Filmmaker & author Charles Ferguson

The Oscar-winning filmmaker-turned-author discusses the reasons for writing his new text, Predator Nation.

An unconventional filmmaker, Charles Ferguson won an Oscar nomination for his debut documentary, No End In Sight, on the Iraq war, and won the coveted statuette for Inside Job, his film on the financial crisis. He trained as a political scientist, holds a Ph.D. from MIT and was a consultant to several federal agencies and high tech firms. He also co-founded an early Internet software company that created the FrontPage development tool. Ferguson has written four books, including Predator Nation, which lays out a plan of action for how U.S. citizens might take back the American dream.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Charles Ferguson is an Oscar-winning filmmaker who previously joined us on this program for his look at the financial crisis, called “Inside Job.” He’s out now with a timely new book about where we stand nearly four years after the financial meltdown.

It’s called “Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption and the Hijacking of America.” He joins us tonight from Berkeley, California. Charles, good to have you back on the program.

Charles Ferguson: Thank you.

Tavis: Let me jump right into this. There are two reasons for writing this book. One is to make the case for criminal prosecution. We know, you know, obviously, all these years after the meltdown not a single person essentially has gone to jail for their crimes, which have bankrupted the nation.

I recall debating Bill O’Reilly about this once on television and his argument was what crimes have been broken? What law, what crimes were committed, what laws have been broken?

He went on to advance his argument, but you lay out in detail what, in fact, has been done, the laws that were broken, the crimes that were committed, and this is, to my mind, at least, the best treatment thus far for the case to be made for criminal prosecutions.

Now, having said all that, you and I both know that presidents are loath to look backward, no matter what might have happened. If Gerald Ford could pardon Richard Nixon, you know that Bush is not going to look back on Clinton, and you know that Obama is not going to look back on Bush. That’s just not how the game in Washington is played.

So I hate to just break it to you like this, but you’ve spent a lot of time writing a book and ain’t nothing going to happen, Charles.

Ferguson: (Laughs) Well, it’s possible – in fact, I would agree with you. It’s likely that nothing’s going to happen right now. But I do think that there is value to having the American people understand what actually went on here, because I think that over time, people are going to get angry enough that they will force their leaders to do something about it, at least to make sure that this can’t happen again, which right now, unfortunately, it could.

Tavis: If I said to you that the only way the American people stop being complicit and get to the point that you’ve just raised, of demanding that something be done, demanding that somebody go to jail, that this be taken seriously, is for us to have another catastrophe, you’d say what?

Ferguson: Sometimes that’s the only thing that gets people upset enough. I hope that’s not the case, but you might be right. Unfortunately, we might have one soon, courtesy of Europe, and of course the European crisis was partly, only partly, but partly caused by ours.

Tavis: Yeah, I’m glad you raised that, because nobody really wants to acknowledge it. But if the truth were being told about what’s really happening inside the Beltway behind these closed doors, there is, in fact, concern about another recession just on the heels of the one we had.

The Obama campaign can’t imagine what that would do to them if we – we’ve had now three straight months of this, and when economists see three straight months of no real job growth, they do, in fact, get concerned about another recession.

Your thoughts about what that might to do the go-along attitude of the American people, as expressed toward Washington?

Ferguson: Well, depends how severe it is. If it’s purely an American matter and Europe stays relatively stable, it’ll probably be an unpleasant but not catastrophic recession.

But right now, Europe is looking really scary, and if something really, really bad happens there, then we could be facing something just as bad as September 2008, and that would certainly get people really scared and really upset.

Tavis: My first question, as you well know, was not to burst your bubble. I’m delighted that you’ve written the book.

I’m glad that somebody has made the case, so now that Bill O’Reilly, my friend, and others will have something to read if they choose to do so, that does, in fact, lay out point by point what happened and why we should not let these criminals, as it were, these banksters get away with this. Having said that, why do you think no one has been prosecuted?

Ferguson: Yeah. Unfortunately, I think that the majority of the answer is pretty simple, which is that this industry is now so wealthy and so politically powerful that people are scared not only to regulate them but even to, or perhaps especially, to prosecute them when they commit crimes.

Some of that is fear of their power, and some of that is just desire to make money along with them, go along with the ride.

Tavis: What’s there to be scared of? If you’re the government, how do you end up being scared of your citizenry?

Ferguson: (Laughs) Well, this isn’t your average citizens we’re talking about. We’re talking about companies, and in some cases individuals, with billions of dollars at their disposal, and now that there’s essentially no limitation on the amount of money that can be spent on political campaigns, these guys are really, really powerful.

Tavis: I don’t want to overstate the case, but doesn’t this in some way threaten our very democracy? If we live in a country where we believe, or at least express a belief in the rule of law, how does the rule of law apply to some – if a brother gets caught on the street selling a crack bag, or you and I were caught embezzling – I mean, come on.

If we’re talking about the rule of law, why does it apply to some and not to the elite, not to others?

