Friday, May 07, 2010

Capitalism ... Some Sort Of Something

So I realize I'm a year or so late to the party, but last night, my wife and I finally sat down and watched Michael Moore's latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story. The obvious way to review the film (or any Michael Moore film for that matter), is along partisan lines. If you're on the left, you probably enjoyed it and if you're somewhere in the area of the free market right, you're thoughts probably echoed the Wall Street trader who's advice to Moore outside the New York stock exchange was to stop making movies.

Personally, I think Michael Moore is a doof, but you've got to admit, he's a fun doof. And he tells compelling stories, or at least, he throws out an awful lot of images and ideas into a relatively brief film. In terms of Moore's documentaries, I've always enjoyed Roger and Me and I thought his follow up, The Big One, was rather underrated. I never watched Fahrenheit 9-11 and refused to watch Sick-O because Moore could have made the exact same movie from the opposite perspective and have been just as equally unconvincing. Going into Capitalism, I expected to be thoroughly agitated by Moore's confusion about just what capitalism was, but despite the expected confusion, I found the film entertaining and even thought provoking. Like my favorite Moore film, Bowling for Columbine, Capitalism is awash with a number of great images, full of statistics, numbers, and history, and touches on any number of facets of America that I'm not even sure Moore knew he was getting at. Like Columbine, Capitalism is more than the sum of it's parts and is certainly more than hodge podge narrative Moore has stitched together. Ultimately though, it's not that Moore is wrong about what the meta-narrative of his film should be, it's that there is no meta-narrative that encompasses the sum total of our political system, our economic system, and our culture.

Michael Moore's Flint Michigan roots always have intrigued me because his Michigan focus seems much more conservative than progressive, longing for an idealized world from the past that neevr actually existed. dd in the religious element- Moore includes interviews with a number of Catholic priests who are highly critical of America's economic system- and you've got the makings on an interesting story that contradict some of the simplistic ideas we have about politics.

At the end of Capitalism, Moore brings up FDR's proposal for a second bill of rights, guaranteeing basic economic "freedoms" to all Americans. Other than in the minds of some academics, FDR's second bill of rights was never implemented in any legal or practical sense. But Moore spends a portion of the early part of the film lamenting the Flint Michigan of the 50's, where a union-working father could earn enough to buy a new house and new car for his family, and where the rich were taxed at rates of 90%. Yes, there were high tax rates, but this was still a world without that second bill of rights. And more importantly, as Moore himself points out in the film, the post war economy of the United States only boomed for such a long period of time because the rest of the industrial world was so wrecked by World War II. It's fascinating because, as Moore tells us at the end of the film, the point is to find a new economic system. Yet the only picture Moore gives us of what that might look like is an idealized view of a world that was an accident of history.

Various portions of Capitalism weaved in stories of foreclosures, meant to highlight the heartlessness of capitalism. And yes, a system where people are thrown out of their homes certainly appears heartless. But as my wife pointed out throughout the film, we were given no context as to why these people lost their homes. And even more importantly, Moore gives no indication of what sort of system we should have. Interestingly enough, the night after watching Capitalism, I caught a news story about Nicholas Cage and how he's faced foreclosure on a number of his homes because of his extreme mismanagement of money. Forget for a moment the practical consequences of "no more foreclosures" and you've got to ask yourself, where would we draw the line even if we had a no foreclosure rule? Should Nicholas Cage get to keep all his mansions that he can't pay for? Should the middle class family that can't afford the half-million dollar home they overpaid for during the housing bubble get to stay in their home they can't pay for. And of course, the obvious, practical problem of no foreclosures would be only the very rich would be able to buy property- after all, what bank is going to loan hundreds of thousands of dollars when they have no recourse when the lendee doesn't pay.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Moore's film is it's focus on politicians and government. We see the stock exchange, but the villains of the film are the various members of the Fed and the Treasury Department and their ties to Wall Street. That Moore's critique is really the ties between big business and government, or crony capitalism, has been made by many free market reviewers. But more interesting to me is the intensity of Moore's beliefs. Moore wants an end (or a change) to capitalism because this is how he sees capitalism. In a way, the free marketers defense of capitalism echoes the leftist defense of socialism and Marxism. Just as the United States is not an example of a true free market, the Soviet Union was not an example of true communism. Each side sees their ideal as a possibility, while the system they oppose is simply impractical. Libertarians and those on the right can't see the possibility of a communist state not bing oppressive and leftists don't see the possibility of a free market where big business isn't in bed with the government.

Where Moore offers hope to those of us who believe in free markets is not his nonsensical meta-narrative of an attack on capitalism, but in the bits and pieces. What do foreclosures say about our economic system, our culture? Why is Wall Street such a big mystery to the extent that it promotes conspiracy theorizing? Moore's brief look at the robotics company and the bakery organized as cooperatives were fascinating, but incomplete. Why do those business models work in some ways and not in others.

But perhaps the most telling statement of the entire film was from the striking worker at the window and door plant in Illinois (and I'm paraphrasing here): "We'd like to open up the plant and run it ourselves, but we just don't have the money." Thank God there are capitalists who do have money. When it's convenient to his story, Moore loves to talk about the individual little people. Yet Moore is quite specifically not a technocrat- the latter half of the film is an attack on the supposed experts who attempt to run the economy from Washington. Maybe Moore just wants "the right people" running things, but he never comes out and specifically says so. It's really the only hope free marketers have- That folks on the left can realize that markets work for them, the ability of government to do good is limited and that capitalism really is a love story that provides the most hope for the most people.