Review of the Book:
Capitalism: A Love Story,
by Michael Moore
GroundSwell, September-October 2009]
Moore is at his muckraking best again in "Capitalism: A Love
Story," a series of selective (to be fair, there's a lot to
select from) jabs at what he calls Capitalism. This time,
however, his target is so big - bigger than even the health care
industry in his last, and better-focused opus, "Sicko" --
that he misses the target at times.
Unfortunately, although Moore does distinguish quite clearly
between Capitalism as it was when he was growing up in the 1950s and
60s, and the rapacious winner-take-all Capitalism of our times, he
is as locked as his opponents on Wall Street and in the Power Rooms
of Washington are, into the false dichotomy of left vs.
right/Socialism vs. Capitalism. When he talks glowingly about middle
class life during the Eisenhower years, when the top tax rate was
90%(!), he completely ignores what Henry George called Value from
Production vs. Value from Obligation.The former, of course, is
beneficial because it contributes to society by, for example,
building a better mousetrap, or a better power plant, or a car whose
battery can be charged in five minutes and run for 300 miles. The
latter, profiting from the Casino of Wall Street or the
monopolization of natural resources, is where the really obscene
wealth comes from -- it cannot come from production, as Georgists
know, since market competition won't allow it.
Moore attacks the Casino mentality of modern capitalism --
especially in his bemusing segment where he is trying to understand
the basis for derivatives.
He clearly shows, while ironically using a derivative formula that
is anything but clear -- how this market is designed from the get-go
to confuse even its deepest participants rather than illuminate
them. Even here, however, he fails to state the danger due to the
sheer immensity of this market, or how this reality sent even the
power brokers quaking in their fine Russian Calf Shoes to Washington
for a Socialist rescue. Would mentioning a single number have taken
too much movie time, and wouldn't it have been worth saying it is
$600 Trillion worldwide -- and growing?
We could have used a few less irrelevant culture-bashing outtakes
of cats flushing toilets and a few more hard facts. Moore does allow
a TV economist and a (rare) cooperative V.P. on Wall Street to trip
over their own explanations of what a derivative is. Amusing, or
terrifying, depending on your point-of-view, but does this solve
anything? Does it illuminate the audience in order to help end the
1,000-year long 18-year cycle of booms and busts that Mason Gaffney
talks about in "The Great Crash of 2008."
More on Moore's solution to the evils of Capitalism later -- but
not much, because there isn't much.
Moore is at his best when he can reduce corporate greed to the
personal level -- the families getting evicted from their homes,
mostly, we are led to believe, because of adjustable rate mortgages
which only adjust upward, until they become unaffordable.
To squash any possibility that the audience might think these
home-losers might have brought about their own problems, Moore
mentions that the FBI -- though squashed and sidelined by having its
white-collar crime unit reallocated to terrorism work post 9/11, and
despite warning as early as 2004 of monstrous housing scams apparent
even then -- believes 80% of the housing fraud was initiated by the
banks and other loan-makers. But those who sought to
Flip-their-house to wealth are never singled out for rebuke. It's as
if we are getting half the story. Even worse, we may be getting a
story from only one book, and that book is not Progress and
Poverty or anything that speaks to the fundamental problem in
treating land as if it was just another item to be bought and sold,
like the house on top of it, or the old car in the driveway.
But, perhaps one could be forgiven for forgetting George and his
teachings while watching Moore demonstrate how Juvenile (mostly
non-)delinquents were systematically rounded up and sent to a
privately run detention center in Pennsylvania, for the personal
enrichment of the share-holding judge who sent them there.
Surely, George's teachings have little to say to this kind of
corruption except that it is (the judge was eventually caught and
prosecuted, but not before many years of many young people's lives
and dreams were robbed).
George would agree that this was egregious corruption, but would
have little more to say about this...or would he?
We are later in the "Corruption of Economics" and of
society, than we were in George's time. Indeed, the scandals of his
day, while systemic, deep, and notorious, still seem quaint and
almost small to us now, with our global shadow banking system and
electronic means of creating so-called, but ultimately fictitious,
wealth on a scale even Andrew Carnegie and the other Robber Barons
would have blushed at. But, this particular display of corruption
--a local judge sending children to his private (un)reform center
for the tiniest infractions -- arguing with a girlfriend in a Mall,
being disrespectful to their mother's boyfriend etc. -- would have
been right at home in George's time, as it is -- still -- in ours.
Perhaps the land issue is not so far from the cause of this as it
As Moore points out, since Reagan, everything has been privatized,
right down to, in this case, the very act of punishment of American
citizens. A state so weakened and attenuated by relentless and
merciless (both to itself and to its citizens) tax cuts and other
resource giveaways, has no choice but to outsource even that most
basic of functions, maintaining law and order.
