Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A review of Capitalism: A Love Story

I watched Michael Moore's latest, Capitalism: A Love Story a few weeks ago. If you know Michael Moore at all, you'll probably guess how he handled the matter. He blamed all of our societal problems on Republican presidents, the Right-leaning, fear-mongering media, and Wall Street fat cats. He oversimplifies and over-vilifies; he twists facts, and uses strategic camera angles and loud music to underscore his points.

Knowing all of this before sitting down, I still find his movies entertaining and thought provoking, even if I do disagree with him time and again. Plus, there are a lot of people watching his films, and it's good to see first hand how the far left (often over-vilified themselves) thinks.

Before I get into the film, a few words on capitalism.

I like the system, in theory. On paper, I see how more real wealth is created when people and nations have the ability to specialize their efforts and provide the goods or services that are most advantageous for them to provide. Capitalism has tremendous potential to fight world poverty and inequality. What plays out, though, I think is deeply damaging to the people who benefit from the competition and those who lose. On one side we have people rewarded and encouraged towards greed and selfishness, and on the other we have people either poor or dependent on the rich.

I don't think the problem is the fallen-ness of man, selfish business people or bad politician. I think the problem with our current system is its size. The world economy as we know it is too big for conscience or neighborliness to enter our thinking as we make economic decisions. I could envision capitalism working for many if we knew and cared about the people who we were trading with. But we don't know them, and we can't know them.

In my neighborhood there is a coal-powered electrical plant run by a large corporation, Midwest Generation. The electricity the plant produces does not even power the homes in our neighborhood. It powers homes in Michigan, I've heard. This article explains, "A 2001 study by professors at the Harvard School of Public Health correlated emissions at nine Illinois coal-burning power plants with health data. The study estimated that the plants in Pilsen and Little Village together are responsible for 41 premature deaths, 2,800 asthma attacks and 550 emergency room visits per year." ( The article also explains that due to recent pressure, the plant claims to have recently cleaned up their act). The problem here is that the good people who are running their air conditioners in Michigan have no idea what their actions are doing to my recently born Rozalie's lungs.

And it is a safe bet that every time we buy anything from a large corporation, whatever they're selling, that somewhere along the supply chain, profit, efficiency, leverage, and competition is put above humanity and creation. We can buy almost nothing with a clear conscience. Did capitalism do this? I don't think so. I think it's more capitalism + globalism + isolation of individuals that has exploded the system into something that subtracts thoughts about our fellow man and the earth from the equation. The marketing industry has taken the sum and made us fully trusting buying machines, thoughtless of our consequences.

Capitalism: A Love Story has a simpler bent. Throughout the film, Moore shows eye-popping disparities of income and lifestyle between rich and poor. He makes the case that our society will be judged by future societies because of these disparities. He shows real estate vultures and how they go after properties that they can flip for massive profit, without a thought for the people involved. And a story of a privatized juvenile home that bribed a judge, who would sentence youth to stay there to the home's immense profit. He did a segment on Dead Peasant Policies, which are life insurance plans that many large companies buy and then collect from when their everyday employees die. He actually used the Bible to make the point that care for the poor and care not to become rich are of deep importance. I was pleasantly surprised that he did a nice job with the Bible (not taking verses out of context, not saying more that it does).

He showed this story.

I appreciated his depiction of these and other very real issues. All results, at least in part, to our current system.

The solutions he offered, though, were far too simple. From what I could tell, Moore thinks that if our businesses are run as co-ops and if we elect politicians who will put limits on free trade and distribute the wealth a little more, we can all sit back and watch society mend itself. Moore is sort of a populist, in that he doesn't blame anything on the decisions that common people like you and me make.

It seems to me, though,, that our problems run much deeper than politics and business, and right into our lifestyles, which create our daily economic decisions. We cannot become a responsible society in spite of ourselves. There is no short cut. We must make responsible decisions each day, and in so doing engage in the long and grueling work of mending our world, deeply frayed though it is.


chad said...

"I could envision capitalism working for many if we knew and cared about the people who we were trading with."

Reminds me of something:

"Love your neighbor as yourself"

and when Jesus was asked "who is my neighbor?" He told a parable of the good Samaritan and then turned the whole question on its head: "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

Jesus puts the burden on ME. Love your neighbor, meaning, become a neighbor to others, then love them. Know them. Then love them.

How can we become neighbors in a global economy? Is it possible?

Brian Stipp said...

I think the question you raise is the way that we Christians should be thinking about the matter. It is possible to become better neighbors, but it wont be easy, and it will cost us.

Brian Stipp said...

By the way, see that picture of the trees outside the power plant? The trees are dead now.