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Monday, Oct. 5, 2009

Capitalism

Michael Moore examines the American Dream

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In Capitalism: A Love Story, the polemical director Michael Moore utters the ultimate heresy in contemporary American society. Capitalism isn’t merely flawed, he says. It’s not just slightly skewed in favor of haves over have-nots. According to Moore, the reigning national ideology is degrading to individuals and society. Capitalism is, in a word, evil.

Just imagine the howling chorus of vituperation against Moore from the hissing gargoyles of Fox News and the bellowing blowhards of Limbaugh Land, crying as one: “Stone him! Greed is good!”

Moore’s latest film is funny and angry, braver than anything he’s ever produced because it attacks what for many Americans is the unexamined foundation of their beliefs—the essential goodness of capitalism, seen by them as the core American value. Moore even captures an editor of TheWall Street Journal in an honest moment: Democracy isn’t such a hot idea, the editor says, but capitalism, for him, is the light of the world.

Evil? The rectitude of capitalism is an object of faith for University of Chicago economists and cargo cult Christians, for the gnomic death mask called Alan Greenspan and politicians from both ruling parties. For a moral perspective Moore visits the Roman Catholic priest who married him, along with the bishop of Detroit, who say what the purpose-driven pastors of megachurches could never admit: Capitalism as practiced nowadays is a sin, an injustice.

Using home movies from his own childhood, Moore illustrates a vision of American capitalism in better days. Back then, households needed only one wage earner and salaries kept pace with inflation, pensions were guaranteed and health care was affordable. The triumph of trade unions after World War II resulted in the largest middle class America had ever known, Moore reminds us. But with the ascendance of corporate mouthpiece Ronald Reagan, unions were diminished, taxes slashed for the rich and the economy deregulated and placed in the paws of cunning rats who saw the world as a giant Monopoly board, spread across oceans and continents.

The result, even before the economic catastrophe of 2008, was unfathomable wealth for a few and precarious times for the majority. Wages were stagnant as prices crept higher, “productivity” (i.e. more work for less benefits) rose, along with enormous college loans and other debt aggravated by hidden clauses in the fine print. Greenspan, once considered the wizard of Wall Street, encouraged Americans to refinance their homes at high interest rates as a source of spending cash. Investment schemes that might have baffled Einstein were encouraged. The stock market became a casino run by crazy people, and when the house lost, they came to the American taxpayers, holding out their hands for a loan.

Moore pulls a few of his patented stunts, including renting an armored truck and driving up to Goldman Sachs, demanding that its executives return the money they borrowed (or was it stole?). But the most poignant moments, aside from interviews with folks who lost the homes they had lived in for decades from mortgage chicanery, was the director’s visit with his dad to the site of the old man’s workplace back in the ’60s, AC Spark Plug in Flint, Mich. Once a thriving enterprise, the factory had been outsourced overseas long ago, leaving a desolate field covered in rubble. Moore’s message is that Americans will need to fight for their right to jobs and security before the entire nation resembles the boarded-up, abandoned districts of Flint and Detroit.