The Nerve Centre cinema is packed to bursting point for the Derry premiere of this Michael Moore documentary. And small wonder, given the week that is in it.
While the director/star is up on screen pulling ‘Crime Scene’ tape around some of Wall Street’s biggest banks, the Irish economy is sounding its death rattle, thanks to those same bankers’ European cousins.
Moore’s focus is the collapse and rescue of the American financial institutions in 2007-2009. The parallels to present-day Dublin are striking: reckless gambling, cavalier lending, insider dealing (all with other people’s money), and finally a day of reckoning, which sees the rich get multi-billion dollar bailouts and the poor get thrown out of their homes.
What makes this film particularly frightening for a local audience is that the fallout for Ireland is going to be even worse. A lot worse.
Moore rails that the bailout of the US banks cost $700 billion dollars – a huge amount, sure. But America is a country with an annual GDP of $15 trillion (15,000 billion). Ireland’s bailout from the EU, according to the BBC this week, is going to top 85 billion euro ($115 billion). And that’s for a country with a GDP of less than $200 billion.
So, in short, Dublin’s banking debt is one sixth of Washington’s, except Ireland’s capacity to repay is one seventy-fifth of the US’s. And that’s before the entire population of Donegal, or its equivalent, emigrates over the next three years.
Moore, as is his wont, provides powerful case studies to illustrate his argument that capitalism is a mortal sin.
He interviews the husband of a Walmart cleaner, whose wife died of asthma aged 26. The man was left with medical and funeral bills of $108,000 which he dutifully paid. He later found out, however, that her employers had taken out ‘Dead Peasant’ insurance on his wife’s life and had been rewarded with their own cheque of $81,000. And naturally, the family never saw a dime.
Moore talks to an airline pilot, who earns so little she has a second job as a dog-walker. Some of her colleagues, she says, are on food-stamps, while still others sell their plasma.
He investigates a pair of judges who repeatedly and unfairly sentenced children to a juvenile care home, which paid the men of law more than $1 million dollars each to keep the traffic flowing. Both judges, and the home director, are now in jail.
And while Moore never quite manages to secure a sit-down meeting with the directors of Goldman Sachs or the bigger banks – or, more pointedly, affect a citizen’s arrest on them – he does unearth a truly horrible exemplar of the soulless society, who is only too happy to parade for the camera.
Peter, a Floridian, owns a company called Condo Vultures, which liaises on a daily basis with banks to determine who they’re evicting and from where. Peter then swoops in and finds greedy clients to snap up the properties at less than half their market value.
He is curiously proud of what he does, arguing that vultures like him don’t actually do any killing, they are only cleaning the carcasses of what is already dead. And while he accepts that his clients are ‘bottom-feeders’, he insists that his business is just ‘straight up' capitalism – ‘taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune’.
Unusually, Moore’s film ends on a couple of upbeat notes. You have the election of Barack Obama, who he hopes will re-regulate Wall Street and curb the excesses of the W. Bush era. And we are given an insider’s view of a sit-in at a bankrupt glass factory, where the workers are refusing to leave until they receive their statutory redundancy pay.
The sit-in eventually becomes a national symbol of defiance – and wins the backing of the new president. One protestor comments: ‘Why should we [tax-payers] bail out the banks and they refuse to bail us out?’ And ultimately, against all the odds, the underdogs triumph and are awarded their full cheques.
This film like most Moore documentaries is flawed. The film-maker has never learned that not all of his stunts work or are necessary. It is nonetheless a masterclass in how the rich ‘one percent’ can forever rob the other ‘99 percent’ of us blind – and then get us to bail them after they’ve spent all our money.
For this critic’s money, it should be shown on a continuous loop on RTE until Election Day.