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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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