Capitalism: A Love Story

Last night, I saw the North American premiere of Michael Moore’s latest movie at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ironically, it was held in the Visa Screening Room, which grants preferential access to bearers of Visa Gold, Platinum or Infinite credit cards. (The unwashed masses who use MasterCard, AMEX or lower grades of Visa waited in a separate line.)

While the Visa elite got in first, seating was not assigned, creating an incentive for spectators to line up well over an hour in advance in a zero-sum struggle for good seats. The preceding screening ended a little late, causing a further delay. So, even before the movie started, the audience got a taste of capitalism’s inequity without any of its supposed efficiency.

The film was rivetting. I found Moore’s previous documentaries entertaining and interesting, but they often seemed to blame widespread social problems on the greed or malice of particular business and political leaders. Capitalism: A Love Story takes aim at the economic system that compels or induces such behaviour.

Like Moore’s previous films, it is a series of vignettes. Some are hilarious, like Moore wrapping yellow “Crime Scene” tape around various corporate head offices. Others are inspiring but familiar, such as Obama’s election as President and the 2008 sit-down strike at Republic Windows and Doors.

The most intriguing vignettes draw attention to less well-known issues, such as the incredibly low salaries of some regional airline pilots or the corporate practice of taking out life insurance policies on unsuspecting employees. These provocative topics have the positive effect of motivating the audience to find out more, but this further research sometimes deflates the film’s sensational presentation.

For example, on corporate-owned life insurance, Moore notes that one cannot take out fire insurance on a neighbour’s house because doing so would provide a financial incentive to burn the house down. The apparent implication is that companies may be killing off their workers to collect insurance payouts. There is no evidence of such skullduggery, or at least Moore does not present any.

The real issue, which Capitalism fails to mention, is that corporations can use such insurance policies to avoid paying taxes. Whereas interest on money borrowed to pay premiums is tax-deductible, the resulting insurance payouts are tax-exempt. “Dead peasant” insurance is not a new and sinister corporate scheme to profit from death, but an old and sinister corporate scheme to drain the public treasury.

After the movie, Moore called on Congress to prohibit this type of life insurance. Neither he nor his film mention that Congress has amended the US Internal Revenue Code several times to limit the tax dodge while still allowing companies to insure against financial losses from the unexpected death of an executive or specialist. Moore may be right about banning “dead peasant” insurance (as opposed to “key man” insurance), but Capitalism does not present the true rationale for such a ban.

I would also question the film’s suggestion that the Bush administration created a false sense of urgency to railroad the $700-billion bailout through Congress without normal legislative deliberation. While specific aspects of the bailout plan warrant serious criticism, I do not think that the urgency was contrived. The financial system was on the brink of collapse and needed a bailout of this magnitude.

While we should aspire to develop fundamentally different financial institutions, simply allowing the existing ones to collapse would not have been a good path toward this goal. Delaying or rejecting a bailout would have made matters worse for working Americans (and everyone else).

Capitalism ends with newly discovered footage of Roosevelt proposing the ill-fated Second Bill of Rights to enshrine social rights – employment, healthcare, housing, etc. – in the US Constitution. Notwithstanding the above quibbles, the film provides an engaging and timely contribution to current American political debates.

Following the screening, Moore gave a much-appreciated salute to members of my union currently on strike against Vale Inco.

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