Review – Capitalism: A love story

01Jul10

I watched this film last week, but it’s  taken me a while to find the time for a quick review. I guess I must like Michael Moore‘s films, as I’ve watched most of them, though I know from experience to expect a certain political perspective that I might not entirely agree with.

I think he asked some important questions – questions that I’ve been asking myself and others for some time. Ultimately though there weren’t satisfactory answers. I really would like to know why when ‘productivity’ has gone up so much in the worldwide economy we’re all having to work so much harder than a generation or so ago? Moore would have us believe that the richest 1% of society is somehow living the grand life whilst the remaining 99% toil away, but where’s the evidence? Isn’t the real problem that today’s workers are paying down the debts of the past (debts run up to cover post war healthcare and social services) – or is that my rather UK centric point of view? Or maybe it’s all really down to our obsession with liability (and hence the huge ‘elf and safety tax on society)?

and that’s what it all boils down to… there are taxes on society that exist now that weren’t a drag on Moore’s family when he was growing up in Flint. Perhaps Wall St is one of those taxes, but is it really the dominant cause? Convince me – he didn’t.

Moore makes a point that Wall St (and by extension the finance industry worldwide) is sucking up science and engineering talent and wasting it by engaging in a zero sum game of algo trading and derivatives structuring. This is a question that’s certainly worthy of deeper investigation than it receives in the film – is that talent really going to waste, or (like in the space programme[1]) are there spin-offs to other parts of the economy/society that have benefit? Most fundamentally, where are those banks hovering up capital from? Why are businesses willing to pay fees (on transactions, or for structuring, or advisory services etc.) that maintain this status quo? If all the profits are from prop trading (as they have been for most iBanks since 2008) then who are the participants at the edge of the market who are (willingly?) feeding the beast?

Questions? Questions? Questions? – Moore asks many in this 2hr epic, but his answers are superficial and leave me with more questions.

One final question. Those people that we saw being booted off their farm (which is very sad) – what did they spend the money on (the money they got from whatever con man that sold them the mortgage they ultimately couldn’t afford)? Clearly our love affair with capitalism goes right to the foundation of society where people would rather borrow money to consume ‘stuff’ than hold a safe position on their family property.

[1]  The Apollo programme was reported to Congress as $25.4Bn (1973 $s), but did it really cost the US public any more than a few tons of aluminium and a few good men. Many books and case studies have been written about the economic upside from the science spin-offs of the space race.

Postscript… I first heard the term ‘sub-prime’ in the summer of 2006 from a taxi driver. We spent some time talking about CDOs, how they were risk managed and the diffusion of complexity across the financial system that would inevitably lead to cascading failure. Neither of us put our money where our mouths were. But it goes to show that many people were lying later on when they said the failures were all a huge surprise. If a taxi driver and IT bod can see what’s happening then anybody can. I met a hedge fund manager the other day who said that he was swapping out traders for industry experts (e.g. people who understood the fundamentals of a business rather than just the numbers) – I suggested that he might hire some taxi drivers.



3 Responses to “Review – Capitalism: A love story”

  1. 1 Hugh

    I suspect that the farmers’ love affair was with consumerism rather than capitalism. There’s no reason capitalism couldn’t go hand in glove with less rampant consumerism (as though the only spur to our economy were buying more 3D TVs and iPhones). Of course, the relentless quest for endless quarter-on-quarter growth plays a large part in the manufacturers’ need for continuous obsolescence, so the distortions of the markets in the last several decades are probably as much of the problem as the debt and taxes you mention (both explicit and implicit).

    Ho hum

  2. Great post.

    I’ve not yet seen the Michael Moore film that you review. I should.

    Something that troubles me is that at the heart of the capitalist system, we seem to have banks which appear, at least to outsiders. to be a one-way bet for those who work for them. They make bets with other people’s money and if they win, they get rich. If they fail, they get another highly paid job elsewhere.

    The same thing is true of companies in general, of course. If you run a company with limited liability then you (strictly, the owners) stand to make loads of money if things go well but only lose their initial stake if things go badly.

    The challenge is to get the balance between risk and reward right. Bringing in the death penalty for failed entrepreneurs would obviously make people more cautious but is probably going too far. Making personal bankruptcy something that lasts no longer than an episode of Big Brother is perhaps not the answer either. Clearly we need to set the right balance. Have we?

    • 3 Chris Swan

      You make some good points Andy.

      I think the ‘casino banking’ label has been used a bit too broadly, but the more I think about it the more it seems that prop trading is at odds with the other client relationships of an investment bank. Ethical boundaries may prevent the most obvious abuses, but do little to deal with the structural issues. That capacity for abuse only gets broader when you lump in a retail (or private) banking balance sheet.

      Since writing the post I’ve realised the obvious answer that should have been staring me in the face. In the golden days of the boomers there were 3Bn people being sustained by this planet, now there’s more than twice that. We’re all working harder as there’s just less to go around.


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