Review of the Book:
Capitalism: A Love Story,
by Michael Moore

Scott Baker

[Reprinted from 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 first appears.

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 monetary one?

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 further.

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 towards George.

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