Filmmaker and author Danny Schechter has put out a call to action in his new documentary PLUNDER, the Crime of Our Time. Schechter calls for a “jail out, not a bail out,” as he puts it, several times in the film.
It’s just not quite clear who should go to jail, or for what.
The film’s setup is that Wall Street is a crime scene. The media and the government were complicit—or worse—in what Schechter alleges is a scheme to transfer wealth from poor and middle-income persons to the wealthy.
Deregulation and scant government oversight allowed predatory lending behavior, the film observes. Wall Street gave lower- and middle-income Americans too much credit and too many subprime loans that the creditors knew Americans could not afford.
Gains from Losses
But the creditors had a reason to do this, even knowing many of the loans would not be repaid. The loans were securitized and sold to investment banks, which then packaged the securities for hedge funds, which insured against—and made a lot of money from—the inevitable and predictable defaults.
The points in Plunder are often made with insider talking heads and clips from congressional hearings, describing an environment of relaxed regulations that these people say brought about the joblessness and foreclosures and other suffering this country has experienced in the last few years. The points are sometimes made through musical interludes written by former Wall Street insiders.
Plunder also brings in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, in order—it seems—to attach in the viewers’ minds the idea that Madoff’s crimes are comparable or linked to the behavior on Wall Street that contributed to, and perhaps caused, the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Nothing on Fannie/Freddie
Schechter’s film is entertaining, and his frustration with the lack of transparency in both banking and in government seems justified. But ultimately the film feels incomplete. There is no discussion of the central role the government-sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played in the economic meltdown, for example. There is also no discussion of what sort of regulations would have been better than what we had.
Finally, and (for me as a lawyer) most problematically, the film does not make explicit what actual crimes Schechter believes were committed on Wall Street—what the “jail out” –would punish—beyond the various criminal and civil suits that have and are already being brought.
Rather than describing actual crimes committed by those on Wall Street, the film tends to focus on depicting bankers and hedge funders as personally loathesome. And the aesthetics work in Plunder’s favor: There are long shots of a party for Wall Street types under 30 years old, and they sure do look pretty, and they do look like they’re having a good time with their fancy clothes and their cocktails. But none of them are identified as criminals,so why begrudge them a good time?
Reform or Riots
At the end of the film, Schechter calls for investigations of what caused the country’s financial meltdown, and the jailing of those who caused it. The implication is that certain persons did cause the meltdown and did so in a way that is properly punished by jail time. Schechter then says the American middle class will either see financial reform or will take to the streets with pitchforks.
But there hasn’t yet been financial reform, and the middle class hasn’t taken to the streets with pitchforks. It’s hard to tell whether Schechter actually believes the only possible outcomes are reform or pitchforks, or if he is simply expressing his wish for a public revolt against the kind of country he thinks the United States has become, one in which big banks determine the lives of small people and where government and the media lubricate the banks’ takeover of our lives.
Arin Greenwood ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.