Friday, September 11, 2009

Michael Moore goes after the pigs

Capitalism: a Love Story doesn't just go after the seamy side of the American economy, although that is captured neatly in the scenes of "condo vultures" feeding on Florida's housing bust, alongside the corporations (including Wal-Mart and Amegy Bank) which take out insurance policies on their employees and cash in big when they die young. These ghoulish derivatives go by the charming name of "dead peasants" insurance – which says it all, really.

But Moore has bigger targets in his sights: he is questioning whether the whole incentive structure, moral values and political economy of American capitalism is fit for human beings. Although this will not seem so radical in Europe, where most countries have had governments in the post-second world war era that at least called themselves socialist, or in most of the developing world, where socialist ideas have popular appeal, it's pretty much unprecedented for something that can reach a mass audience in the US.

But you don't have to be a revolutionary to appreciate this film. Indeed, it can be seen as a social democratic treatise, with Franklin Roosevelt's proposed "second bill of rights" – an "economic bill of rights" that included a job with a living wage, housing, medical care, and education – as its reform program. Roosevelt is shown proposing this now forgotten program back in 1944.

As in his previous films, Moore combines the grief and tragedy of the victims – people losing their homes and jobs – with hilarious comedy, cartoonish film clips from the 1950's, and sober testimony as needed. And there are victories, too – as when workers occupy their factory in Chicago to win the pay that they are owed.

As an economist who operates in the think-tank world, I have to appreciate this work. He gets the economic story right. How is it that Michael Moore's father could buy a house and raise a family on the income of one auto worker, and still have a pension for his retirement? And yet this is not possible in the vastly more productive economy of today? The answer is not complicated: ...


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