Inside Jobsworths, or: Excuse me, Professor?

For those who haven’t been along to see ‘Inside Job’, the documentary film on the recent financial crisis, I heartily recommend searching it out – though you won’t find it at many multiplexes. It sounds dry but is in fact entertaining, depressing and mind-boggling all at the same time, with some illuminating media training lessons to be learned. (Principally: don’t be so arrogant as to think you don’t need to prepare for an interview!) Amongst the parade of market participants, bankers and economists grappling to make sense of what happened, while simultaneously brushing aside any sense of personal responsibility, it is a group of US economics and business school professors who really stand out. The film clearly demonstrates the revolving door between the academic world, regulatory bodies and the political establishment. It effectively accuses the academics of being ‘for sale’, having taken huge sums in consultancy fees from financial institutions to give academic credibility to their lobbying efforts, helping to usher in progressive deregulation of the financial system over the past 20 years.

What is extraordinary is how ill-prepared many of these individuals appeared, when facing polite, but persistent and well-researched questions by the director, Charles Ferguson. They fumbled, mumbled and grumbled that he was asking inappropriate questions – for example the Columbia Business School professor Frederic Mishkin, who had written a paper praising the Icelandic financial system, not so long before it imploded – taking a fee of over $100,000 from the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to do so. Some academic objectivity. Clinton and Obama advisor and Harvard Professor Larry Summers also featured in a none-too-flattering light, as did Dr Martin Feldstein – formerly an adviser to President George W Bush, now also at Harvard. Most lamentable of all was Professor Glenn Hubbard, now Dean of Columbia Business School. He clearly had not anticipated any of the negative lines of questioning on conflicts of interest, let alone prepared any answers. Catch him squirming on YouTube while you can. And, if you are ever interviewed for a documentary, always work out what role you are likely to be playing – is it Expert, Victim, or Villain?