The Man Who Knew Infinity
An account of a remarkable person should strive to be as equally remarkable as its subject, not the timid and tidy boilerplate special of a…
Whether or not you agree with Michael Moore, he has one piece of invaluable advice in his new film, "Capitalism: A Love Story." If a bank forecloses on your home, ask them to prove their ownership by producing a copy of the mortgage.
In the film, Marcy Kaptur, the Congresswoman from Toledo, says, “Don't leave your house if they try to throw you out.” Why not? "In many cases, they can't," Moore explains, "because it's already been cut up, chopped up and bundled and rebundled and a piece of this mortgage is sitting in China."
"Capitalism," which opens nationally on Friday, is Moore's latest populist rabble-rouser, not his funniest but probably his angriest. The strange thing is, there's not much in it to offend his usual critics. It comes at a time when the U.S, economy essentially serves him as a footnote.
His study of the meltdown leads him to the puzzling matter of "derivatives," the mysterious financial instruments involved in the bank collapses. In the film, Moore asks three "experts" to explain a derivative to him. They can't.
"Nobody wants to look stupid, " he told me, "so everybody sort of nods their heads and goes, Oh yeah, yeah, I understand that. You're not supposed to understand it. It's like a snipe hunt on Wall Street.
"I gotta tell you this story. I talked to a guy who used to sit on one of the nine Federal Reserve Boards. They brought somebody in to explain these credit default loans and everyone sat around the table going, ah hum, ah hum. He told me he didn't have a clue what the guy was saying but was afraid to look stupid.
"After the crash, he calls up some of the guys on the board and admits he didn't understand half of what he was hearing. He got the sense that nobody in the room understood it. But a weird thing happens amongst smart people. They won't admit it. Like I don't wanna admit to you that I've never read Moby Dick, because I think I'm a fairly smart guy."
So okay, I told him. You made the film. I want you to explain derivatives to me.
Moore, who didn't go to college, is happy to.
"Imagine you've got this crazy brother-in-law and he likes to gamble but doesn't wanna go to the normal casino. He wants to go to the virtual casino, where you never really actually touch any of the money. He wants to place bets with money that isn't his and he starts to win some of it and he starts to think it's his money.
"But he's actually not touching that money either. He starts to get a little nervous about all this betting because he never really actually sees any money. So he says, You know, I need to take out an insurance policy just in case this isn't real. So these derivatives are essentially bets on bets.
"They've been betting against whether people are going to be able to pay their mortgage. They've been betting against the economy. If the economy gets worse, jobs are gonna have to be cut. That should help Wall Street, because as unemployment goes up the Dow Jones goes up. Wall Street likes it when you get rid of people because it's good for the bottom line. Employees are your number one expense.
"Before the derivative action starts, they've taken people's mortgages and split them up and sold off the pieces. Let's say they've taken 100 people in your neighborhood and taken 10 percent of each of their mortgages, put them into a brand new document and sold it to somebody. That's why they can't find your mortgage."
Moore is rolling now. It's an inspiration to see him under a head of steam, his red baseball cap bobbing and his hands waving.
"You hear commentators blaming the shiftless people who took out the mortgages: They're living beyond their means! They really pushed that after the crash -- that these low income people and their subprime mortgages did this to us. It had a racial overtone in it and was really a little creepy. What they never say is, the number one reason people go bankrupt in this country is medical bills.
"I carefully picked my foreclosed people for this film. One, his farm was in the family for four decades. The family down in Miami, 22 years in the house. These are people who got snookered.
"Elizabeth Warren, the law professor from Harvard, she has taken those like refinancing contracts into her law class, and she hands them out she says, Okay, tell me what the interest rate is. You read the 50 pages, you can't figure it out. A law student or professor can't figure out how it's gonna balloon. It's deliberately confusing. "
Moore argues the current crisis was caused by a capitalist love of money that transcends all other motivations: "It's about how the wealthiest one percent, who have more financial wealth than the combined lower 95%, not only love their money, they love our money. They love everybody's money and they want as much of it as possible and their love is so blind that they recklessly go about taking our money and spending it any way they see fit; usually in making bets on bets -- derivatives.
"One guy comes to the table and takes nine slices of the pie and everybody else at the table has to split the last slice. That's not democracy; that's not what Jesus said. All the great religions actually say the same thing, they all have the same basic beliefs about how to treat the poor and how the rich are not to suck everything up and make life miserable for everybody else."
But even now, I said, we hear about executives paying themselves multi-million-dollar bonuses.
"They do it because they can get away with it. It's been a year since the crash and not one single regulation has been put back in place. Why hasn't there been more outrage? I'm doing my part. In Pittsburgh I showed the movie to a bunch of steelworkers, and during that scene where the judge is putting kids in the privatized juvenile homes so he can get a little kickback money, this guy like rises half out of his seat and he starts shouting at the screen, Shame, shame, shaaaaame! People are ready to rumble."
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