Capital in the 21st Century


The geometrics of poverty.

(2019) Documentary (Kino-LorberThomas Piketty, Kate Williams, Suresh Naidu, Bryce Edwards, Rana Foroohar, Joseph Stiglitz, Ian Bremmer, Francis Fukuyama, Lucas Chancel, Faiza Shaheen, Paul Mason, Simon Johnson, Paul Piff, Gabriel Zucman, Gillian Tett. Directed by Justin Pemberton

 

Okay. So it’s not exactly news that there is a massive disparity between haves and have-nots in this country, and the middle class – once the backbone of American prosperity – has been shrinking at an alarming rate until, now, it barely exists. In this country, to quote Midnight Oil, the rich get richer, the poor get the picture.

And in case they haven’t, economist Thomas Piketty presents it very clearly for them hear. Base on his bestselling book which may be the biggest selling economics book since Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, the book and the movie it is based on explains why the rich get richer and how the deck is stacked against the rest of us. It is a moment in time where that has been displayed clearly by the coronavirus; it infects everybody regardless of the size of their bankbook, but the poor, who haven’t been able to afford decent health care, have been hit disparately harder than the wealthy.

Piketty warns that the conditions that gave rise to Marxism are returning again, with a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, social mobility becoming nearly impossible and nationalism and fascism both on the rise. The baby boomers may be the last generation to reasonably expect to have a better life than their parents; it is nearly impossible to do now – unless you are part of the one percent.

Piketty leads a parade of economists, historians and sociologists in interviews that show how the privileged classes manipulated the hearts and minds of the poor, demonizing any sort of program that would actually help them – including breeding a mistrust of education – and creating a stigma over any social program, linking it with the dreaded socialism *shudder* which is, of course, anti-American, right? Welllllllll…

New Zealand-based director Pemberton laces the film with plenty of pop culture references, from a hit song by Lorde to clips from The Grapes of Wrath and Elysium. In one of the more fascinating sequences, UC Irvine professor Paul Piff details an experiment in which two students were randomly selected to play Monopoly. A roll of the dice gave one player the role of the rich player, and the other the poor player. The rich player was given hella advantages, including more cash to begin with, the ability to roll two dice at a time (the poor player could only roll one) and more income every time they passed Go ($200 to the poor player’s $100). An interesting thing happened; the rich players grew arrogant and cocky, attributing success to superior game play rather than the nearly insurmountable advantages they were given. Gordon Gekko opined that greed is good and maybe it is (although evidence says no), but it is certainly ingrained in nearly all of us.

While there are some solutions offered – many of which were put forth by Elizabeth Warren during her Presidential campaign last year – they are unlikely to be enacted by politicians who are largely in the pocket of the super-rich. I would have liked to have seen the same kind of analysis given to the solutions as there was to the problems, which aren’t exactly breaking news. For those who believe that the rich are superior to those who don’t have money, there is the specter of the French Revolution – which is what happens when people have nothing to lose. We are rapidly getting to that point not only here in America but all over the world. Those who refuse to learn from history, after all, are doomed to repeat it, often to their great regret.

The movie is currently available through Kino-Lorber’s virtual cinema program which benefits local art houses. Although the Enzian currently isn’t one of them, Floridians wishing to check out the movie and benefit local art houses have four to choose from; the Tampa Theater in Tampa, the Sun-Ray Cinema in Jacksonville, the Coral Gables Art House in Miami and the Tropic Cinema in Key West. Click on the picture for more information.

REASONS TO SEE: A fairly sober explanation of how we got to where we are.
REASONS TO AVOID: There isn’t a lot of analysis of where we go from here.
FAMILY VALUES: The content is definitely not for the young.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the bestselling non-fiction book by Piketty, which has sold more than three million copies worldwide to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Freakanomics
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
My Darling Vivian

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Inside Job


Inside Job

The scene of the crime.

(2010) Documentary (Sony Classics) Matt Damon (voice), Eliot Spitzer, Glenn Hubbard, Barney Frank, Paul Volcker, Lee Hsien Loong, Domnique Strauss-Kahn, Gillian Tett, Sigridur Benediktsdottir, Satyajit Das, Jerome Fons, Andrew Lo, William Ackman. Directed by Charles Ferguson

 

There is no doubt that the financial crisis of 2008 was completely avoidable. Regulations that had been in place since the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash had been systematically removed, first during the Reagan administration but continuing through the Bush, Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. The government that was supposed to protect us from the sharks of Wall Street had in fact aided and abetted their feeding frenzy which led to the crisis.

Most of us have been affected in some way by the crisis. Some of us have lost jobs or homes or know someone who did. Nearly all of us have paid with a drastically adjusted lifestyle that is nowhere near as affluent as it was in 2007 (unless you’re one of the 1%). Most of us feel angry and helpless against the prevarications of the banks and financial institutions that precipitated this mess. What most of us aren’t aware of is that they weren’t the only ones who deserve blame.

Filmmaker Charles Ferguson knows. At one time a dot com millionaire himself, he has become a documentary filmmaker and a fine one – his first film, No End in Sight, showed how disastrous decisions made after the fall of Saddam were leading us to utter disaster – and the Iraqis as well. This movie is even better.

He approaches the crisis calmly and rationally, explaining the steps that led us to the situation we’re in starting in, of all places, Iceland. That country had a robust economy until deregulation (pushed for by the banks and greedy investors) led them to near economic collapse well before our own crisis. Even with that warning in place, few noticed or cared that we were headed in the same direction. Anyone who did raise the alarm was condemned as a Luddite or a socialist. Of course we could trust our bankers and financiers to do what’s best. They’re all interested in a healthy robust economy ahead of their own short-term financial gains aren’t they?

They aren’t, clearly. Not only that, they actively campaigned for deregulation, even given the examples of history where deregulation would lead – not only in Iceland but in 1929 as well. It is in fact somewhat chilling how similar the two crashes were and Ferguson points out those similarities like a prosecutor.

He questions participants in the freefall, from academics paid by Wall Street firms to write “impartial” papers on the soundness of the system to politicians who were hornswoggled into believing that deregulation would be beneficial to the economy short-term and long. He also points out that nobody has seriously been prosecuted for their roles in manipulating the economy nor have the laws essentially changed. That’s just as true in 2012 as when this movie came out two years ago.

Inside Job won a Best Documentary Oscar in 2011 and it deserves it. If your blood isn’t boiling by the conclusion of the film, you need to get your pulse checked. We are made to understand that we have all fallen asleep at the switch and allowed the government, business and academic sectors to collude for the profits of a few. It is up to us, as narrator Damon points out at the film’s conclusion, to make ourselves heard (as the Occupy Wall Street movement has attempted to do). We have to understand that those who got us in this fix feel like they can afford to wait us out but we can’t allow that to happen. We need to learn from our mistakes, make those people responsible for this accountable and re-establish those regulations that prevented this sort of thing from happening for fifty years – the years which coincided with our nation’s greatest prosperity, not too coincidentally. When is our ADHD nation going to take notice of the important things rather than be distracted by more lurid subjects? Not soon enough, I fear.

WHY RENT THIS: A very capable explanation of the financial meltdown and its lasting consequences. Non-partisan (relatively).  Some gorgeous cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dry stuff and lots of talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity as well as some drug and sex-related material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffrey Lurie, one of the owners of the Philadelphia Eagles and one of the richest men in the United States, was an executive producer on the film – which is a study in irony in itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed, although if you want to see a few extended interviews with some of the participants you’ll find that here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.9M on a $2M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Made in Dagenham