I have a weakness for seeing movies in theaters; the home variety, even with the super large screens, is just not the same. And it has been so long since I have seen a movie that all the trailers looked good to me (well, I must confess I like trailers. The tacky soda and car ads are quite another matter).
Even after allowing for my movie-deprived state, I was impressed with Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story.” He argues the Simon Johnson “Silent Coup” thesis, of a takeover by the financial classes, in a way that is accessible and credible, which is no mean feat for a subject matter like finance.
Admittedly, Moore has crafted his own genre of picaresque-shambolic docu-polemic, so if you object to his sthick, you are going to be mundo unhappy. The ritual of Moore shuffling up to shiny corporate headquarters seeking confessions from corporate chieftans, camera crew in tow, only to be rebuffed by security guards, is a tad overdone.
But some of his staples have become more effective over time. For instance, his Flint/auto industry fixation as the poster child for what happened to what was once middle class America has become more powerful over time as once-proud Detroit has collapsed into third world squalor.
I grew up in small towns dominated by manufacturing plants, and I remember that they were prosperous, optimistic, and stable. People who had good jobs at the local mill were not the top of the social order; that was reserved for businessmen and successful professionals, like doctors and lawyers. But they could afford decent homes, creature comforts, vacations, and send their kids to college (not the fanciest, often a state school unless they got a scholarship, but their children could nevertheless hope to do better than their parents). But that had started fading by the 1970s as America’s economic dominance started to slip. Moore clearly is pained at the loss of the America that was (while pointing out it depended on the special circumstances of our post World War II political and manufacturing dominance) and our naivete in trusting in an economic model that has been been turned against the common man.
Movies are well suited to stories or arresting images; they are not the best medium for covering the terrain Moore staked out for his latest effort. He has to punt on some issues that most would concede to be true but it would have been nice for him to prove a bit (for instance, that the US trust in “capitalism” and “free enterprise” are the result of propaganda. That practice could conceivably have been warranted when the antipode was Communism, but they get the same near-religious treatment even after the Red Menace has faded). Similarly, some cynics would no doubt want to hear the histories of the families that Moore showed being evicted. The debate has become polarized; people who lose their homes are cast as either victims or greedy and irresponsible. One of the couples he shows may have been duped; the wife was working, the husband on disability, and the mortgage payments kept escalating. Moore avoids those detail to focus on horrid process of eviction.
While Moore brings some immediacy to the oft-recounted misdeeds of the last few years, he also catalogues faceless, under-the-radar indignities which are more disturbing. It’s bad enough that airline pilots need food stamps and/or second jobs to get by. Creepier is that companies routinely take out life insurance policies on employees, not the key-may type, but on the rank and file, seeing these so-called Dead Peasant policies as a profitable venture (Moore did not give the full details, but the two cases that paid out, one $5 million on a bank manager who had cancer, another $81,000 on an asthmatic Wal-Mart cake decorator, suggests that the companies are playing an information asymmetry game, betting they have a better reading on who is in poor health than the insurer. And their success makes life insurance more costly for those who really need it).
Readers will likely enjoy his treatment of the TARP and its aftermath. Moore provides evidence well known to finance blog readers, such as Goldman penetration of key policy positions, an obligatory Phil Gramm saying something heinous shot, and the role of financial services contributions (he managed to interview the fellow at Countrywide in charge of the “Friends of Angelo” cheap mortgage as bribe program, who sees nothing wrong in what he did). He also makes good use of Bill Black and Elizabeth Warren. Congressmen and women, agitated even now, describe how the process of getting the TARP through despite overwhelming popular opposition was masterfully orchestrated, carefully timed to prey on re-election fears “like an intelligence operation”. The clips are simply damning, and dispel any doubts of who is really in charge in DC.
The film closed with a call to action, more pointed than anything we are likely to get from Obama (the movie takes some pains to depict the hope at the time of his election yet reserves judgment on whether he will deliver). The audience applauded. But the protests Moore cheered as possible harbingers of things to come were small scale, nice symbolism, but thin on follow through. Will anyone really take up the cause?
PS (hat tip George Washington). Bill Moyers has picked up on the silent coup thesis, interviewing Simon Johnson and Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who was one of Moore’s most pointed sources.