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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, December 16th, 2017

Documentary Review: “Saving Capitalism” highlights an important truth about markets

Robert Reich, for­mer Sec­re­tary of Labor under Pres­i­dent Clin­ton and cur­rent Pro­fes­sor of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, wrote a book titled “Sav­ing Cap­i­tal­ism: For the Many, Not the Few” in 2015, and this year, Net­flix cre­at­ed a doc­u­men­tary based on it.

Saving Capitalism

Sav­ing Cap­i­tal­ism
Release Year: 2017
Direc­tors: Jacob Korn­bluth, Sari Gilman
Run­ning Time: 1h 30min
Watch trail­er

The film “Sav­ing Cap­i­tal­ism” fol­lows Reich on his book tour as he goes off the beat­en path and also meets with peo­ple in what are more like lis­ten­ing ses­sions, town halls, or even in some cas­es orga­niz­ing ses­sions (meant to empow­er those who agree that urgent action is called for).

His goal was not so much to sell books, but to go to places where peo­ple had like­ly nev­er heard of him and talk to peo­ple who may have nev­er read one of his books.

The main point made in the film (and pre­sum­ably the book, which, full dis­clo­sure, I have not read yet) is that cap­i­tal­ism is what we make of it.

Cap­i­tal­ism, like any eco­nom­ic sys­tem, is not inher­ent­ly good or bad, moral or immoral. Depend­ing on how it is set up, what rules and reg­u­la­tions are used in orga­niz­ing the sys­tem, one may judge its effects and there­fore its orga­ni­za­tion to be good or bad, but the base sys­tem itself is neutral.

For exam­ple, as much as the term “free mar­ket” is used in the U.S. to describe our econ­o­my, there real­ly is no such thing as a free market.

All mar­kets are con­struct­ed for some­body’s ben­e­fit, and we should always ask the ques­tion, Who was this mar­ket con­struct­ed to serve?

The gov­ern­ment has to set rules to deter­mine the basic bounds and func­tion­ing of any mar­ket that is to be suc­cess­ful in offer­ing peo­ple choices.

In set­ting those rules, the gov­ern­ment can effec­tive­ly decide who wins and who los­es, who makes mon­ey and who los­es mon­ey in our economy.

Since the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion, there has been sys­temic dis­man­tling of the rules that once gov­erned our finan­cial sys­tem — billed by the right wing as “dereg­u­la­tion” to get the gov­ern­ment out of the “free mar­ket.” But as Reich con­tends, this appar­ent dichoto­my between reg­u­la­tion and “dereg­u­la­tion” is total­ly false; there is always reg­u­la­tion, the ques­tion is what kind of reg­u­la­tions you have.

As Reich explains, these rules can and do change, no mat­ter how many of our elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives like to claim that they can’t.

The rules reflect the inter­est of those with the most pow­er, and in a self-rein­forc­ing cycle, those with more mon­ey then have more polit­i­cal pow­er, which they use to get them­selves even more mon­ey by fur­ther manip­u­lat­ing the rules in their favor.

The film notes that though lob­by­ing has always exist­ed, the prob­lem is the mas­sive mag­ni­tude of cor­po­rate lob­by­ing com­pared to every­one else that has cre­at­ed reg­u­la­tions that con­sis­tent­ly func­tion to fun­nel income and wealth to the top. Cor­po­rate inter­ests spend $34 on lob­by­ing for every $1 spent by unions and all oth­er pub­lic inter­est groups com­bined.

Reich traces the ori­gins of this increase of cor­po­rate lob­by­ing to 1971, when the- cor­po­rate lawyer and future Supreme Court Jus­tice Lewis F. Pow­ell, Jr. wrote a memo to his friend who was a leader in the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce at the time. In it, he claimed that the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty was under attack, and that “polit­i­cal pow­er is nec­es­sary; that such pow­er must be assid­u­ous­ly cul­ti­vat­ed, and that when nec­es­sary, it must be used aggres­sive­ly and with determination.”

The Pow­ell Memo, which lin­guist George Lakoff has called “a fate­ful doc­u­ment”, became a man­i­festo for big busi­ness, trade asso­ci­a­tions, and lob­by­ing groups.

This manip­u­la­tion of the econ­o­my in favor of cor­po­ra­tions over the last thir­ty plus years has caused our econ­o­my to become more and more inequitable and also unsus­tain­able. As aver­age peo­ple feel the crunch more every day, they are under­stand­ably angry and frus­trat­ed. Sur­vey data shared in the film note that in 1964, 77% of peo­ple trust­ed the gov­ern­ment to do the right thing.

In 2017, that num­ber is down to just 20%.

In a 1997 speech that we see a snip­pet of in the “Sav­ing Cap­i­tal­ism,” Reich essen­tial­ly pre­dict­ed the rise of pop­ulism and Trump in response to the inequal­i­ty in our econ­o­my that has been cre­at­ed by the rules of the econ­o­my being rigged in favor of those who can afford to buy influence.

“We are on the way to becom­ing a two-tiered soci­ety com­posed of a few win­ners and a larg­er group of Amer­i­cans left behind, whose anger and whose dis­il­lu­sion­ment is eas­i­ly manipulated.”

Now that Don­ald Trump has turned those manip­u­lat­ed feel­ings into enough votes to take the White House via the Elec­toral Col­lege, he is on the verge of reward­ing him­self and oth­er crony cap­i­tal­ists with an even big­ger pay­day… if the House and Sen­ate Repub­li­cans can fig­ure out how to pro­cure the votes for the final ver­sion of their tax scam, which it appears they have.

In the film, Reich tells a group of his grad­u­ate stu­dents at Berke­ley that in his fifty years of work­ing in and out of gov­ern­ment, “we’re in deep­er #&$% now than we were then!” But he also stays pos­i­tive, because every time in Amer­i­can his­to­ry “when cap­i­tal­ism has gone off the rails, our instinct is to put it back on the rails.”

He believes in the pow­er of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion and com­mu­ni­ty activism and action. It is up to us to change the rules. Through vot­ing, yes, but also through calls and let­ters to our mem­bers of Con­gress and march­ing in the streets.

I will not be sur­prised if there are impromp­tu protests shut­ting down cities across the coun­try, larg­er than Jan­u­ary’s record-set­ting Wom­en’s March, if the Repub­li­cans’ mas­sive wealth trans­fer scheme makes it to Trump’s desk. See you there!

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