A friend recently invited me to a private screening of Michael Moore’s
new film Capitalism: A Love Story. The September 16th invite not
surprisingly leaned a certain direction:
“[Michael] Moore takes us into the homes of ordinary people whose lives
have been turned upside down; and he goes looking for explanations in
Washington, DC and elsewhere. What he finds are the all-too-familiar
symptoms of a love affair gone astray: lies, abuse, betrayal and 14,000
jobs being lost every day. Capitalism: A Love Story…is Michael
Moore’s ultimate quest to answer the question he’s posed throughout his
illustrious filmmaking career: Who are we and why do we behave the way
that we do?”
Considering Moore was going to be there for a Q&A after (moderated by
Arianna Huffington), I quickly signed on. Now before painting a picture
of Moore’s new film let me be honest: my belief set is essentially
libertarian (‘Government out of my bedroom and my pocketbook’). Not
only do government solutions not excite me, they scare the living blank
out of me. Remember when George Bush declared, “I’ve abandoned free-
market principles to save the free-market system…to make sure the
economy doesn’t collapse”? He might as well of said, “Hide your money,
kids – ’cause I’m coming to take it!”
Oh sure, in theory I would like to see everyone with their own
homestead, money in their pocket for regular shopping frenzies and no
health worries despite eating at Burger King 24/7, but arriving at
those goals is not exactly doable unless government robs Peter to pay
Paul and or starts up the printing press.
And that view of course puts me in opposition to Moore since he has no
problem with government as his and our father figure. That is his
utopia. He truly believes warehouses of Washington, DC-based federal
workers remotely running our lives is the optimal plan. He is an
unapologetic socialist who really doesn’t care why the poor are poor or
the rich are rich, he just wants it fixed. So not surprisingly, and
with some generalization as I proffer this, Democrats like Moore and
However, I was excited to see a ‘mainstream’ film that was backed by
big Hollywood bucks conclude capitalism as ‘evil.’ Arguably the most
successful documentarian ever, a man who has made untold millions of
dollars, was going to legitimately make the case that there was an
alternative to capitalism. I sat down in a packed Mann’s Bruin Theater
in Westwood, CA eager to see how his vision could possibly flesh out.
Moore is a rather simple guy. He is likable. He sees the world as good
guys (people with no money) and bad guys (people with money). His
Flint, Michigan union worker upbringing is his worldview. If you did
not have that upbringing or if your life started less severe than his
you are an evil capitalist. If on the other hand you were a laid off
factory worker with a sixth grade education you are the true hero. I
don’t care one way or the other that he has that view and I am not
knocking union workers, but Moore sees the world through a class
warfare lens resulting in a certain agenda: force wealth to be spread
amongst everyone regardless of effort. Within minutes it was clear
where Capitalism: A Love Story was headed. The ‘highlights’ included:
- We listen to heartbreaking stories of foreclosed families across
America, but we don’t learn why the foreclosures happened. Did these
people treat their homes as piggy banks? Were there refis on top of
refis just to keep buying mall trinkets and other goodies with no
respect to risk or logic? We don’t find out.
- We meet one family who was just foreclosed on so desperate for money
that they were willing to accept $1,000 for cleaning out the house that
they were just evicted from. Was it sad? Yes. But, should we end
capitalism due to this one family in Peoria, IL?
- We are introduced to a guy whose company is called ‘Condo Vultures’
buying and selling foreclosed properties. Since he acted like a used
car salesman, the implication was that he was an evil capitalist.
However, Moore doesn’t tell us if his buyers were ‘working class’
people making smart buying decisions after prices had dropped.
- We listen to Catholic priests who denounce capitalism as an evil to
be eradicated. What they would put in its place and how would the new
system work? The priests don’t tell us.
- We learn that Wal-Mart bought life insurance policies on many
workers. We are then told to feel outrage when Wal-Mart receives a
large payout from an employee death while the families still struggle
with bills. I saw where Moore was heading here, but this was a reason
to end capitalism?
- We hear a story from a commercial pilot so low on money that he has
to use food stamps. Moore points out that many pilots are making less
than Taco Bell managers and then attributes a recent plane crash in
Buffalo to underpaid pilots. This one crash is extrapolated out as yet
another reason to end capitalism.
- I was pleasantly surprised at Moore’s attempt at balance. For example,
- A carpenter, while ply-wooding up a foreclosed home, says, “If people
pay their bills, they don’t get thrown out.”
- A dressing down of Senator Chris Dodd (D) by name. Moore calling out
a top Democrat? He sure did. He nailed him.
