Michael Moore at Toronto International Film Festival

Michael Moore on Troubles in America

by Elizabeth Willoughby

Author and documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore, is no stranger to controversy. His tenacious wading through political mire and corporate bog in order to cast light — and camera — on issues he sees destroying his homeland are a thorn in the side to many, and brilliant to more.

His last three docs — Bowling for Columbine (2002), which looks at the nature of violence in the United States; Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), which criticises the Bush (II) administration, the war on terrorism and media coverage; and Sicko (2007), which examines the American health care system, pharmaceutical industry and foreign universal health care concepts – are among the highest-grossing documentaries ever.

His latest, Capitalism: A Love Story, shows how corporate America is stealing the country's wealth, a timely release only a year after the world economic catastrophe of 2008. In his usual, thorough style, Mike, as he generally refers to himself, names names and explains how it happened. If cheering spontaneously, hooting and hollering and standing ovations during the movie are any indication, this film looks slated to join the high ranks of his previous efforts. More importantly, however, Mike sees the film as a referendum being watched by the CEOs of America. A huge opening would tell the business world that Americans are mad. A mediocre opening would demonstrate a lack of opposition and allow a return to business as usual.

During Capitalism's premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival in September, Mike, dressed in his trademark baseball cap, t-shirt and jacket, shared some of his thoughts:

On why he made this movie...

I've probably been thinking about this movie for as long as I've been making films because it seems like no matter what issue I decide to make a film about, it comes back to the core issue of something is seriously wrong and unfair about the economic situation in our country. Probably about six months before the crash occurred, I realised that this was the movie. I really wanted to say something about how really sick and twisted our economic system is. And something like that is actually legal. So, it started there.

Capitalism A Love Story

Capitalism in Many Forms

On the movie's message to eliminate capitalism...

When I say that capitalism should be eliminated, I'm not talking about eliminating somebody wanting to open up a business to sell shoes or somebody working hard to earn money or even earning more money to do better for themselves. To me, capitalism is a system of legalized greed. And it's a Ponzi scheme because it guarantees that just a few people at the top of the pyramid are going to earn most of the money. Everybody else becomes their worker ants, becomes their slaves essentially, to do their bidding and to earn that money for them. I reject that system. I reject it because I believe in democracy. I believe in the principles that our founding fathers stated, that we are to treat each other in as fair and equitable manner as possible.

To have a pie on the table and have one guy say, "Nine of those slices are mine," and the other nine people at the table have to fight over the remaining slice, I think that's wrong. The richest one percent in America have more financial wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined. That is not democracy. And it's not moral. It's not right. It has no ethical foundation to it. All the great religions denounce that kind of greed. And all the great religions denounce treating the poor as if they were your doormat. And if you're of no religion, you have an ethical code that says this is just simply wrong.

We're in the 21st century and I don't think it really is a discussion anymore about capitalism versus socialism or capitalism versus communism or whatever. Aren't we smart enough in a new century to come up with something that is relevant to what we're dealing with right now? I think we are. But it ain't going to be easy because the people now that have amassed so much wealth and so much power are not going to give that up easily. It's going to essentially have to be taken from them in a legal, democratic, non-violent way.

On capitalism versus greed...

Greed's been with us forever. Greed's been with us before capitalism. Greed's the dark side of human nature and it's probably in all of us on some level. And so we look for ways to have a moral code that keeps it in check. Capitalism is not that moral code that keeps greed in check. Capitalism encourages it. Capitalism almost demands it. In fact, we legalize it. We make it part of our law, in the United States and in Canada, where we say that if you're a corporation with shareholders, you have a fiduciary responsibility to your shareholders to make as much money as possible, to maximize profits.

So it's there, you're required, if you're a health insurance company, you are supposed to try and make as much money as possible. Of course, the best way to make as much money as possible is to deny claims, to kick people off the rolls when they get sick, to not allow people who get on the rolls because they have a pre-existing condition. They're not doing anything illegal by doing that, in fact the law requires them to do that. So capitalism is this legalized endorsement of greed. It doesn't have a soul.

I know people are going to try to look for a nice way out of this or a nice way to gussy up capitalism to make it kinder and gentler. A hundred years ago, there was a great debate about whether or not to eliminate child labour. And there were well-meaning, liberal-minded people who said, "I think if we just made the factories more safe and make sure the kids go to school, that'd be ok if a 12-year-old worked in a factory." No, it's not ok. It's wrong. Some things are just wrong. I've read stories of slave owners who were very generous. They didn't keep them in shackles, they didn't whip the slaves, they built schools and churches for them, free housing, free food, free everything. It's wrong. No matter how nice you make it look, it's wrong.

On Obama's attempts at healthcare reform in the US...

