Northside SF
Common Knowledge
No gadfly in City Hall

Documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson says the financial
system doesn't work – for the rest of us
photos: Ed Ritger
If you were watching this year’s Oscars telecast and managed to stay awake the entire time, then you saw the political comments by documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson. His statement stood out like a sore thumb in an otherwise studiously noncontroversial program.

Accepting an Academy Award for his documentary Inside Job, which explores the financial crisis, Ferguson began by saying, “Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that’s wrong.”

As political statements go at the Academy Awards ceremonies, Ferguson’s wasn’t even close to being the most significant. It was nothing like Michael Moore’s 2003 antiwar rant against President George W. Bush, or Marlon Brando sending Native American Sacheen Littlefeather onstage in 1973 to reject his Best Actor award for The Godfather.

No, Ferguson’s polite complaint was a political outburst for our more genteel times. Just three days after his Oscars victory, Ferguson came to San Francisco, though he didn’t bring along the Oscar statuette. Instead, he came armed with questions about the type of system that allows widespread financial fraud to take place.

His audience in San Francisco was interested in taking up where his Academy Awards appearance left off. The first audience question for Ferguson was asked by one of our viewers watching the program’s streaming video online: “Who are the top five bankers you would send to prison?”

Former California Treasurer Phil Angelides
says he gave authorities the info to pursue
prosecutions of financial industry leaders
Despite his award-show comments, Ferguson demurred to name anyone. He did, however, have a question for Phil Angelides, the former California state treasurer who chaired the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and who appeared at the club the night after Ferguson. The filmmaker wanted to know why Angelides wasn’t advocating more aggressively for people to be put in jail. In essence, why don’t we make a few bankers change from pinstripes to prison stripes?

“We weren’t appointed as prosecutors,” replied Angelides about his congressionally mandated commission, “but we had a legal obligation to refer any potential violations to the appropriate authorities. Where we found that information, we did our job. “

Though he, too, downplayed the opportunity to name specific individuals, due to the possible ongoing investigation of those cases, you could probably guess some of their identities if you read the commission’s unlikely New York Times bestseller, The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report (PublicAffairs, 2011). The report’s 576 pages might be somewhat more interesting than the Oscars telecast, because the commission wasn’t worried about hurting people’s feelings.

Though there’s plenty of guilt to spread around, Angelides said that he places responsibility with the public officials charged with regulating the system and with the chief executives of the companies whose failures drove the crisis. “These were the people who sought and accepted the responsibility,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Angelides says one of the most common questions he gets is, “Where are the prosecutions?” He notes that he’s not a prosecutor; the commission’s job was to lay out the facts and open the door for prosecutors. But he understands everyone’s anger. With the disappearance of $11 trillion in household wealth and retirement savings, 4 million families having lost their homes to foreclosure so far and another 8 to 13 million more likely to do so before it’s over, and small businesses unable to get financing, it seems as though practically everyone is outraged by the financial crisis.

From left to right, people are angry about bailouts for big banks and other financial institutions. Of course, it’s a little like after World War II when roughly 95 percent of France claimed to have been in the resistance but few actually had been. That’s because if the anger is widespread, so is the guilt: Republicans and Democrats, lenders and borrowers, regulators and the regulated. There’s plenty of guilt to go around, even if it was just reluctance to look too closely for problems while the money was flowing fast and furious, which might be why there’s so much bluster about the horrors of the financial meltdown but few actions taken that have teeth in them.

It would be ironic if the major result of the fallout from the economic crisis is an Academy Award for a movie about the lack of fallout.

John Zipperer is vice president of editorial and media at The Commonwealth Club of California, www.commonwealthclub.or g.E-mail:

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