportunity critic of U.S. Presidents and their administrations spanning the past three decades, including the current occupant of the Oval Office. Unlike the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, which ultimately resulted in more than a few executives spending time in prison, no one seems terribly interested in pursuing the perpetrators of the current crisis. A lot of connected dots strongly imply that money talks, and really big money outtalks everyone in the private sector, academia and the highest levels of government.
So why am I on such a rant about this topic? Because this film crystallized something I have been fretting about for quite a while. I’m sorry to sound like a geezer rocking and complaining on the back porch, but the fact is that we’ve been through a seismic cultural shift over the past half century. We’ve adopted the notion that we’re all derived from billions of years of random chemical reactions, that no one is keeping score, that there are no transcendent values (especially those involving the destination of one’s private parts), and that self-fulfillment is the ultimate ideal. Given this seemingly relentless trend, the whole financial meltdown is a giant, sad answer to the questions “What did you think would happen?” and “What could possibly go wrong?” While we’re at it, our insane waste of resources on addictive substances (which also fuels unending carnage in Mexico and elsewhere), the spread of HIV/AIDS and a few other misanthropic organisms around the world, and the disgrace of human trafficking are also answers to the same questions.
Bottom line: You can’t have true freedom in a society without virtue, restraint, self-discipline and respect for other people. If these are not reasonably prevalent, the result can only be either utter chaos and widespread abuse, or massive attempts to regulate everyone’s behavior by governmental authority. I would like to invoke at this point a U.S. President who made this case long before I ever took a breath. In 1798 John Adams wrote, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”3
Why talk about this subject in a blog devoted to marriage and parenting?
Guess where critical virtues are taught to the next generation.
©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.
Paul Reisser is a family physician who has been in private practice for more than three decades. He has served as the primary author of Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care and Complete Guide to Family Health, Nutrition and Fitness. Together Paul and his wife Teri have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.
1. The film points out that the vast majority of the financial hanky-pank involved those of the male persuasion, who in turn rewarded themselves not just with huge homes and big shiny things but also with drugs and women whose expensive services were for sale.
2. I am deliberately avoiding the silly term for this profession that is widely used in professional medical literature: “Commercial sex worker.” Gimme a break. Does that mean that a pimp should now be called a “Commercial sex worker procurement agent”?
3. Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts (11 October 1798). http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Adams. Adams was the second President of the United States, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and an all-around smart guy. See David McCullough’s excellent biography, or the outstanding HBO series it inspired, for further details.