Saturday, October 31, 2009

More Than Two Sides: A (belated) Review of Capitalism: A Love Story

A number of critics have described Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story as his best work yet. This probably says more about the times we live in than the film itself. For many years Moore has been doing his thing, championing labor and criticizing corporate excess with a great eye for irony, theatricality, humor and human stories. His veneration of unions and labor strikes seemed out of step and a bit fringe and quixotic in the post-Reagan era.

With Capitalism, the zeitgeist has caught up to him. In the wake of the economic crisis, with the Soviet Union a distant memory (our current crop of young adults are not old enough to remember the Soviet Union and many were not born yet when our Cold War nemesis ceased to be), Capitalism: A Love Story strikes a chord with those who have begun to question their free market zeal.

His criticisms of TARP and the behavior of post-bailout banks would no doubt be applauded by many people across the political spectrum-- if they could stand Michael Moore. In fact, I was struck by how many of Moore’s complaints in the bank bailout section of the film—and his overall sense of indignation and outrage-- were in line with those of the tea party protesters. (This is probably a comparison that both Moore fans and tea party protesters would hate.)

Capitalism’s timeliness is why it subjectively appears to be his best film to many reviewers.

I have always been impressed with Moore’s ability to shine a light on under reported issues and events and to stir up a discussion. Capitalism, for example, has brought “dead peasant” insurance policies and corruption in for-profit prisons into our consciousness.

The shortcoming of the film, however, lies in the central question it seeks to answer. Is capitalism good or evil? (In case you had any doubt, Moore comes down on the latter side.) This is a clear example of what I will call “two-sides-to-every-argument-itis”—the idea that a concept has one argument in its favor, and one against it. And only one position can be right.

In reality, there are very few situations that are so binary. Capitalism is simply a tool. It is one way of running an economy. A hammer can be used to build a Habitat for Humanity home or to bash someone over the head. Capitalism can also be used to build and it can be used to destroy. A more informative and useful framing question for Moore’s exploration might have been not “is capitalism good or bad” but “when does capitalism work well and when doesn’t it? What makes it so useful in some cases and what are its weaknesses?”

(Of course, this is not nearly as entertaining as seeing him wrap Wall Street in crime scene tape.)

Zachary Shore, author of the book Blunder, describes this way of looking at things as a “flatview.”

“A flatview is any rigid perspective that constricts our imagination to just one dimension. It’s thinking in a binary mode. We see people as either good or evil. We understand events as either positive or negative. We categorize others as either with us or against us. Since most complex problems typically contain shades of gray, the flatview trap limits our understanding of what we see, and therefore leads us to simplistic solutions. A flatview is an almost foolproof prescription for blunders.”

A related cognitive trap is something Shore dubs “cure-allism.” This is a belief that if a theory works in some cases, it will work in all cases. Going back to my hammer analogy—cure-allism has a hammer and sees every problem as a nail.

As his strongest example of cure-allism at work Shore cites the idealization of privatization:

“The privatization form of cure-allism begins… with a theory that works well in many cases, but then it tries to apply that successful theory to areas where it doesn’t belong. Governments do tend to be less efficient than private enterprise when it comes to management. As a result, governments have increasingly moved to privatize a wide range of their services. But this theory, as with all forms of cure-allism, becomes a victim of its own success when it morphs into a dogma.”

Capitalism: A Love Story illustrates the limits of seeing privatization as the right tool for every problem. It tells a harrowing tale of a corrupt judge who accepted bribes to sentence teens to a for-profit juvenile detention center, sending them off in handcuffs for such minor offenses as talking back to their parents, and pocketing a finder’s fee for derailing their young lives. While Moore correctly shines a light on a form of cure-allism (privatization is always the answer) he replaces it with his own cure-all ideology (capitalism causes evil.)

Judicial corruption, for the record, is not created by capitalism. In fact, if you were to tell this story to a Russian, his reaction would no doubt be, “Yes, and what is your point?” In many countries of the world, this story would be seen as the rule not the exception, and our assumption that a bribe-taking-judge should never exist would be viewed as charming, quaint and lovely. But the fact that corruption exists in all economic systems does not dismiss the larger question of whether or not privatization of prisons is a good idea.

Like Moore, Shore sees in prison privatization “a clear conflict of interest with the larger society.”

He notes that “a government’s primary responsibility is to its citizens. A corporation’s primary responsibility is to its shareholders. Often the interests of share holders are not compatible with those of the citizens… A society should want to see its prison population fall, assuming that criminals are rehabilitated, taught new skills, and assisted with finding jobs until they are released. A private prison, in contrast, has a vested interest in seeing the prison population rise… Private prisons have few meaningful incentives to rehabilitate their inmates. On the contrary, they have an incentive to lobby politicians to pass ever tougher laws that will incarcerate ever more people.”

Unlike Moore, Shore does not ask “is privatization good or evil?” He asks, “Is privatization the best practice in this particular situation to achieve the outcome we want?”

We now live in an information environment that encourages black and white thinking and ideological cure-allism. In our O’Reiley v. Olberman world, we have become so accustomed to seeing complex questions framed as debates between two opposing ideological camps that we often find it difficult to even recognize other options. Which side are you on? Are you a liberal socialist or a free market libertarian? (Are you for Michael Moore or against him?)

We live in a three dimensional world. There are more than two sides. Yet the language with which we discuss problems tends to push us into a two side mindset. For example, I read a review of Michael Moore’s film on a libertarian blog that suggested that Capitalism only told “half the story.” While the reviewer may have meant “a limited perspective,” those are not the words he used. The expression, “half the story” implies that his is one of two parts of a tale and that if the other “half” were told everything would be in balance.

I would like to deputize you, my millions of readers, into the “more than two sides” movement. I would like you to set an internal alarm that goes off whenever you hear a newscaster or pundit talk about how “the other side” views the issue, and to keep your ear honed for language that urges you to view any complex issue as good or bad, left or right. If you’re so inclined, call your news sources and pundits out when they use such language or framing.

As for my final verdict on Capitalism: A Love Story; it is a piece of well-crafted and entertaining story telling that raises important questions about some of our social ills. Moore’s almost childlike insistence in seeing a world of good guys and bad guys often works to his advantage as a filmmaker because it allows him to go straight for the emotions. (Hollywood likes good guys and bad guys too.) As material for a fully informed debate it falls a bit short.