I feel bad for what President Obama is going through. What's he trying to do? He's trying to bring health to people who have a hard time getting health. All those millions, tens of millions of people who voted for him, where are they? Who's got his back? I see the minority out. They're there, exercising their democratic rights to say what they want to say. Where's the majority? Where are the people that voted for Obama? Where are the people that wanted this? Perhaps part of the problem is that his plan only goes half way. And it's hard to get your support, your base, excited about half measures. Had he gone the whole way and just said we need a single tier healthcare system, like they have, or a version of it, in just about every other western industrialized country, I think he would have a lot more support.

But I'll give him credit for this: He knows, and his opponents know, that if a true public option exists, if that's passed, it will be almost impossible for the private, profit-making insurance companies to compete for the company that doesn't have to make a profit, and could put those private, profit-making insurance companies out of business. That possibility exists, they know it, and that's why the health insurance companies are spending over a million dollars a day on lobbyists and other advertising efforts in the United States. My favourite ones of course being the ads that show Canada as a third-world country, with people lined up out the door of the doctor's office, waiting in line for nine months, dying of brain tumours on the sidewalks of Toronto. [Laughs] Thank you for appreciating our sense of humour in America.

On old-style capitalism...

When you say, "Well Mike, capitalism didn't used to be that way," there used to be a more equitable distribution, that's true, but there also used to be segregation, where blacks really couldn't compete for the same jobs as whites had, and whenever you remove 12 percent of the population out of the line in front of you, you have a better chance for that job, just like if you could remove 47 million people out of the doctor line in front of you, you have less wait. So the Americans are going, "Yeah, they got that big wait up there in Canada." Well yeah, they let everybody in line! If you take 47 million people out of the line, my wait's going to be shorter.

When the Berlin Wall came down and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe took place, John Paul II, who was very anti-communist obviously, being from Poland, and everybody was throwing a big party, "Communism is dead, woohoo," he said something very interesting. He said we're very happy that this evil economic system has bit the dust, but there's another system that's also evil. It's a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

On the debate...

I believe there's anger that's really simmering beneath the surface across America that I certainly saw while making this film. If you look at the people who are being evicted, the victims in this film compared to the ones 20 years ago in Roger and Me, 20 years ago they were pretty docile and kind of accepting their fate. That's not what I saw this time.

[A year after the crash] I don't think I've seen a single talk show, a single edition of Meet The Press or an op-ed in The New York Times where they've allowed a voice to state the following: The real problem here, my friends, is capitalism itself. It's not this particular symptom or that particular piece of it. It's an economic system that doesn't work, it's not fair, it's not democratic, it's not just, and it's got to go. Why haven't I read it? I know a lot of people believe it. Why is that part of the discussion and debate removed from the discourse? So this film, like my other films, exists to interject an idea into the discourse. Let's have the debate. Let's have the discussion. I have an open mind. I'm willing to listen to anything at this point.

So, [my publicists] are trying to line up me going on a talk show or whatever, and some of the shows are nervous about me coming on to say these things and then having to cut to commercial. It's not that they don't want me on, but in order to make it work for them, they've got to try and find an opposing voice. They're having a very hard time finding people who will go on with me to defend that the richest one percent should own more and have more financial wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined. It's an indefensible position! And so I'm not going to be actually allowed on certain shows because they can't find anybody to take the opposing viewpoint. I welcome the debate and I hope that they are able to find somebody who would like to defend the system that would allow that.

Michael Moore Capitalism

Capitalism's Effects on Media

On the future of newspapers...

I actually had a section in an earlier cut of the film about the media and specifically about the daily newspapers and how capitalism has killed the newspaper. But it became so large that I realized that it couldn't sit in this film and if anything it may have to be its own film someday. But I shot a number of things. I think a year from now or two years from now we're not going to have daily newspapers, and that we're in the last year of reading the daily newspaper.

Here's two main things I want to say:

Why aren't the newspapers in Europe going under? It's not that the newspapers in Europe are having an easy time. They're in it, we're in it, the economic recession is worldwide. But why aren't they going under? The American newspapers say, "Well, it's the Internet. The papers are getting killed by the Internet." Last I heard, they've got the Internet in Europe. And they've got the Internet in Japan. So why aren't their papers folding while ours are going?

In Europe, Japan and other countries, for most of their newspapers, the primary source of their newspaper funding is circulation. Advertising is second. In our country, advertising is the primary source of funding. Circulation is second. Any time you say that the people who read your newspaper are secondary to the business community, you've lost. Eventually you're not going to survive, at that point, when your primary concern is the advertiser. In Europe, they know in order to keep circulation up, they'd better put out a damn good newspaper. They'd better put out something the people read, and they'd better not cut too many reporters because if certain beats aren't being covered, people aren't going to read the paper.

