Michael Moore's new movie, "Capitalism: A Love Story" opened today.
The first thing that must be said is that it isn't really a love story. Capitalism, Mr. Moore tells us, is "evil," and if his word isn't enough, he quotes two Catholic priests who say that capitalism is sinful and immoral, as well as Bishop Gumbleton of Detroit, who says that capitalism runs counter to the teaching of Jesus.
But if you can get past that – admittedly, a big if – there are some pretty entertaining moments in this movie. Mr. Moore is as tough on the Democrats as he is on the Republicans and the corporate executives. Democrats Richard Holbrooke, Donna Shalala, Senator Kent Conrad, and Senator Christopher Dodd all get skewered in the film for participating in Countrywide's "Friends of Angelo" program that offered favorable treatment for mortgages. Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers are targeted for their big corporate paydays following (and, in Mr. Summers's case, also preceding) government service. Mr. Moore asks how Timothy Geithner got his job as President Obama's Treasury secretary, and the answer turns out to be, according to the movie, by completely screwing up as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The funniest moments of all in the movie, though, may just be in the opening and closing credits. We see that the movie is presented by "Paramount Vantage" in association with the Weinstein Company. Bob and Harvey Weinstein are listed as executive producers. If Mr. Moore appreciates any of the irony here he sure doesn't share it with viewers, but for those members of the audience who are in on the secret it's all kind of amusing. Paramount Vantage, after all, is controlled by Viacom, on whose board sit none other than Sumner Redstone and former Bear Stearns executive Ace Greenberg, who aren't exactly socialists. The Weinstein Company announced it was funded with a $490 million private placement in which Goldman Sachs advised. The press release announcing the deal quoted a Goldman spokesman saying, "We are very pleased to be a part of this exciting new venture and look forward to an ongoing relationship with The Weinstein Company."
Knowing that background puts the rest of the movie in a different context. Mr. Moore shows Rep. Dennis Kucinich asking rhetorically on the floor of the House of Representatives, "Is this the United States Congress or the board of directors of Goldman Sachs?" Later, Mr. Moore shows up at Goldman Sachs headquarters in Manhattan driving an armored Brinks trunk and announcing, "We're here to get the money back for the American people." Maybe Mr. Moore should look in his own pockets.
One could fault Goldman or Weinstein or Viacom for promoting or funding this sort of stuff – capitalist enemies of the predicates of capitalism – but in the end some of Mr. Moore's criticism is justified, and the rest is so farfetched as to be unlikely to do much lasting damage. Mr. Moore is right that Countrywide's "Friends of Angelo" program was outrageous, as was the federal bailout of Wall Street (which both Senator McCain and Senator Obama backed) and the fear tactics the Bush administration used to get Congress to approve it.
He's even right that capitalism is imperfect. But Mr. Moore doesn't make a convincing case that any other system would be an improvement. He offers some tantalizing glimpses of worker-owned and managed cooperatives such as the Alvarado Street Bakery and Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing, and he suggests that things would be better if there were a 90% top income tax rate, stronger labor unions (like in Germany), and a second bill of rights added to the Constitution guaranteeing a job at a living wage, health care, housing, and education. He also seemed buoyed by a recent poll that found 33% of young Americans favored socialism over capitalism.
Interspersed with the credits at the end of the movie are a series of quotes from the founding fathers, including the one from Jefferson (discussed here yesterday, strangely enough) about how "banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies," and one from John Adams to the effect that "Property monopolized or in the possession of a few is a curse to mankind."
Mr. Moore at one point shows a man whose home is being foreclosed on saying, "There's got to be some kind of rebellion between the people that's got nothing and the people that's got it all." But the reverence in this movie for the founding fathers and for the Catholic Church are in some ways not particularly rebellious at all. Nor is Mr. Moore's yearning for a return to the idealized capitalism of his childhood as the son of a GM worker, when unionized employees could enjoy pensions and four-week-long summer vacations, and families with one wage-earner were securely middle-class. "If this was capitalism, I loved it," he said. One gets the sense that Mr. Moore still loves that part of America that allows him to make a living by running around publicly criticizing big companies and politicians, the America that funds the camera crews and movie theaters that allow him to display and distribute his ideas. He may not realize that it's capitalism, but there it is. So maybe it's a love story after all, if not in quite the way that Mr. Moore intended.
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