- A lengthy dissertation on the evils of Goldman Sachs. He rips Robert
Rubin and Hank Paulson big time and I agree with him. In fact, I said
to myself, “Moore you should have done your whole film on Goldman
Throughout the various stories and interviews he also weaves a
conspiracy (all Moore films do this). The plot goes something like
this: America won World War II and quickly dominated due to no
competition (Germany and Japan were destroyed). We had great post-war
success where everyone lived in union-like equality. Jobs were
plentiful and families were happy. However, things start to go bad in
the 1970s, and Moore uses a snippet of President Carter preaching about
greed. This clip was predictably building to Moore’s big reason for all
problems today: the Reagan revolution.
Moore sees Reagan entering the scene as a shill for corporate banking
interests. However, everyone is happy as the good times roll all the
way through into Clinton times. Moore does take subtle shots at
President Clinton, but nails his right hand economic man Larry Summers
directly as a primary reason for the banking collapse. So, while Moore
sees Japan and Germany today as socialistic winners where corporations
benefit workers more than shareholders, he sees America sinking fast.
So is that it? That was the proof that capitalism is an evil to
eliminate? Essentially, yes, that’s Moore’s proof. What is his
solution? Tugging on your idealistic heartstrings of course! Moore ends
his film with recently uncovered video of FDR talking to America on
January 11, 1944. Looking into the camera a weary FDR proposed what he
called a second Bill of Rights – an economic Bill of Rights for all
regardless of station, race, or creed that included:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops
or farms or mines of the nation.
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return
which will give him and his family a decent living.
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an
atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by
monopolies at home or abroad.
The right of every family to a decent home. The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and
enjoy good health.
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age,
sickness, accident, and unemployment.
The right to a good education.
As FDR concluded and the film ended, I was shocked at the reaction. The
theater of 400+ stood and cheered wildly at FDR’s 1944 proposal. The
questions running through my head were immediate: How does one
legislate words like “useful”, “enough”, “recreation”, “adequate”,
“decent”, and “good”? Who decides all of this and to what degree? At
past points in history to voice an opposition opinion in the middle of
such a single-minded herd would have certainly been my physical demise!
Interestingly, during the Q&A Huffington and Moore discussed bank
failure fears during the fall of 2008. They asked for a show of hands
of how many people moved money around or attempted to protect against a
bank failure. I had the only hand that went up.
FDR’s plan hauled out by Moore six decades after it was forgotten
reminded me of another interchange – this one from the 1970s. Then talk
show master, the Oprah of his day, Phil Donahue was interviewing free
market economist Milton Friedman and wanted to know if Friedman had
ever had a moment of doubt about “capitalism and whether greed’s a good
idea to run on?”
Friedman was quick in response, “…is there some society you know that
doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think
China doesn’t run on greed? The world runs on individuals pursuing
their separate interests. The great achievements of civilization have
not come from government bureaus. Einstein didn’t construct his theory
under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the
automobile industry that way. In the only cases in which the masses
have escaped from the kind of grinding poverty you’re talking about,
the only cases in recorded history are where they have had capitalism
and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worst
off, it’s exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that. So
that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear: that there is
no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the
ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities
that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.”
Donahue (and the video of this on YouTube is classic) then countered
saying that capitalism rewards the ability to manipulate the system and
not virtue. Friedman was having none of it, “And what does reward
virtue? You think the communist commissar rewards virtue? …Do you
think American presidents reward virtue? Do they choose their
appointees on the basis of the virtue of the people appointed or on the
basis of their political clout? Is it really true that political self-
interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest? …Just tell me
where in the world you find these angels who are going to organize
society for us?”
Friedman’s logic was what I was remembering as a theater full of people
cheered wildly for a second Bill of Rights. How did this film crowd
actually think FDR’s 1944 vision could be executed? Frankly, it was
clear to me at that moment capitalism was on shaky ground. Starting
with Bush ‘abandoning’ capitalism to bailouts for everyone to Obama
gifting away the future – we seriously might be past the point of no
return toward a socialization of America.
Figuring someone else must see the problems with this film, I started
poking around the net for other views. One critic declared that the
value of Capitalism: A Love Story was not in the moviemaking, but in
its message that hits you in the gut and makes you angry. This film did
not make me angry, but it did punch me in the gut. The people in that
theater with me were not bad people, including Moore. They just seem to
all have consumed a lethal dose of Kool-Aid! And at the end of his Q&A
Moore pushed the audience to understand that while they don’t have the
money, they do have the vote. He implored them to use their vote to
take money from one group to give it another group. Did he really say
that openly with no ambiguity? Yes, sadly.
for Markets and Money