That wasn't always the case. When his first big film, "Roger and Me," came out on video, I watched it eagerly, at least for the first few minutes. By the end, however, I discovered that Moore is an abrasive, disrespectful, myopic shill for disproved socialist ideology. Yes, the film chronicled the sad decline of the automotive industry and the impact of decisions made by overpaid executives on the workers who had built General Motors. But Moore's confrontational, egotistical, sanctimonious style diminished the impact of that message. By the end, I felt almost as sympathetic toward Roger Smith, the GM CEO Moore was chasing, as toward the laid-off workers.
The film was successful, allowing Moore to make more highly politicized films, such as "Sicko" (about health care) and "Fahrenheit 9/11" (blaming George W. Bush for the 2001 terrorist attacks). In his newest film, Moore claims that capitalism is to blame for all the world's ills. He marshals a bunch of statistics to prove his point but conveniently overlooks any facts or figures that will contradict his preconceived notion.
In the NPR interview, Moore lamented the good lifestyle he had growing up as the child of a GM worker. His father's single income provided for the entire family's needs, including health care and pension. What happened to this utopia, according to Moore, was that Ronald Reagan cut taxes on the rich and ruined an idyllic existence. His solution is sharply higher taxes (90 percent marginal rates) and public ownership of corporations to prevent the accumulation of obscene wealth. The inconvenient facts Moore ignores include:
• High marginal tax rates were not first cut by Reagan but by President Kennedy.
• Each time those high marginal rates were cut, the government ended up with more revenue. It worked for Kennedy, and it worked for Reagan. Allowing people some incentive to make more money creates more wealth for the investor and for the government in the form of greater tax revenue.
• It's true that taxes have been cut for the wealthy, but taxes can't be cut for wage earners at the bottom of the scale because they are already paying no federal income tax. In fact, they are getting money from the government in the form of the Earned Income Tax Credit and other forms of assistance, including subsidized health care, child care, housing, etc. The bottom 50 percent of taxpayers pay only about 3 percent of all taxes while the top 1 percent of earners pay 37 percent of taxes while taking in 19 percent of all income.
• Bad public policy and wrong corporate decisions are only partly to blame for the loss of Moore's idyllic worker's paradise. There was also international competition. So long as GM, Ford and Chrysler were competing only among themselves, they could afford to produce shoddy vehicles and pay overly generous wages and benefits. But when VW, Toyota, Nissan and others began offering more reliable and cheaper vehicles, consumers largely abandoned the U.S. vehicles.
• The problems Moore blames on a capitalistic system are really failures of American public policy. The United States has shifted from a manufacturing economy to a service economy and from a lender nation to a debtor nation. If U.S. tax policy rewarded domestic manufacturing and discouraged imports, things would be different.
A caller to the program agreed with Moore's assessment of the evils of capitalism, but he said Moore didn't go far enough. To achieve a true social democracy, the caller said, we must eliminate money altogether. Moore agreed with the caller but said his incremental step would be more achievable.
That exchange reminded me of the professor who taught a sociology class I took around 1970. He extolled the Swedish system, which taxed all income at around 70 percent and provided everyone's needs, from health care to housing to jobs. Within 10 or 20 years, he predicted, America would eliminate the need for money. Stores would just be open warehouses, and everyone would go in and pick up what they needed and walk out without paying anything. A student had the impudence to ask what would prevent people from greedily hoarding items, from cleaning out the store for themselves. Oh, don't be silly, the professor replied; people in an enlightened system wouldn't do that.
Capitalism is an imperfect system. It requires some democratic regulation to prevent foolish risks that can cause a collapse. It requires tax policy that rewards investment but prevents accumulation of and inheritance of excessive wealth. But capitalism recognizes human greed and harnesses that impulse to provide the greatest upward mobility, the greatest innovations and the greatest overall wealth of any system in existence.
Stringing crime scene tape around Wall Street makes a cute joke, but don't count on Michael Moore to solve our political, medical or economic problems.