When they were trying to downsize the Baltimore Sun, they got rid of the courts beat, they got rid of the crime beat, they got rid of the labour beat, they got rid of the poverty beat reporter – I don't know if you've ever been to Baltimore, but poverty, courts, labour, if you stop reporting on the things that the people in the town are really concerned about, they may stop reading your newspaper. But the bottom-line bean counters who've come in, the corporations who bought out these newspapers, they come in and they say, "How can we get more news and less money, less employees?" Same theory at General Motors that I watched 20 years ago: "How can we get rid of half the employees but still put out the same number of cars? We'll just make everybody work twice as hard, and we'll save money doing that." And that's what happened to our newspapers.

But here's the other thing that happened. We live in a nation of 40 million functional illiterates. That's 40 million adults who cannot read above a fourth-grade or fifth-grade level. We have another probably 40 million adults who can read and write above a fourth-grade level but don't have the comprehension beyond that very much. So if you have literally that many tens of millions of adults who either can't read and write above a fourth-grade or fifth-grade level or can't comprehend what they do read, you've created a nation of people who are not going to be reading the newspaper.

Now how did we get that way? How did we create so many illiterate and ignorant people? It's because we have made education such a low priority in the United States, and what party has led the way? The Republican Party. Every convention, they have a thing in their platform about dismantling the Department of Education. They want to get rid of the Department of Education, they hate the teachers' union, they give it as little money as possible.

In the 17 elections between 1940 and 2004, the majority of American newspapers endorsed the Republican candidate for president in 14 of the 17 elections – 14 of the 17 elections, the majority of American papers endorsed the party that was going to cut back on the very thing that their readers needed in order to read the newspaper, which is literacy and education. These newspapers slit their own throats. It would be like General Motors funding candidates who promised to get rid of driver education. As dumb as General Motors is, what car company would support the elimination of driver education? And yet, America's newspapers supported the candidate that would guarantee their ruination.

Too bad for all of us in a free society that we won't have these daily newspapers that are supposed to act as a watchdog to those in power. Too bad that we allowed this to happen. Those who survive are those who will rise up out of the ashes of this mess. Hopefully we'll follow the models of the European newspapers like the Frankfurt morning paper, which is a non-profit newspaper. They don't exist to make a profit because the purpose of a newspaper shouldn't be to make a profit. Or the Guardian, in London, which is owned by a trust, because a newspaper is a public trust, and we will suffer as a society without them. And it is not the Internet that has killed them. It is their own greed, it is their own stupidity, and it is capitalism that has taken our daily newspapers from us.


On the future of the financial sector...

I think the financial sector has learned that they've got to get more crafty in order to keep pulling off the Ponzi scheme. Look at the front page of The New York Times. They're still trying to come up with new ideas for derivatives. And now they're going after life insurance. They're doing derivatives on life insurance. That's the new scheme. I'm telling you, capitalism is a beast, it will never stop, it has an insatiable desire to make money, you can put as many strings or ropes around it as you want but it will break through. People have asked me, "Well what's the love story in this movie?" The love story is that it's a movie about wealthy people who love their money, except this film has a new twist. They don't just love their money, they love our money, and they want our money, and they're going to find any way they can to get it.

When I was young, people didn't have credit cards. They didn't exist. That really shot up after Reagan took over. That's when the whole credit card industry became what it was. You know, somebody might have had a gas card or the department store card, but there weren't credit cards where you would be suddenly 10,000 dollars in debt. There weren't 401-Ks. You had a defined pension plan that was solid and protected. And then Reagan came along and said: No, no! Invest in the stock market, 401-Ks. Oooh, yeah, I could be like the rich man, you know, invest money just like he does, I'll be just like him. He held that out there and people fell for it.

When I was of college age, you didn't get a student loan. There was a room down the campus that said "Financial Aid". The college gave you a loan, like one percent, two percent, just pay it when you can. Or you got work-study, you worked in the cafeteria, you worked in the library. Or you got a scholarship, or you got a grant. And then Reagan came along and they said: There's another way we can get money. And the genius of it is that we can start getting money from them when they're 18. If you go to college now, on the first day of college, there's a row of tables there from all the credit card companies, to get kids to sign up, to give them credit cards and a credit limit, when they have no income to back up that credit limit to justify it.

They're always looking for a way to suck money out of us, but not suck it from themselves. They've got their tax rate lowered and lowered and lowered each time through the years since Reagan, and now they want our tax money to bail them out. The true believers of socialism in the United States of America are Wall Street and corporate America. They want the safety net there for themselves. And they have very willingly taken hundreds of billions, actually trillions of our money now, to help them. I would like to see an end to this.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2009

This article was published at © 2009

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