Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dead Peasants

by Andrew Tobias
I finally saw Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story," and you should too.  There is much in it that's simplistic or manipulative, but it is at the very least three things: rivetingly interesting, moving, and thought-provoking.*  And as you watch you can do the same two things I did: try to find the flaws in his argument; try to figure out how things should be (unless you think they're perfect now).
*Note to Michael Moore: please don't quote the last part of that sentence without also including the first part.
An example of a flaw, it seems to me, is the section on Dead Peasants Insurance.  The section is introduced with a tearful family in financial crisis because the husband has died young.  They have discovered that his employer had taken out a policy on his life naming itself as the beneficiary.  So the guy dies, the company gets a fat check, shares none of it with the family, and you are meant to feel outrage. 
Indeed, a great many big-name companies have done the same thing, taking out policies on tens of thousands of their employees.  The younger and faster the employees die, the more money the companies make.  A memo is shown expressing concern that death rates are below projection.
This is offered as an example of how greedy and heartless capitalism is. 
Yet it's actually an example of how nutty our tax system is and of how many of our brightest minds are wasted finding ways to outwit it.  If you insure tens of thousands of employees, the insurance company can take a little bit for its trouble and still, after the tax advantages, you, the employer, can expect to come out ahead.
Which is an example of our system at its least productive – absolutely no productive benefit comes from this – but that's not the point the movie makes.  The movie makes it seem as though the companies hope you'll die young.  That they've done all this not as a reprehensible tax dodge, but as a way to make money from your death.  Yet that's nonsense.  Insurers are not in business to lose money.  So unless employers are actually finding ways to speed the death of its employees (committing murder in order to defraud the insurance companies) – which Michael Moore nowhere alleges – this is just a tax avoidance ploy.
Dead Peasants Insurance has nothing to do with the point Moore uses it to make.

So that's a flaw.
And it's not the only section of the movie you will find simplistic or misleading or manipulative.
Then again, you can't possibly watch "Capitalism" without empathy for its victims.  The suffering across the land is real, and brutal, and takes on an extra dimension when you see some of it, not just read about it.
You can't possibly watch "Capitalism" without being concerned for the viability of our system.  How do we get out of the hole that years of over-borrowing, over-consumption, over-extension (e.g., Iraq) and under-taxation have dug us into?
Michael Moore is talking revolution.  He shows 1944 footage of FDR calling for a second bill of rights – the right to a job at a living wage, to health care, and more – and saying that we need to set to work attaining these rights as soon as we win the war.  Well, we won the war and, as Moore points out, Japan, Germany, and Italy, all now enjoy the rights FDR was talking about (we sent folks over to write their constitutions) but we don't.  He thinks we should.
How much longer will people feel the financial vise tighten before they greet the news of $140 billion in Wall Street pay and bonuses with real anger?
The left wants to channel anger at the corporations and the banks.  The right wants to channel anger at illegal aliens, welfare moms, unions, elitists, and "government."  Both sets of targets are wrong.  (Not to say any of those targets are perfect actors.)   But the anger is real and the problems are real and this movie will surely get you thinking about both.

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