Doughnut Economics Video Club: four fab films on capitalism

The web is abuzz with great videos on rethinking economics – from 3 minute talking heads to 2 hour documentaries. So I’m launching a video club on this blog to share the best that I’ve watched, to debate and critique their perspectives, and to discover other people’s top recommendations.

First up are four fab films on capitalism:

1. Capitalism by Stiglitz (2005) 43 minutes. Let’s kick off with this authoritative mainstream view from Joseph Stiglitz, once chief economic adviser to Clinton, and chief economist at the World Bank. He tells the story of capitalism through the story of his home town, New York City, which, as he says, “symbolises all that is great and all that is deplorable about the capitalist system.”

His view in short? “While I believe capitalism is the only practical way to run an economy or society, I’m also worried about the way in which a particular brand of free market capitalism is being promoted around the world.” His worries focus on the resulting wealth inequality and financial instability at home, and enduring poverty and debt in developing countries.

The documentary uses great historical film footage to give a basic introduction to ideas such as Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, ‘free’ vs managed markets, globalisation, and the inherent instability of capitalist economies.  But there is no mention of social exploitation, environmental degradation, or other externalised costs.

Stiglitz is a staunch defender of capitalist economies, claiming, ‘Capitalism needs to win the hearts and minds of people all across the world – the dangers of not doing so cannot be exaggerated…It’s in all of our interest to make capitalism a fairer system’. And his closing words (filmed in 2005) now sound prescient: ‘It’s been the most dynamic period of history – and it’s not over yet.’

2. Capitalism: A Love Story, by Michael Moore (2009) 127 minutes. Like Stiglitz, Moore tells the story of capitalism through his hometown – but rather than walk the heady streets of New York City, he beats the pavements of Flint, Michigan, once home to General Motors, now half boarded up.

He focuses on the experience of families at the sharp end of the capitalist bargain: those evicted because of foreclosures on their sub-prime mortgages, or those sacked overnight without back pay when the economy crashed.

But he also makes sure to focus our attention on the corrupt heart of corporate capitalism, highlighting, for example, the role played by former Goldman Sachs executives in steering US Treasury policy from the inside during the post-crash banking bailout.

Moore has a talent for reminding us that there have been earlier eras of strong public ethics, and leaders not afraid to speak of them – such as Carter who in 1979 warned the American public that ‘Owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning’, or Roosevelt who back in 1944 had proposed for the US a second Bill of Rights that promised health, education, decent housing, living wages, and security for all – captured in striking film footage which had been lost until Moore rediscovered it in the process of making the film. All well worth watching.

3. Crises of Capitalism by David Harvey (2010) 11 minutes. David Harvey is one of the best known Marxist thinkers and this witty RSA Animate is a brilliant summary of his take on the cause of the 2008 financial crisis – told not on a trip around his hometown, but on a trip around a Monopoly board.

Many reasons have been given for the crisis, says Harvey: human nature, institutional failure, erroneous theory, and national culture. But the real reason was systemic risk – or what he calls ‘the internal contradictions of capital accumulation’ because (quoting Marx), “Capital cannot abide a limit‘.”

When financiers reap the lion’s share of economic growth (which they have done since the 1980s), wages don’t rise, so middle and working class demand drops out of the economy. It has to be replaced by credit cards, creating spiralling household debt – leading inevitably to mortgage defaults and collapse.

Taking the opposite view to Stiglitz, Harvey concludes “Any sensible person right now would join an anti-capitalist organisation“. It’s essential and compelling viewing.

4. Capital in the Twenty-first Century, by Thomas Piketty (2014), 4 minutes. There’s no choice but to conclude with the newest bloke on the capitalist block because Piketty’s work has had such instant impact and has reignited deep debates on capitalism. His already best-selling book is long and dense, but to be honest, most of his videoed presentations are too (such as this one at the Economic Policy Institute). He really deserves a 10 minute animate to make his spoken message far more accessible (and I’ll bet plans for a Piketty RSA Animate are underway…). While we wait for that, it’s lucky that his publisher made a reasonably snappy little video that captures some of his key points.

When the rate of return to capital (call it r) is higher than the growth rate of the economy (call it g) then wealth becomes more and more concentrated. And Piketty argues that we are back into an era where r is greater than g. As he calmly puts it, “You’d better start with some initial wealth“.

