Sunday, October 11, 2009

Let's Not Give Up on Capitalism

After watching what I thought was Michael Moore’s best effort in Sicko which exposed needless suffering and death in America due to health insurance industry practices, I was curious to see if how he could do with a broader subject in his latest documentary Capitalism: A Love Story. The story he tells is most certainly compelling.

A sequence near the beginning of the movie was especially difficult for me to watch. It showed a family about to have their house repossessed. But to make it especially poignant, it was filmed inside the house by the family awaiting their fate while the doors were slowly but surely smashed in. As they explained, they weren’t going to resist being evicted once the people broke inside — but they weren’t going to help them by opening the door. It was a last symbolic gesture in a helpless situation.

With home foreclosures having skyrocketed in recent years and many of us losing our jobs, it is all too easy for some of us to imagine ourselves perhaps someday suffering the same fate. How did things go so terribly wrong?

A related scene shows a speculator who gleefully makes a killing on buying foreclosed properties with scarcely a thought about those who had been put out on the street in the process. Is it all about making money at any human cost? Is this what capitalism is all about?

As Moore relates from his middle class childhood, capitalism did quite well for everybody back then. Companies made lots of money, but workers often thanks to unions were also able to earn comfortable livings to support their families. The rich did well as they always do, but there was a strong middle class that used their earnings to consume goods and keep the economy chugging along. But since then, the rich have done fabulously well and much of the middle class has taken a beating. Is this an inherent flaw of capitalism as Moore seems to infer?

I think not. I still believe capitalism is the best economic system. For those who favor socialism, they should be reminded of the differences between the vibrant economy of West Germany compared to the sickly economy of East Germany when the wall between them was finally torn down.

I feel the fault is not in capitalism per se, but in the political climate in America over the last several decades that has given tacit approval for corporations to seek profits even when the human cost was high. For example, in Moore’s seminal work
Roger & Me, General Motors despite making healthy profits, still decided to close down their operations in Flint, MI turning much of it into a ghost town. Today’s most prominent example is the health insurance companies making huge profits while many needlessly suffer or die because they can’t get insured.

But in neither example did anybody do anything illegal. You can argue that they didn’t have a conscience but how does a government legislate that companies have compassion for their fellow man?

So while Sicko not only told a compelling story, it also gave a straightforward solution in the form of universal healthcare coverage just like the rest of the industrialized world already has. Capitalism tells an equally compelling story but offers no real solutions other than what Moore calls a return to democracy. While he encourages people to run for office, money is so indispensable to wage effective campaigns that candidates who are not already wealthy have to raise campaign cash from special interest groups which then robs them of their independence.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the film was the showing of a recently discovered 1944 film showing Franklin D. Roosevelt arguing for a
Second Bill of Rights which would guarantee among other things:

A job with a living wage
Freedom from unfair competition and monopolies
A home
Medical care

But how do we for example guarantee everybody a job along with a home? Moore doesn’t say in his film. Just providing everybody with medical care is proving to be a formidable obstacle.

I still think capitalism is the best economic system but it only works well when we recognize some of its shortcomings. Free enterprise is about equal opportunity but we know that the more affluent will always have more opportunities at least in part because they have the better public school systems and better access to the best colleges. And it has been said that you need to spend money to make money. While we may all dream of being millionaires someday, who do you think has a better chance of making a million — someone who already has a million or someone with nothing? It’s no contest.

The policies under George W. Bush and before him Ronald Reagan who gave tax cuts to the rich have done little more than widen the gap between the rich and everybody else. Instead, government has to do what it can to level the playing field for those in the middle and lower classes along with providing a safety net for those who get into financial trouble for reasons beyond their control. And in this bleak economy where there are few jobs to be had, the government has to jump start the economy and create them. While this may sound a bit socialist, the fact is that without enough jobs to employ those who want and need work, capitalism — or just about any system — doesn’t work.

When done right, capitalism does work. We just need to make sure we do it right so it works for everybody!

No comments: