Monday, September 28, 2009

Forbes on Moore on Capitalism

Michael Moore says capitalism has to go. Michael Maiello, writing in Forbes, says Moore is partly right:

In practicing what we call capitalism, America has recently been missing the point. Our current system isn't eliminating scarcity and poverty; it's causing scarcity for most people and delivering extreme prosperity to a powerful minority. More than 85% of the financial wealth of the U.S. is held by 20% of the population, says G. William Domhoff, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Over the last decade, wages for most have fallen against very low inflation even as productivity and profits have risen.

We overwhelmingly support unequal outcomes so long as there's something resembling a fair (but not level) playing field. We're fine with rich kids having material and social advantages over poor kids. We just ask that the game not be actively rigged against people. So long as the law doesn't favor Best Buy ( BBY - news - people ) over Circuit City ( CC - news - people ), we can accept that Circuit City will go into bankruptcy and be sold to an online retailer while its former rival moves into its empty storefronts.

But our laws aren't applied equally or fairly. Underneath the Trinity Church in Manhattan's financial district there's a magic revolving door. If you go into it and run fast enough it'll let you out either at 1 Wall, K Street or Pennsylvania Avenue (sometimes it gets stuck and you wind up running into the World Bank).

...The argument for capitalism is that nimble, clever and brave entrepreneurs acting out of self-interest will lead humanity away from want and scarcity. It's hard to see how international conglomerates bribing politicians at home and abroad, exploiting cheap labor and loose environmental standards around the world and depending on the implicit and sometime explicit support of the U.S. military really compares to the capitalist ideal.

I think Moore's a little too flip about how important it is for people to be free to chase their fortunes. Some take Moore's own financial success as irony. I see it as hopeful. We need more Michael Moores. But we don't get them in a system where, say, the telecom, television and radio industries are difficult to disrupt because only the largest companies can afford access to a spectrum that's supposed to be held in the public trust...

If you want a system that encourages more plucky entrepreneurs like Michael Moore then you have to do some things that the big corporations won't like. We need access to higher education that doesn't depend on crushing student loan debt. We need, as Franklin Roosevelt suggested, to look at health care as a right not a perk provided by an employer or a service to be bought and sold. We need a strong enough social safety net so that the risk of failing in an entrepreneurial venture isn't life-crushing penury. Ultimately, we need to take all the love and care that we give to big corporations and transfer that to individuals.

The problem with the right-wing defenders of capitalism is that they don't really believe in free-market capitalism. They believe in big business, which is the only player that has the resources to fund teams of lobbyists and contribute endless sums of money to the system to make sure their interests are taken care of.

Not all of us are fine with a playing field that isn't level and rich kids having material and social advantages over poor kids. What ever happened to the idea of merit? How about a system where a kid can't get into an Ivy League school unless he is smart enough to be there. Or a system where an Ivy League graduate who fails at every job he is handed in his life can't be considered a serious candidate to be President of the United States. One of capitalism's biggest recent failures. (Yes it was economic as much as political: the worst President money could buy) In any case...

I think capitalism is the best economic system we know for unleashing creativity and allowing individuals the opportunity to ply their craft and lift themselves up intellectually and materially. When it works the way Adam Smith talked about it, it's not only economically but spiritually liberating.

But Adam Smith never dreamed of multinational corporations that move jobs around the globe to find the cheapest labor. Smith never dreamed of AIG or Exxon. Smith's capitalism was small scale. Smith assumed there would be spiritually-based (Christian) self restraint and concern for the plight of other humans. He assumed a moral framework in the culture for capitalism that no longer exists.

Thus the need for a strong government with regulatory powers and a healthy social safety net that provides health care for all. Power bumping chest to chest with power. It's the only way to rescue capitalism from the people who control the money and practice crony capitalism and corporate welfare and keep the "free market" from being anything resembling free.

I look forward to seeing Moore's movie.