It’s a stark message, but he claims that he is not purely pessimistic. There are several possible futures, he says, and, ‘”There’s nothing natural in the history of income and wealth distribution.” But we are on a dangerous course: if the wealth at the top of the distribution keeps rising faster than global growth, all the wealth will soon belong to a very small elite and, “There will be a level of inequality which is simply not compatible with our democratic and meritocratic values“.

So there’s four very different perspectives on capitalism. Well worth a video night in, with a bowl of political popcorn to top it off.

Stiglitz, Moore, Harvey, Piketty: who amongst them captures the essence of 21st century capitalism?

And if you have some must-see recommendations to add to the list – from anywhere in the political spectrum – let me know.

 

12 thoughts on “Doughnut Economics Video Club: four fab films on capitalism

  1. 25 April 2014 at 09:09

    Very useful, thank you 🙂

  2. 25 April 2014 at 10:00

    Great idea. I also recommend http://www.filmsforaction.org for finding more films. In answer to your question, from your reviews, it sounds like none of them address the issue of money issuance (as debt by private banks with interest). That is key to the dynamics of capitalism, including inequality and the apparent “need” for growth to avert inequality. Therefore none of these films are insightful on the core issues of capitalism and what’s wrong with its current form. I discuss this in my new book Healing Capitalism. Here are some videos on the topic: http://jembendell.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/learning-about-the-monetary-crisis/

    1. 25 April 2014 at 10:04

      You’re right, Jem, none of these films touch on how money is created. But I think David Harvey would say that the issuance of money as debt by banks is not *the* core issue of capitalism – the core is the need for unlimited accumulation and the banks’ current ability to issue money is just (a big just) the contemporary way that capital avoids that limit. Your book Healing Capitalism sounds good, I’ll track it down. And I’ll be doing four fab films on money soon, so many thanks for the link.

  3. Ben
    25 April 2014 at 11:24

    Many thanks for the great links to films on Capitalism. Much appreciated. Not sure if you have seen this article, which parallels Thomas Piketty’s message on the rise of economic and political power of elites.

    http://consortiumnews.com/2014/04/24/americas-surge-toward-oligarchy/

    It includes a link to original study done at Princeton/Northwestern.

    Keep up the good work! And thanks again for the blog.

    1. Ben
      25 April 2014 at 13:47

      And the work and ideas of the US economist Richard Wolff. Good interview with Bill Moyers:

      http://www.rdwolff.com/content/moyers-company-part-ii

      More videos and talks online at:

      http://rdwolff.com/articles/16

  4. 25 April 2014 at 11:36

    In terms of other video resources, it’s worth bearing in mind the FT’s Auther’s Note series (http://video.ft.com/3503273760001/2-500-years-of-financial-crises/Authers-Note). Although some of these short videos are on very specific contemporary issues – e.g. interview with Stephanie Flanders on pros and cons of sterling appreciation – others, particularly book review interviews cover a wider set of issues.

    One recent example would be an interview with Bob Swarup, author of Money Mania on why innovation and financial crises are flip sides of the same coin – good on the long run pattern of systemic economic crises, although for my taste the analysis plays to much to the discredited “it’s just human nature” tendency.

    A second would be a two part interview with George Cooper, author of Money, Blood & Revolution on the current crisis in economics. A largely behavioural economics approach but it does have some innovative ways of re-presenting the different economic schools other than in traditional left-right terms – e.g pointing to the fact that Marxist and Austrian schools have equally strong views about the inherent instability of markets.

    1. 25 April 2014 at 12:51

      I like the sound of these, thanks Derek, especially the piece with George Cooper. I’m planning a set of four (or even five) fab films on money and finance so I reckon I’ll find good ones here. Cheers.

  5. George
    25 April 2014 at 12:45

    ‘Inside Job’ narrated by Matt Damon provides an interesting depiction of how complex financial instruments like derivatives contributed to the financial crisis after being promoted by people who actually had very little understanding of how they work.

    1. 25 April 2014 at 12:52

      I’ve been wanted to watch that, so you’ve prompted me. Maybe it will be one of the top four or five vids on money and finance…thanks

  6. Katherine Trebeck
    26 April 2014 at 16:54

    New Economy Coalition has a nice load of films on its site.
    Love the idea Kate!

  7. Ben
    28 April 2014 at 09:42

    And Manuel Castells talking at the LSE last year on the rise of alternative economic cultures (audio talk) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n9yg1