Saturday, September 26, 2009

Capitalism, or Michael Moore Loves Money

I haven't watched a Michael Moore film in quite some time (the last one being Bowling for Columbine) - particularly because of his creative use of editing to make his "documentaries" - so it is with some trepidation that I intend to watch Capitalism: A Love Story. Many of the reviews have been positive, such as Bruce Headlam's review in the New York Times which compares Moore to Charlie Chaplin. Others were more critical, such as Deal Journal's review, and then there was the AP's fact check of the movie. I read these reviews and interviews before deciding to see the film (and my review will come later), but there were some things which Moore said in these articles which intrigued and puzzled me.

Moore makes much of attacking a system from which he has benefitted greatly, but it's too easy to point out his hypocrisy. For example, Moore says the autoworkers should have 100 percent ownership of the companies, but as The American Spectator correctly queries, "Do the employees of Moore's films have 100 percent ownership of those movies?" I doubt it, but what's good for the goose certainly seems good for the gander. One is reminded of Christ's exhortation: Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam in thy own eye, and then shalt thou see to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye (Matthew 7:5).

In Mr Headlam's review, it is played up how much Moore was/is influenced by the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church, and on ABC's Nightline, he remarks that capitalism is "anti-Christian" and "anti-Jesus." Having taken a class on the Catholic Church's social justice doctrines, I find this discussion interesting (especially since the Catholic Church never claims capitalism is anti-Christian). The most common critique of capitalism by the Catholic Church is greed, such as  in  the encyclicals Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno and Populorum Progressio. Another critique is of the dehumanizing effects of materialism, which transforms work and the worker into an object. In a sense Moore is addressing that on Nightline, but in other places, he is criticizing the capitalist system of markets, saying to Larry King that capitalism has failed.

Despite Moore's criticism on this front, markets, free enterprise and competition continue to operate and function much as they always have, despite the bailout and the collapse of the bubble (bubbles have long been a part of economies). This schizophrenic approach to the topic leaves one wondering what Moore is actually criticizing: the greed or the system? The later can be regulated and controlled to a degree, but the former is more difficult to address, because it requires a cultural change which Americans, including Moore are not willing or ready to accept, i.e., a culture of sacrifice. His statement that, "We need an economic system that has democracy as its underpinnings and an ethical code," leads me to believe it is more a criticism of the latter, because this is an institutional critique which suggest an institutional change will lead to better practice. Furthermore, Moore's solution does not resolve the inherent problem, i.e., the greed which brought about the crisis in the first place (the greed of people who desired to live beyond their means, not just the greed on Wall Street), but seems very much like democratic socialism, especially when comments such as - "There's no democracy in our economy. You and I and the people watching have no say in how this economy is run" - are considered in context with his comments that the pie be divided fairly. For the Catholic Church, such schemes are as anathema to Christianity as the greed and materialism which is dehumanizing the economy. As Pope Benedict XVI notes in his recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate: "Without him [God], development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development." That trap is precisely what Moore himself falls into by suggesting democratic socialism (a term he strives to avoid, particularly in this political climate) as the means of our survival. This is not a view informed by the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church.

It's not even a view informed by empirical evidence - most recently laid out in Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter. The idea that there is no democracy in our economy ignores referenda on the state and local level which determine taxes, regulations, etc. It also ignores the role of voters who make their voices heard in the distribution tax dollars to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and national defense, which has an impact on the deficit, national savings and investment (simply put, more consumption = less savings = less investment). If you don't believe this has a negative impact on the economy, then read Donald F. Kettl's Deficit Politics and Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. The people have already had a democratic impact on the economy, and selfishness has outweighed the common good. This is unlikely to change by giving democracy a greater role in the economic policy of the United States or any other developed nation. There has to be a cultural shift in this country which focuses on the common good, the general welfare and self-sacrifice (the old republican virtues now defunct). Moore isn't advocating such a cultural shift as Carter advocated in his 1979 "Crisis of Confidence" speech in which he asked the American people to sacrifice. Moore asks the people for no such sacrifice, just as he assigns them no blame for the crisis (only giving us part of the story), because to do so would endanger the profitability of his polemic as Carter's speech endangered his reelection. His response to sacrifice might be much the same as his response to the question of what he was going to give back to Flint (45 seconds in): "I'm sorry I made a movie millions of Americans want to see."

With any luck I'll get to see this film and write my own review, but that addresses some of the things he's been saying on his road show to promote the film.

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