January 29, 2021 – This is a movie focused on a subject about which most people are ignorant, economics. That is a subject barely menioned in schools and barely covered in the news media, even though it plays a huge role in our lives.
This Kino Lorber distributed movie, based on French economist Thomas Piketty's book of the same name, blows up a lot of misconceptions about wealth, power, and social upward mobility, in most developed nations, but especially in the United States. Here, tax and workplace laws in the last 40 years have largely decimated the middle class, while enriching a small number of people at the top.
Powerful elites in America learned ways to siphon money from the middle class to further enrich themselves in the 1980s using a playbook authored in memos authored by former Supreme Court justice Lewis Franklin Powell Jr. and lawyer Michael Horowitz. Policies, including lowering taxes on the rich and destroying unions, were enacted under President Ronald Reagan's leadership, and justified by economist Milton Friedman and others (as detailed in the book Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, by Kurt Andersen). New institutions, like pro-elitist think tanks to promote government policies, and institutions like the Federalist Society, helped stack the courts with pro-elitist judges.
This film not only details how easy it is for elites to co-opt democracies in this way, but it argues that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few families that we see today is a direct consequence of economic trends that go back hundreds of years.
A central tenet of the movie, and Piketty's book, is based on the fact that the accumulation of wealth based on capital returns (dividends, interest, rents etc.) historically far outpaces overall economic growth (based on labor, manufacturing, production of goods and services, etc.) in society.
The most striking proposition in the movie, however, is the role that psychology plays in the attitudes of those whose wealth comes by way of inheritance, and other “non-earned” factors such as race. Paul Piff, a psychologist who designed a Monopoly experiment, shown in the film, talks about how people who inherit wealth automatically think they have earned it, and they automatically also have less empathy for those who of unfortunate circumstances.
In the experiment, the mere flip of a coin determines a rich player and a poor player at the beginning of the game. The rich players roll with two dice and get $200 every trip around the table. The poor player rolls with one die and gets half as much money every trip around the board.
As the game progresses, the rich player begins acting more confident as he inevitably gets far richer than the other player. He puffs himself up, ignoring the feelings of the losing player. Tellingly, when Piff asks the winners why they were victorious, they never, ever admit it was because they won the coin toss, that it was mere luck that made them a winner.
This experiment explains a lot about why former president Donald Trump, for instance, has such a high opinion of his business acumen, even though he inherited over $200 million and still went bankrupt multiple times and is now in deep in debt.
The game also explains white supremacy, and the reluctance of supremacists to admit that the status they protect is due entirely to random chance — that all their hard work and intelligence could easily be negated if they were born under different circumstances, with dark skin, for instance.
The monopoly experiment also explains Trump's inability to appeal to most black voters. They know exactly how Trump got where he is, and what it feels to lose the coin toss in the monopoly game of life in these United States.
One of the big changes in the game is coming soon, according to the movie: An enormous transfer wealth from those who got good jobs in the middle of the 20th Century — trillions of dollars of property that will be inherited by their heirs.
According to the movie, ownership of property enables owners to accumulate wealth without producing any goods or services. The accumulation of wealth without work is due in part to new financial investments made possible by recent changes in financial laws. It is a new way for the owners of capital to accumulate more wealth risk-free without producing products or services.
The movie seems to indicate that American society is approaching a situation similar to English society in the early 1800s when a tiny percentage of society controls almost all the wealth. There are obvious dangers in such drastic levels of wealth inequality. It can destabilize a society.
When people know the system is rigged, and that they and their children cannot advance, they get mad, and heads roll. For the time being, some politicians have been able to channel that anger away from themselves and direct it at others, Mexicans, Chinese, Jews, Arabs, any old group will do, but that can't last. As the movie argues, hating Mexicans won't make you any richer.
So what is the answer? Among other ideas, the movie proposes a wealth tax (as opposed to an income tax) and taxing multinational companies in each country where they operate, based on the percentage of the profit they generate in each of these countries. This kind of taxation is quite different than the current method of taxing them on the basis of where their offices are located (often in some corporate tax haven country).
Sounds good to me. This film rates a B.
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