Seeing Capitalism: A Love Story with a Real-Life Capitalist

Opinions on the current economic situation in this country are like assholes - so far all they've produced is shit and thinking about them during sex can make things awkward (and yeah, everyone seems to have one). And though I think all of Michael Moore's films are well-intended (and Sicko is one of the reasons healthcare reform is even up for discussion these days) with this movie he comes daringly close to being some sort of left-wing Glenn Beck. Just as Beck has gained a bright (lucrative) national spotlight for forwarding his own Christian, conservative agenda by calling upon the outrage Americans feel during the trying times of a once-great empire's collapse, Moore, too, uses a reductive and populist approach, melodrama, and lots of outrage (he literally calls for a revolution, not unlike Beck) in hopes of persuading viewers to take a liberal stand.

And sadly, like a lot of Beck's most fervent, thoughtless fans hang on his every syllable, Moore now has a built-in audience of core supporters who will clap and cry just as the tone of his narration might dictate. The first show of the day at Muvico in Pompano Beach had about 150 people, mostly older folks. There was this fantastic bumper sticker on a truck in the parking lot.

At every step, I felt like I should be documenting which corporations I was funding. First the tickets - Muvico Entertainment LLC (they own the theatre) and Viacom (the company that owns the company that distributes the film). Then PepsiCo and Nestle USA. Oh, and Ford Motor Company and Honda Motor Co. and Chevron Corporation for the transportation. And of course Village Voice Media for the sweet date.

My friend, who we'll call Peter here (he owns his own business and doesn't exactly think talking politics is good for the prospective client pool), said to me about 45 minutes into the movie, "I agree with everything he's saying, except obviously he has the causes all wrong." Not long after that though, it was "how fucking long is this movie?"

The film opens with home footage shot from the inside of a house in North Carolina as a caravan of sheriff's deputies prepare to storm the place like they're taking down a cult of child molesters. The sounds of the police beating on the door before they break through are truly horrifying. Soon we learn that the house, which the family has owned for decades, has been foreclosed upon and the residents are to vacate immediately, even if they have to be forced out.

From there Moore goes through his description of the history of capitalism in this country, which includes the personal story of his father, a longtime union factory worker in Michigan. By Moore's account, most of the troubles started with Reagan, whom he calls "a corporate pitchman." Corporations cut jobs for quick profits and the government did nothing to assist workers left out in the cold. Then came bank deregulation, which set off a feeding frenzy for the greediest fucking pigs the world has ever seen.

Two important parts of the film take place in South Florida. First the head man at Condo Vultures describes the bloody run off from the Florida housing market and mentions that the only difference between foreclosure speculators like himself (and the thousands of others touring the Sunshine State every month) and actual vultures is that he doesn't vomit on himself when he's scavenging. Later, a family in Miami resists a bank representative and a line of Dade County sheriff's deputies to squat in their own foreclosed upon house. A child tells the man stapling a trespassing notice on the door, "You kick people out of their houses every day. I'd rather be homeless than do that."

In the end, Moore advocates nothing short of a revolution that would take down capitalism and replace it with a second Bill of Rights, a set of worker's rights that includes the right to have a job that affords a comfortable living and recreation. Immediately after the movie, Peter and I debriefed.

"He didn't exactly spell out what he's looking to do," Peter said, "or rather not the 'how' he was going to go about it." Discussion of the bailouts, Peter told me, was "the only part of the movie where I was like, 'Oh my God, I agree with Michael Moore.'"

Instead of an indictment of capitalism, Peter sees all the cases of injustice cited by Moore - the evicted families, the healthcare system, the TARP bailouts - as "muddled special interest." He says the problem isn't that corporations exist; it's that they are allowed to donate unlimited funds to political candidates. (Goldman Sachs was President Obama's single largest contributor in the last election.) Drug companies and insurance companies spend millions on lobbyists, like the financial institutions. "None of those things would have happened had those institutions not had the access to the government," Peter said. "All of these things are corruption. None of them have anything to do with someone coming up with a valuable product that can help someone else, the essence of capitalism."

Peter and I agreed that it was conspicuous to show plenty of people being thrown out of their homes, but not the circumstances that got them there. "If it was predatory lending, that's a crime that should be punished. If he took a loan out he knew he couldn't afford, that's a bad financial decision, a bad investment, he has to suffer the consequences."

Peter also pointed out that Moore doesn't explain why it's O.K. for the little guy to take bailouts, but not the big guys. "He's advocating for the government to intervene with foreclosures but never gets into how they got into those situations. The guy who didn't make a bad decision and got caught up in this I feel sorry for. The other 95%, especially in California and Florida, where they buy $300,000 condos with money they don't have, thinking their houses would go up and up in value forever, I don't. Why society should care about the burden of their mistake is beyond me. We have bankruptcy laws to deal with that issue. You can't punish the people who didn't take unreasonable risks or use their house as an ATM."

What we have is simply epic corruption, which a good capitalist like my friend sees as a fixable problem. He strays from the Ron Paul flock in that he is in favor of minimal regulation: in rare cases of true monopolies (Standard Oil, for example) and to prevent corruption.

 "There's always some base human instinct that will drive people to manipulate a position of power for their own benefit," he said. "The answer is an adequate justice system that punishes the corruption." Hard to argue with that. Except that it still leaves a lot of people homeless, hungry, and unable to see a doctor. 

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