To use Occam's razor one must first tell the beard from the throat

“The American Dream Film”

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Fun film.  I’ve actually put together my own story about how money works some time ago, and the first 2/3 of this movie mostly follow it.

There are parts it doesn’t cover — the basic fact that the way $$ is put into circulation (very roughly, about $2 of debt, $1 principal & $1 interest, for every $1 created whenever a person, for example, borrows for college or buys a house) in turn creates artificial scarcity.  This can be alleviated (1) through expanding monetized markets into areas of life where they don’t exist yet, thereby pushing out person-to-person & community exchanges based on gift giving, informal expectations of future favors etc., (2) by actually selling services to the banks who collect the interest, and (3) by bankruptcy & foreclosure.  (2) and (3), in effect, mean that the economy gets structured as a food chain with money lenders on top, while (1) makes sure the needs & wants that drive the markets to expand are not just those to exchange goods & services, but to make money.  By the way, the person who analyzed this very well almost 200 years a go was (surprise surprise) Karl Marx, though of course his analysis of class struggle & predictions of the eventual demise of capitalism proved a fertile source of excuses for a whole slew of dictators, demagogues, petty criminals, idealists turned murderers, and so on.

One thing, well there are several things I disagree with in the movie.  Firstly I think it’s misleading to equate international finance with the IRS.  One way to think about a representative democracy is as a way to formalize collective decision making in a nation state about what resources should be administered in common, and how to put these resources to use to support whatever people agree is the common good.  20th century economies became complicated enough that it was normal for representative governments to form bodies to organize the collection of money & track how it is spent.  It’s certainly a topic for discussion which form of governance can best fulfill people’s interests, what I’m saying is as long as we have a representative democracy in a monetized economy we’ll have an IRS.  The movie does not bring this up, and it would be much more productive if it pointed out how much of our tax payments is paid as interest, a de facto rent the federal government is charging the taxpayers & paying to its lenders.

The other side of this argument is that, in a modern monetized economy, if you don’t have an IRS, you don’t have representative democracy.  The cartoon skirts around this, and in so doing it is, in fact, supporting the interests of the very people it aims to criticize.  I mean, the reason international financial interests are as powerful as they are is because most of what they do is legal & supported by national legislation.  One way to resist this is to try electing a government which would try curbing these privileges – people giveth, people taketh away.  How difficult this is to do in practice is, again, a very fertile topic to talk about, but a responsible populist government would need resources in form of money to enforce whatever laws it passes, and hence would need the IRS or its equivalent.  In fact a government could easily use taxation to curb big finance by instituting a Tobin tax.  So, as much as the IRS may now indirectly support big money interests, because they largely own the government, they have every reason to fear it because one day there may be a government that’s less pliable.  So, a good way to preempt a populist government is to channel popular discontent against tax collection.

In short, I don’t like that the movie fails to point out that IRS, as an organ of the social contract mediated through a constitutional democracy, may be used to curb big finance if this is in the interest of citizens.  In this way, I think this film does another thing — it subtly attacks the social contract that underlies U.S. constitutional democracy itself.  Now, there are problems with the 18th century concept of liberal democracy (in the original sense of “liberal”, denoting the combined values of individual freedom and pluralism), and again, it’s a discussion in itself — but liberal democracy has, overall, proven to be more responsive, stable and just than many other ideologies as a basis for culturally and politically diverse societies in industrial nation states.  Sure, it is limited & I certainly think there is room for improvement, but one could do much worse.

Now, note what this movie offers instead: violent action in form of armed rebellion, based on a mythical view of the past in which heroes and villains are larger than life and everybody is either good or bad.  Put these things together: opposition to liberal democratic institutions, emotionally valid criticism of big finance with indirect structural support for it, and a mythical view of national identity — these are all properties of fascism.  You think I’m going too far?  Being brought up in Europe I may be overly sensitive to it, but then again, maybe I’m just less naive about rhetoric invoking national myths than most people brought up in the U.S.  The references to 300, the movie I enjoyed, but which can for many reasons be seen as fascist (another discussion) don’t help.  Ok, you can say this is clearly a metaphor, people aren’t likely to rise up with swords against big banks, but this takes me back to the previous point — for people who take this this movie at its word minus the armed rebellion the first punching bag will be the IRS, which is, for all its faults, a potentially powerful tool against big finance, and in my opinion they would be better advised to try to reclaim it.

Finally, I don’t like the way the film feeds into conspiracy theories regarding the House of Rotschild & Kennedy assassination, though this is a relatively minor point, as I think it’s good for people to be aware these connections, but then think things through and hopefully dismiss them as overly simple.  As I wrote in the Facebook response regarding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a conspiracy theory is usually a failure in processing complex information.  While the Kennedy assassination certainly came at the fortunate moment for the Federal Reserve, just as 9/11 came at the lucky moment for the neocons, inferring the connection between the two in either case requires actual evidence, of which there’s little or none.  I think it’s better to err on the side of caution than to scare oneself into believing in all-powerful über-villains.

So overall, I agree with many parts of this movie’s message, with additional observations and caveats as described.  I think it makes valid points, which can then to lead to a discussion of more democratic ways money & economic exchange can be organized, such as credit unions, alternative currencies, gift economies and the like, even though they arn’t sexy enough to fuel a call to revolution.  Actually these topics have the right combination of bottom-up initiative, nerdity and wonkishness to keep me pretty interested, so I’ve been following up on them occasionally.   If the cartoon gets people thinking about how to set up these things on a larger scale it’ll do a great public service.

A few links & names: We’ve Got Time to Help, FreeeBay, Transaction.net, David Korten, Bernard Lietaer.  Enjoy 🙂


Written by miranche

18 February 2011 at 19:29

Posted in Contentious, Current

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