Does Michael Moore Know What Capitalism Is?
Michael Moore has made a name for himself as the king of ambush journalism. He snags interviews with corporate bigwigs and policy makers by pretending to be interested in benign issues and then switches to hot-button topics once he’s in the room. With aggressive questioning that catches interviewees off guard and skillful editing that twists their comments around, he paints an ugly picture of corporate and conservative America that is deliberately and malevolently deceptive. Moore’s disingenuous tactics are so blatant that even the Academy of Arts & Sciences refuses to list his films as documentaries.
"Capitalism: A Love Story," Moore’s latest pseudo-documentary, is another deliberately misleading, emotionally charged, sometimes silly hodgepodge of loosely related scenes. Relying almost entirely on film and tv news clips, heart-wrenching anecdotes, spritely voiceovers, and apparently staged protests, Moore once again manages to deceive his adoring fans — this time blaming capitalism for everything that is wrong with America.
The biggest problem with "Capitalism: A Love Story" is that it isn’t really about capitalism; most of the people he "outs" are politicians. To be fair, Moore doesn’t limit his blame to Bush and the Republicans this time; Clinton, Chris Dodd, Greenspan, and even Obama appear to be in on the take as Moore reports on last year’s financial meltdown. But these are politicians. If capitalists are buying them, it’s because the politicians put themselves up for sale.
Moreover, he never offers a serious definition of capitalism; he simply uses it in his title and then implies that every travesty we see in the film is caused by it. The closest he comes to a definition is garnered from a series of priests who describe capitalism as "a sin," "a radical evil" and "morally wrong." Moore himself gleefully intones: "Capitalism is a system of giving and taking. Mostly taking."
So what is capitalism? It is simply a system by which private wealth is used to produce and distribute goods and services. Capitalists save their money and then invest it in a business or property that earns a profit. Yes, capitalists often become wealthy. But so do the people whose businesses they fund. Capitalists also go bankrupt, if they invest in businesses that go sour. That’s the risk they take. Most end up somewhere in between.
Moore himself is a beneficiary of capitalism. He could not have made any of his movies without hundreds of thousands of dollars in upfront capital to pay for cameras, film supplies, crew salaries, processing, distribution, and myriad other expenses. In short, Moore himself is a capitalist — and a highly successful one at that.
The film begins with what appears to be a hostage standoff. Four adults are locked inside a house, filming the arrival of several police cars and speaking to one another about the inevitability of what’s about to happen. What is it? A suicide pact? A religious cult? As police begin knocking down the doors, the householders call out, "We have no weapons. We will not resist. But we will not open the door." The crisis? A foreclosure eviction.
Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply saddened by the number of people who have lost their homes in this financial crisis. I’m sorry if they were duped into borrowing more than they could afford to repay. But according to Moore’s own film, it was Fed chairman Alan Greenspan who urged homeowners to "Tap into your home equity" as a way of stimulating the economy, and it was Clinton era lawmakers who passed the Community Reinvestment Act requiring banks to grant mortgages to low-income homebuyers. Don’t blame capitalism for government policy.
In another segment, Moore presents the horrify stories of several teens who were sent to a juvenile detention center for seemingly minor infractions. They were all sentenced by the same judge, who appears to have been receiving kickbacks from the owner of the facility. (I say "seemingly" and "appears to have" because I can never trust Moore to tell a true story.) The more children this judge sent to the facility, the more money he received. Many of these teens remained virtually incarcerated for months, according to the film.
Moore blames this travesty on capitalism because the community had turned to a privatized detention system rather than a government-run facility. But let’s put the blame where it belongs. This is not a failure of capitalism, it is a failure of this particular judge to act honestly and appropriately.
Moore complains that capitalists are greedy, but greed is a condition of human nature, not of capitalism per se — or of socialism, for that matter. Most people try to be honest, but some steal from their own mothers. Greed can and often does lead to criminal behavior. But it’s easier to control, incarcerate, or simply avoid greedy capitalists than it is to get rid of greedy politicians and dictators.
Moore decries the profit motive as "morally evil," but what motivation would he prefer? Whips? Chains? How about pleasure? Moore interviews several pilots who love to fly airplanes, but they still aren’t happy. They want more money.
This leads us to another of Moore’s anecdotes: the plight of employees at Republic Windows and Doors who were all let go when the company went bankrupt. This isn’t so much a failure of capitalism as it is a failure of the union who represented the workers, in essence pricing themselves out of the market. Interestingly, Moore was right there on the spot, filming disgruntled employees as they broke into the factory and began a sit-in. Did he just happen to be passing by with a camera crew? Did he re-enact the bolt-cutting? Or did Moore himself incite the sit-in for his mockumentary? Quite a convenient coincidence, Mr. Moore.
At one point, Moore asks one of the former employees why they didn’t just form a cooperative and run the company themselves. One woman responds, "Because we don’t have any money — we aren’t capitalists." There’s the rub: it takes capital to start a business. But anyone can be a capitalist. All you have to do is spend less than you earn, and invest the difference.
In fact, Moore unwittingly demonstrates that possibility when he shows what happened at a bakery where employees bought the company and turned it into a cooperative. Today they all work harder and enjoy their jobs more. They feel empowered. They saved their money, invested it in a business, and now they’re making a handy profit. Wait a minute — isn’t that capitalism?
Moore suggests raising taxes as a way to fix the economy. "When the highest tax rates were 90%" he intones cheerily, "America enjoyed the greatest expansion in history, and families could get by on one income," implying that a 90% tax rate today could solve our problems. But the tax code was different in the 50s. Congress awarded liberal tax breaks and exemptions for "good behavior."
High income earners could give 90% of their marginal income to the government in taxes, or they could invest 100 % of it in a business, write it off, and reap the profits. Which would you do? What started out as a tax loophole turned into the greatest infusion of investment capital our country has ever known. No wonder the economy thrived. Capitalism truly was a love story.
But Moore has no sincere desire to inform or enlighten his viewers with a genuine explanation of how capitalism works. He’s a carnival barker who simply loves to rake the muck at the end of the pony show, a technology-savvy magician who knows how to manipulate the smoke and mirrors. Unfortunately, this circus has been to town too many times, and it isn’t very entertaining any more. I kept looking at my watch, wondering when it was going to be over. It was like listening to Andy Rooney for two straight hours.
Moore says this is his last movie. Let’s hope he’s telling the truth about that.