Dear John (Capitalism)

3
Oct
2009

There are a vast number of reasons I like Michael Moore.  And his films, for whatever their faults, highlight very real problems confronting our society. His latest film alas, is mostly clownish and amateurish. It takes the mammoth subject implied in its title,  “Capitalism: A Love Story” and fails monumentally to break down its failings in a clear way.

He gives many fine examples of injustice, but rarely ties them in a specific way to the excesses of capitalism per se. Almost all of his examples are much more about who controls the purse strings in Washington, and how power and influence benefit vested interests. He shows various types of heart-breaking evictions or gross behaviors having to do with life insurance policies. The great failing of the film, really, is in its never attempted analysis of what exactly in a capitalistic system is unfair or responsible for these outcomes. It is the profit motive? Is it the product or products in question? Is it private property? Is it our insatiable appetite for consuming ever more stuff?

If I were making this film, I would have tried to break down in a clear way what capitalism is, its benefits and weaknesses, and gone about giving clearer examples of what has gone wrong and where the control and fault lies.

The film is filled with a lot of feel good finger pointing and some decent descriptions of who  controls the money in government (if not exactly how), but is very short on specifics. At one point in the film Moore professes his befuddlement over derivatives and other “exotic” financial instruments, and one gets the sense his confusion about how capitalism works runs quite deep, other than an abiding faith in its basic evil. Part of what made this so upsetting for me personally to watch is that I do think we live in a capitalist system run amok, and I just wish we had a clearer voice than Michael Moore’s agitating for change.

For me the most upsetting thing about what happens on Wall Street and the billions earned (or stolen), is that there is no product being produced. This isn’t a capitalistic system in the strict sense of making profit off the selling of the best widget, because there are no widgets. These are merely games that move money around to maximize profit off of moving money around.

No economy can run without production and consumption, but it is the orgy of excess in both these realms that makes me wary. Without proper controls on the conditions of production and consumption, we end up in exactly the mess that we currently find ourselves in.

One sobering statistic in the film involves tax rates in this country. In what was widely considered a “golden era” of capital production and social well being in this country, in the middle of the last century the highest tax rate was around 90% (for those earning more than 200,000 which equals roughly 1.6 million in today’s dollars). Outside of the social inequities based largely on race and gender, the gap between rich and poor was much (much) narrower. The percentage of income necessary to own a home or pay for college education was drastically smaller. Think about that. The gap between rich and poor in this country has never been greater, and the tax code, thanks largely to Republicans and supple Democrats has been revised again and again over the years down to the measly 35% that most people pay today (that is except for the very rich who have all kinds of special loopholes for avoiding paying even this paltry amount). And still we have Republicans clamoring that the rates are too high. We are on a dangerous path. Not only are we bankrupting government and its ability to provide services, we are creating deep class divisions that boil over in all kinds of (potentially violent) ways.

The closest Moore ever comes (near the end of the film) to a prescription for a better world is his half assed, tossed out, use of the word “democracy”, as if it is a self evident cure-all. (Which history clearly demonstrates is useless in the absence of education.) What we really need to do is realize that there are some things for which the market is the best provider, and some things which should not be run as for profit enterprises. Certain basic or minimum level services should be available to all in this country, not only the rich. And while we are at it, backing away from our voracious need to consume and posses everything might be a good start as well.

Comments

  1. mom says:

    Excellent post. I especially liked this: For me the most upsetting thing about what happens on Wall Street and the billions earned (or stolen), is that there is no product being produced. This isn’t a capitalistic system in the strict sense of making profit off the selling of the best widget, because there are no widgets. These are merely games that move money around to maximize profit off of moving money around.