yesterday my wife and I drove/subwayed to Cambridge to see, orioginally, three movies. We wound up seeing only two, but they were in their way blockbusters, both documentaries: Waiting for Superman and Inside Job.
Waiting for Superman is about the collapse of American education and the charter school movement, towards which it is very favorable--perhaps too favorable. As my son, a charter middle school principal in Brooklyn, will tell you, charters remain an experiment, trying different recipes with different results, although some have indeed had amazing success. The film paid a good deal of attention to Michelle Rhee, the Gen X Superintendent of the Washington, D. C. schools, who tried to get the teachers' union to give up tenure in return for promising to double the salaries of effective teachers. They wouldn't do it. The movie appeared too early to report that Ms. Rhee is now the ex-superintendent as a result of the defeat of the mayor who was her patron. The movie did show, as my son has told me, what a horrible, painful process the lotteries to get into charters are--the vast majority of parents whose kids don't make it feel their kids have lost their only chance at a better life. And they are probably right.
Inside Job is even better and even more depressing, tracing the origins of the financial crisis, and the response to it, in devastating terms. It features long interviews both with ex-high officials, a few investment bankers, a few (almost invariably older) economists who had gotten it for a long time and saw the crash coming, and a lot of totally syncophantic economists. I did not realize, and thank the filmmaker for pointing it out, that the economists in our leading universities have been bought off by consultancies with hedge funds and banks. One of them has to explain, quite unashamedly, how he took $100,000 or so a few years ago to co-author a paper praising the Icelandic banking system. It is clear that everyone in the system is too drunk on money to think that anything could be wrong with it. There is now, of course, a revolving door between the top positions in Washington and the megabanks. Above all, the film shows how utterly naive--ridiculous, really--it was for people like me to think the Obama Administration would do anything meaningful. Re-appointing Bernanke was equivalent to keeping Admiral Kimmel in command of the US Fleet after Pearl Harbor. Larry Summers and Tim Geithner were also, of course, totally, deeply implicated in everything that had gone wrong. I feel fairly sure that within five years we will have another crash. The dreadful effects of allowing huge fortunes to accumulate was never more apparent. There are interviews with a few Europeans, particularly the French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, who really stand out. They are grown-ups. The Americans are not. And the list of people who refused to be interviewed is very long.
In short, we saw two things: the failure of US education to help the poor (and increasingly, the middle class), and the devastation that the most highly educated sectors of our society have wrought. I did not emerge any more optimistic about the future. It is simply not clear where meaningful change could come from anytime soon.
Regular readers note: there was another new post yesterday.