Under such a scheme, a prisoner, or delinquent child, becomes an
asset to profit from -- the longer the incarceration, the better, as
long as the State pays the bills -- not a liability for the state to
cycle back into society as early as possible -- hopefully reformed.
In a culture where land is treated as property, to be bought and
sold as if it was a true product of labor, is it any wonder that
people are also treated as property, with no other value but a
Moore's cure for this form of value-free Capitalism is Democracy,
and the movie ends on a hopeful, if wary, note, just after the
election of Obama.
Some months have passed now -- a perennial problem with any of
Moore's topical movies, though the problems are big enough that they
never truly go away, they just move to new phases.
But, many people believe that Obama has not quite lived up to
expectations; however, that is not even the point.
Without any consideration of the fundamental inequality engendered
by treating the natural resources of the world as the property of
the few, and not of all of us, there will be more housing bubbles,
more oil bubbles, and other ultimately empty derivative bubbles.
True, derivatives make these much worse, but you can't build a
skyscraper without a basement, and here the basement is the collection
of rent by private parties, not by the people. That is the foundation
for the corruption built on top, no matter how towering the edifice.
Watching Capitalism, like watching the contempory American
economy, leaves one feeling like the American Bus has run out of
gas, and more and more passengers are being forced to get out and
push it up an ever-increasing hill, leaving fewer and fewer inside
to ride as the "Elite" passengers. Capitalists, in Moore's
world, seem only able to concoct schemes to move one pile of money
onto their own pile, without actually producing anything of value
along the way. It is not a zero sum game, it is a minus sum game,
where the scams and bailouts steadily, and increasingly rapidly,
diminish us all by indebting us, and making us distrustful -
hopefully, the real power believes, of each other.
But what George taught us 130 years ago still holds true; it is
not the Country that is poor, it is the People. There is more than
enough wealth in the land, when brought out by labor, to support us
all - but only if you break the monopoly of it and allow the true
source of wealth to be distributed to us all.
Although Moore reads -- correctly -- that the Constitution says
nothing about basing the economy on Capitalism, he somehow missed
Article One, Section 8, where it says that "The Congress shall
have Power...To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of
foreign Coin..." It's surprising that during Moore's screed
against outsourcing, he missed this earliest and most damaging act
of privatizing the very act of making money -- relegating the U.S.
Mint to a quaint institution worthy of little more than serving as
the destination for children's school trips and as a source of State
quarters for coin collectors.
Instead, Moore leaves us with a disdainful choice, though he
never quite comes out and declares it: Capitalism vs. Socialism. His
mocking portrayal of Socialism in purposely dated film clips of
goose-stepping, state-worshipping parades will, unfortunately,
strike some people as close to the mark -- though I doubt they are
the ones who go to see his movies anyway. Still, even the most
sympathetic viewer will be left wondering, well, didn't we already
try Socialism, and didn't that lead to unproductivity, however much
it may, or may not, have bolstered human rights and equality? It is
perhaps not Moore's job to Lead the Way, but if not him, then who?
Our leaders are funded by, or directly come from, Goldman Sachs -- a
fact Moore does point out.
Seeing Capitalism, we are still stuck on the same two-dimensional
line with Moore, he towards the left. Like the geometrical denizens
of another movie, "Flatland," we cannot see what is above
us because we can only move along a plane, never looking up (or,
really a line). This political economy teeter-totter -- a little
raise for the ordinary people = a little dip for productivity and
innovation -- leaves us winded and sore, and just wishing we could
step off. Even many of the "evil rich" might wish to step
off, after having lost 30% of their equity in the latest crash, and
perhaps being behind like the rest of us, after ten years in which
the markets went nowhere.
Moore misses an ironic opportunity to show that this so-called
system-for-the-rich doesn't even work by their standards, in most
cases.Yes, the top 1% make off with far too much of the spoils, but
the overall wealth of the country is being lowered, sold, or
squandered.The Power-Elites are left gobbling a larger piece of a
shrinking pie, even while pursuing policies that make the pie shrink
Moore misses other opportunities to unite the so-called left and
the so-called right. (Quick: Was bailing out the large banks
something favored by Conservatives or Progressives? Well, both
Conservative George Bush and Progressive Barack Obama pursued the
same policy, while liberal Michael Moore and Arch-Conservative
Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) argued against it, though, in Moore's
case, it is merely implied. Again, we are left wondering what,
exactly does Moore want to do differently?)
But, there is a third way, neither left nor right, nor some
muddled middle; a way outside the bi-polar plane, if only we, or our
designated storytellers, like Moore, could lift our eyes upward