Chapter: 17

Capitalism in the media

SYNOPSIS and INTRODUCTION

The image portrayed of capitalism and capitalists in American media is consistently and overwhelmingly negative. The discussion here is confined to American media. However, there is little reason to believe that a more favorable image of capitalism and capitalists is to be found elsewhere, since America is considered universally and with some justification to be the most capitalistic country on earth.

In some ways there is more capitalistic treatment of business in places like Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, but it appears that there is also significant political coercion, or corruption or both in those countries.

While the presentation here is selective, it is also representative of American media. In American motion pictures one would be hard pressed to find a film presenting a favorable view of business, free enterprise, or business people, while the number is legion of films with an anti-business message and evil business people as important characters.

In Journalism, free enterprise, business and business people are attacked frequently except in publications directed to a business audience such as The Wall Street Journal and the business magazine Forbes.

In political advertising, including televised debates which are a form of advertising, candidates seem to lose no opportunity to present their opponents as beholden to business interests, or to “special interests,” which is generally code for business or some group whose interests are adverse to the public.

This anti-capitalistic bias is a development of changing attitudes in America since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Previously, in journalism business received sometimes favorable and generally at least even-handed treatment. For example, Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was a distinguished and highly respected journalist who presented a consistently uncompromising free market, laissez-faire point of view.

From 1934 to 1946 Hazlitt was the principal editorial writer on finance and economics for The New York Times, writing both a signed weekly column along with most of the unsigned editorials on economics. From 1946 to 1966 Hazlitt wrote a regular signed column for Newsweek magazine.

Noted author and critic H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) said of Hazlitt that he was “the only competent critic of the arts that I have heard of who was at the same time a competent economist, of practical as well as theoretical training,” adding that he “is one of the few economists in human history who could really write.” 1

Motion Pictures

In motion pictures capitalism is presented frequently as a bad thing, and capitalists as evil doers. The film Promised Land (2012) exemplifies this attitude. It stars popular actor Matt Damon who is also co-author of the screen play. Damon plays the role of ace salesman Steve Butler, who is working for Global Crosspower Solutions (Global), an energy company. Butler and his hard-boiled sales associate Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand)  are trying to obtain drilling leases on farmers’ properties so that Global can drill for natural gas using “fracking,” a process discussed below.

Butler is shown initially in business attire conferring with his supervisor at a posh restaurant. Next he is seen going into a small rural town to convince people to sign drilling leases with Global. Butler holds out to the farmers the promise of possible millions of dollars in return for the right to drill on their land.

Butler and Thomason are shown donning farmer-style clothing and driving a dilapidated old pickup truck as they call on local farmers. Butler refers to his background as a former Iowa farm boy to gain trust from the locals.

What seems like an easy sales job becomes complicated by the objection of a respected schoolteacher, in a town meeting, that fracking would contaminate the water supply with dangerous chemicals and kill cattle.  An environmental activist arrives in town to provide dramatic proof of the dangers of fracking, namely photos of how fracking ruined his family’s farm in Nebraska. Butler receives conclusive proof from corporate headquarters showing that the environmental activist is lying about his family’s farm, because the photos of the farm are of seaside property that is obviously not in the Nebraska prairie.

Butler uses the proof in another town meeting. The community is persuaded that the environmentalist is a liar and that therefore fracking is harmless. Butler confronts the activist about his lies. In a shocking twist, the activist reveals that he too is working for Global, and that it was his job to be discredited to make it easier for Butler to sell the local people.

Butler is stunned and disillusioned by these fraudulent tactics. He addresses another town meeting, tells the townspeople about the machinations of Global, and apologizes for his role in trying to deceive them. His colleague Sue Thomason tells him Global has fired him. As for herself, she says “It’s just a job.”

Promised Land creates a powerful message that fracking is dangerous to the environment and to people—and that Butler’s employer, a corporation, cares only about making money at the expense of the environment and the community.

Yet the message about fracking is false, and its falsity creates a negative image of the business corporation that would engage in fracking. The term “fracking” is an abbreviation for hydraulic fracturing of sub-surface rock formations to gain access to gas and petroleum deposits within the rocks.