Ferguson: That is indeed one of the most disturbing aspects of this whole situation. Joe Nocera had a column in “The New York Times” a couple days ago in which he made the point, to his great credit, quite forcefully, that a large number of people, thousands across the United States, have been prosecuted for trivial, low-level, tiny financial crimes, misstating their income on a mortgage application, things like that, whereas nobody’s been prosecuted for the stuff that really counts. He’s absolutely right about that.

Tavis: Indeed, the second reason you state very clearly for writing this book is that this kind of predatory banking activity is really what’s causing the country to descend. It’s causing a decay, it’s causing a devolution. Tell me more about that point.

Ferguson: Yes. One thing that has struck me and is, I think, increasingly one of these kind of elephants in the room in American society is that a very high fraction of America’s economic problems – not all by any means; America has economic problems for a number of reasons.

But a very high fraction of America’s economic problems come not from our difficulties with education or globalization or competition with the Chinese or whatever.

But they come from the fact that a small number of wealthy and powerful people who run dangerous and/or inefficient companies are able, through the use of money in the political process, to prevent the government from regulating them properly, from breaking them up when they’re too big or too powerful, from introducing competition when there isn’t enough of it, and are able to perpetuate their inefficiency or their criminal behavior and inflict its consequences on the rest of us.

The housing bubble and the financial crisis is the most spectacular example of that, but there are a number of other really important ones, and I mention and discuss in the book several, including the automobile industry and also broadband policy.

Tavis: Is it an overstatement or am I being wholly unfair if I were to say that the financial sector in this country is, in fact, criminalized?

Ferguson: I think that unfortunately, in significant measure, it has been. There are still big portions of banking and of the financial sector that are run relatively honestly. We all still get our paychecks and we can deposit them, and our checking accounts work and nobody confiscates our bank accounts, which happens sometimes in dictatorships.

So many things still work properly and well and honestly. But significant portions of the financial system, including big portions of investment banking, really don’t have, or feel that they don’t have any limitations or rules, and there has been a very, very great increase in the amount of criminal behavior in finance, and some of it is really very disturbing.

Tavis: How do you deal with this long-term if this particular industry is a protected industry? That is to say that both democrats and republicans eat at the trough of big money in this country. So how do you – you know the question – how do you get traction on this?

Ferguson: Well, I think that mostly it’s going to have to come from below, from the American people getting sufficiently upset about this that they force their leaders to do things, to take action with regard to this.

There will also be, increasingly, pressure from other nations, and a number of other nations, especially European nations, have started taking much stronger measures with regard to financial sector regulation, the regulation of compensation, the kinds of things that have to be disclosed and that bankers are permitted and prohibited from doing.

I think eventually that international pressure will also begin to help. But the majority of it really has to come from us, and it’s not going to come from our political leaders. It’s going to come from the people.

Tavis: Might a third party be an option to make the case?

Ferguson: Maybe. Third parties are difficult to start in the United States. A friend of mine who’s very well connected in American politics said to me, with a grin, recently that the one thing that the two parties can certainly agree on would be the undesirability of a third one.

So it wouldn’t be an easy thing, but none of this will be easy. It might be a third party; it might be an insurgency within one of the parties. It might be a nonpartisan social movement like the environmental movement or the women’s movement.

Tavis: What are we lacking vis-à-vis legislation that might clean this up? There were great cheers in Washington, at least pats on the back, on their own backs, in Congress, when they did this last round of legislation that they thought was going to get at Wall Street corruption. What are we missing here legislatively?

Ferguson: There certainly are a few things that we’re missing legislatively. Some kind of reinstatement of Glass-Steagall and/or a very, very strong version of the so-called Volcker Rule that prohibits banks from engaging in risky proprietary trading when they also have consumer deposits.

It’s still, by the way, in principle, legal to create and sell a security for the purpose of betting on its failure, which was one of the most remarkable things that happened during the bubble. But the main thing actually isn’t the laws. The main thing is enforcement of the laws. That’s the main thing.

Tavis: I hear your point about enforcement, but if Dodd-Frank is weak, there’s not a whole lot to enforce in the first place. But I digress on that point.

Let me ask this impolitic question as the exit question, I think. How much of this has to do with whether or not the time has come for us to re-think capitalism as we know it and as we practice it? Is that – have I gone too far now?

Ferguson: Well, I used to be a businessman and I enjoyed what I did and I thought that it was socially useful. I don’t have anything against business or private enterprise or capitalism per se, but I think that it is time to rethink the regulation of capitalism.

What we’ve seen over the past decade is that deregulated, unregulated finance and deregulated, unregulated business is dangerous, and we have to change that.

Tavis: The new book from Charles Ferguson, director of the Academy Award-winning film, “Inside Job,” is called “Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption and the Hijacking of America.” Charles, thanks for the text. Good to have you back on this program.

Ferguson: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time. Until then, keep the faith.

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  • Mark Etprophet

    Always good interview questions and comments, Tavis.

Last modified: June 6, 2012 at 2:45 pm