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Friday, April 30, 2010

Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story"

I have never written a movie review before in Media Realism. But, having seen Michael Moore’s latest documentary “Capitalism: A Love Story”, I feel compelled to comment on it.

Michael Moore is a 56 year old film maker from Flint, Michigan. He burst on to the scene with “Roger & Me” back in 1989 which took direct aim at General Motors. Over the years, he added many documentaries including “Bowling for Columbine” in 2002 which covered America’s love affair with guns and tendencies toward violence, “Fahrenheit 9/11”, a 2004 hatchet job on George W. Bush, “Sicko” from 2007 which discussed our lack of comprehensive health care compared to other Western nations, and most recently, his 2009 entry, “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

I must confess that I do not particularly like Michael Moore. Some people have told me not to watch his films; a few others not to write this blog entry. But, I have always held that if you do not see or read something, you cannot ethically complain about it. So, I screened the film twice (thank you, Netflix).

“Capitalism: A Love Story” covers the events surrounding and the aftermath of the financial crisis of late 2008 and early 2009. We still feel it today and will be paying for it for decades. Moore’s thesis is that capitalism or the free market is inherently unfair, even evil. Capitalists in the film are portrayed as greedy and unfeeling. This week his message probably strikes a responsive chord with many who witnessed the arrogance of the Goldman Sachs senior team testifying in front of Carl Levin’s senate committee. Repeatedly, they dismissed questions from the unusually well prepared Senators with comments such as “Senator, do you really understand what it is to be a market maker in a security?” I watched a good bit of it on C-Span and was very annoyed (Yes, I lead an exciting life!).

Moore goes to great lengths to say that those on top are in an endless search for profits. Reviews of the film in some quarters say that the investment bankers (or is it banksters) are really the true life embodiment of of Milton Friedman’s famous quotation—“There is one and only one social responsibly of business: to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

Well. They never really read Friedman. I started at 19 and have since devoured virtually everything he ever published. The quote is a fragment from a now famous New York Times Magazine article in 1970. Here is the actual sentence that is rarely quoted in its entirety—“There is one and only one social responsibility of business: to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits SO LONG AS IT STAYS WITHIN THE RULES OF THE GAME, WHICH IS TO SAY, ENGAGES IN OPEN AND FREE COMPETITION WITHOUT DECEPTION OR FRAUD”. (Emphasis mine)

Friedman is actually calling for regulation and ethics! Moore throws all of us free market, free traders into the same cesspool as investment bankers who may have willfully packaged up crap mortgages and sold them to unsuspecting investors while they sold them short simultaneously. The truth is that there are millions of us who engage in honest exchange, pay our taxes, and stand behind everything that we sell. It is not the system that is evil; it is merely some of the players.

Moore is a film maker and at times, a good one. There is a lengthy scene in the film about a family in Illinois losing their farm as they could not handle increasing mortgage payments. Unless you are completely hard of heart you have to be moved by it. The segment reminded me of an updated version of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” without John Ford’s brilliant direction and cinematography and Henry Fonda’s stunning acting.

He also has some humor. At the end of the film, he arrives at Goldman headquarters perhaps at 6 am and blocks the entrance to the building with police tape emblazoned with “Crime Scene.” It reduced me to uncontrollable laughter.

These touches give Moore’s superficial analyses some traction with many people. Compare this to the marvelous and important documentary on America’s budget crises entitled “I.O.U.S.A.” Meticulously researched and featuring deficit hawk David W. Walker, billionaire Warren Buffett, and libertarian congressman Ron Paul, it lays out our difficult future clearly. But then it becomes repetitive and very boring. Moore, on the other hand, knows that he has to make you laugh and cry and often hits the mark.

The low point of the film to me is when he interviews some priests as to whether capitalism is a moral system. Instantly, I thought okay, he will have an economics professor from Georgetown, Boston College, or Notre Dame on to discuss it. Nope. He had the parish priest who officiated at his wedding in Flint, Michigan, another who was the church’s witness at his sister’s wedding, and finally a Detroit bishop. The trio all said capitalism was not moral. They all seem like splendid fellows but what expertise do they have in the economic arena?

Those of us who are Catholics know that priests and bartenders often serve as the poor man’s psychiatrist. So, if you were ministering to the faithful in Flint or in Detroit the last 30 years you would get an earful from struggling people as the domestic auto industry went south. But does the arrogance of GM ignoring consumer behavior trends make the system immoral? I think not.

I have always counted myself lucky. Roughly 4% of us were born in the United States. That gave me and most of you a tremendous leg up in life. But imagine if capitalism never evolved into being. Our ancestors would never have escaped to our rocky shores and unlimited opportunities. Even on my worst day, I realize this. Capitalism helps people. Certainly, you have freedom to succeed and also to fail and some do. But most of us are far better off with a free market. Had we not had economic freedom, my ancestors would never have come here. I would not exist, period. But somewhere in Monaghan County, Ireland there would be a fellow with some of my genetic history scrambling for a living working a potato patch for an absentee British aristocrat.
The market system is not perfect but it is the best system known to man. Moore’s blanket condemnation of capitalism is superficial and unfair. With proper regulation and Friedman’s concept of “open and free competition without deception or fraud” we can right the ship and move forward.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com


  1. I saw one of his interviews on Wall Street today and he said that we no longer have a free market or fair competition because a few big companies are buying out the competition or otherwise burying it. I think he is saying there is no adequate system of checks and balances on the influence of money on politics - I know I was and am appalled that our government gave those few select banks the $70,000,000,000 with no agreements as to how the monies would be used. It's a grotesque injustice and abuse of power.

  2. What he is referring to is now known as "Crony Capitalism." Certain big financial institutions and other large companies get special breaks. The big bailout in late 2008 protected the banks and investment banks and long term saddled the taxpayers with more debt.

    I do not agree with Moore's solutions to many of our problems but like many free market advocates I see the need for government to enforce "the rules of the game" with proper regulation. As Paul Volker has said "if you are too big to fail, then you are too big."

    Thanks for your interest in Media Realism.


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