Hydraulic fracturing was innovated in the 1940s. It has been used safely in hundreds of thousands of wells since then. A report issued by MIT in 2011  found that a relatively small number of natural gas wells drilled in the previous decade had caused contamination, and that was mostly from surface spills of fluids. Moreover, natural gas is cleaner than coal; from 2007 to 2012, American’s carbon emissions fell significantly, in large part because the gas made available by fracking decreased the use of coal for energy. 2

The principal chemicals used in fracking have names that may sound potentially dangerous and harmful to the public. However, these chemicals are substances in common use in human life. The principal chemicals used in fracking are:

  • Dihydrogen oxide (water)
  • Sodium chloride (salt)
  • Silicon dioxide (sand)
  • Acetic acid (vinegar)
  • Citric acid (the juice of citrus fruits—oranges and lemons)
  • Guara gum (used in tooth paste)

There are other substances used in trace quantities in fracking  where the extremely small concentration is harmless. To minimize the chance of chemicals, petroleum or gas escaping from the well into the adjacent water table, wells that are fracked have at least three layers of steel pipe separated from each other by cement, to act as a barrier between well fluids and ground water. 3

Promised Land was not a commercial success, but numerous other anti-capitalistic films achieved great popularity and were commercial successes. A lengthy list of such American movies could be provided. Here are just a few examples.

There Will Be Blood (2007), based upon a 1927 novel by acclaimed writer Upton Sinclair, tells the story of a gold miner-turned-oilman on a ruthless quest for wealth during the oil boom in Southern California during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The villainous businessman commits two murders committed during the course of the film.

A very successful motion picture, The Towering Inferno (1974), portrays a deadly and disastrous fire in the world’s tallest building, in San Francisco, on the day of its grand opening. The fire is caused by the building contractor’s chief electrical engineer who chooses to save money by using cheap, shoddy wiring instead of the more costly heavy-duty wiring specified by the architect. The inadequate wiring cannot withstand the tremendous load it bears and ignites an enormous fire that starts in the building’s electrical system.

Chinatown (1974) depicts the activities of a businessman who commits fraud and murder in the course of bringing water to Los Angeles from rural agricultural areas. There is a mystery about the businessman’s daughter that is solved when near the end of the film the daughter reveals she has a daughter of her own who was the product of incestuous relations with her own father, the evil business man.

The 1964 film Goldfinger tells the story of fictional British secret agent James Bond thwarting the effort of a gold magnate and smuggler to attack the U.S. gold depository at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Several commercially successful but factually questionable motion pictures depict businesses creating health hazards to humans by despoliation of the environment or unsafe working conditions. Erin Brockovich (2000) and Silkwood (1983) have screenplays in which such anti-social behavior of business is the essence of the story. However, there has been justifiable controversy about the factual basis for each of the movies.  4

NOTE: Protection of the environment is an issue to be discussed hereinbelow as part of the treatment of “the commons,” those natural resources whose use or misuse by one person or group of persons may adversely affect others. For now, CTLR (this internet book) asserts only that full protection of private property rights should include protection of everybody’s interest in preserving natural resources and avoiding or minimizing pollution to the fullest extent practicable. Protecting  the environment from all pollution due to human activity could  be avoided only by eliminating all human beings from the environment.

Documentary films

The independent filmmaker named Michael Moore has made the most widely viewed of the genre of anti-capitalistic documentaries. Moore’s films include  Roger and Me (1989); Sicko (2007); and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009).

Roger and Me portrays auto maker General Motors (GM) and its CEO Roger Smith as villains in closing down manufacturing of GM products at Flint, Michigan, during the 1980s. There is no mention of GM’s shrinking market share making cuts in production necessary to survive, nor a hint about the other problems of all the Big Three American carmakers spelled out concisely at page 2 of American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company (2012) by Bryce G. Hoffman, as follows: “As the Big Three’s share of the market had shrunk, they had not. 5 At least not fast enough. They all had too many factories, too many workers, and too many dealers. Generous union contracts negotiated in better times had created legacy costs that their foreign rivals did not have to bear. And none of the American companies had the stomach for the radical reforms that were now necessary just to stay in business.”

In Sicko, Moore’s depicts problems in American health care insurance. He presents credible, anecdotal evidence that one insurance company has an employee whose job is to look for any possible reason to deny valid claims. However, he does not establish that is a widespread practice in the health insurance business.  The film presents a one-sided picture. Never does it concede what appears undoubtedly to be true, that insurance companies do, at least eventually, pay most of the claims made for benefits.

Moore takes his camera to Cuba and presents a picture of Cuban health care as being better than in America—and free, in the sense no payment is required at the point of service. However, Cubans pay in other ways. For example, physicians in Cuba are paid so little that many are leaving the profession, according to an  article published in National Geographic in 2012. The National Geographic reporter spent an afternoon with an Emergency physician whose salary is the U.S. dollar equivalent of only $33 a month. The doctor is on duty 24 hours a day four days a week, and the other three days he drives a taxi cab, from which he earns far more than  his physician’s salary.  6

Capitalism: A Love Story shows the hardships of ordinary people suffering economically in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. It is effective in its image creation of widespread hardship. Some of it is Moore interviewing himself about capitalism and socialism. Towards the end he says that capitalism is evil, it cannot be improved and should be replaced by democracy. From the context it is clear that by democracy he means socialism. There is even an image of a bust of Marx, accompanied by a favorable comment of Moore about socialism.

Journalism

America has some fine newspapers, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. One can learn a lot from the reporting, the editorials, opinions of regular columnists, and opinions of guest contributors, despite much of the opinion and the news coverage being permeated with an anti-capitalistic perspective.

One example of anti-capitalistic journalistic attitudes is the reporting of the offshore [outside the U.S.] profits and cash holdings of large companies such as Apple, Inc. Newspapers repeat politicians’ allegations that imply this is some sort of nefarious tax evasion.  Apple’s profits earned outside the U.S. have been large. Under U.S. tax laws domestic-based companies are permitted to do foreign business through foreign-based subsidiaries that pay taxes where they operate but do not pay U.S. taxes. These companies would pay taxes on such foreign earnings when they repatriate the money to the U.S. The reporting on this issue seldom mentions that companies have valid business reasons to operate in other countries and to keep cash profits outside the U.S.

What Apple and these other companies do in this regard is authorized by the U.S. tax code. Congress has tax committees that are knowledgeable about such issues. If it is in the law, that is because it is the intent of Congress to allow it. But one seldom if ever reads about or hears that part of the story in newspapers or on TV.

Political Advertising

Politicians routinely accuse each other of selling out to business, i.e., trading pro-business votes in the legislature for political donations or favors from business. Here is a quote from a mailing piece in a Congressional election in Los Angeles in 2012: [Congressman X] “voted to Benefit Big Pharmaceutical Companies.7

The advertisement was meant to create an image that the incumbent was too cozy with big pharmaceutical companies. The Congressman in question was head of a committee of the House of Representatives that wrote an initial version of legislation that became eventually “The Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010,” commonly referred to as ACA or Obamacare.

That legislation was supported by big pharmaceutical companies and their trade organization. Thus, the campaign advertisement could be defended as truthful. The Congressman had voted for legislation that pharmaceutical companies supported, for reasons of their self-determined self interest. However, the implication was false, as the Congressman has a long record of being anything but a friend of big pharmaceutical companies or any business for that matter.

 

 

Notes:

  1. Source: Wikipedia biography of Henry Hazlitt, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Hazlitt
  2. “The Future of Natural Gas: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study,” and Appendix 2E of the report: Overview and Analysis of Publicly Reported Incidents Related to Gas Well Drilling, http://mitei.mit.edu/publications/reports-studies/future-natural-gas
  3. The source of the foregoing information about fracking is an interview with a petroleum engineer who finished his career by serving as CEO of a sizable petroleum company. The information he provided about fracking is consistent with information in sources available on the internet, including information from the U.S. Dept. of Energy. See, e.g., Producing Natural Gas From Shale, January 26, 2012, U.S. Dept. of Energy,http://energy.gov/articles/producing-natural-gas-shale
  4. For Erin Brockovich see See Stossel, John, Scaring Ourselves to Death (2004), Chapter 5, summarized at John Stossel on Erin Brockovich, http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/vl/notes/stossel.html  For Silkwood see Los Alamos Science, Number 23, 1995, “The Karen Silkwood Story,” http://www.fas.org/sgp/othergov/doe/lanl/00326645.pdf
  5. “The Big Three” refers to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, the last survivors of more than 2,000 American companies that once made automobiles.
  6. Source: “Cuba’s New Now,” by Cynthia Gorney, National Geographic, November 2012, pages 51, 56
  7. Quoted from campaign advertisement of a candidate running against an incumbent Democratic Party Congressman.

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