Monday, April 20, 2009

Documentaries. Yeah, Right

David Henderson points to an extensive review from Tyler Cowen of a so-called documentary, The End of Poverty, purporting to explain poverty, with about the apparent same competence that the 'documentary' The Corporation elucidated anything about corporations (I should be fair and admit that maybe it might have taught something but began in such a fatuously unbalanced way that I chose not to endure the suffering too much longer, though my initial reactions were a bit like some of Tyler's to this other performance - and to give credit, the Canadian one at least had an amusing premiss).
From the review:
Where to start? A few months ago I went back and tried to read some Ayn Rand. As Adam Wolfson has suggested recently in these pages, it wasn’t easy. I was put off by her lack of intellectual generosity. I read her claim that “collectivist savages” are too “concrete-bound” to realize that wealth must be produced. I read her polemic against the fools who focus on redistributing wealth rather than creating it. I read the claim that Western intellectuals are betraying the very heritage of their tradition because they refuse to think and to use their minds. I read that the very foundations of civilization are under threat. That’s pretty bracing stuff.

I can only report that The End of Poverty, narrated throughout by Martin Sheen, puts Ayn Rand back on the map as an accurate and indeed insightful cultural commentator. If you were to take the most overdone and most caricatured cocktail-party scenes from Atlas Shrugged, if you were to put the content of Rand’s “whiners” on the screen, mixed in with at least halfway competent production values, you would get something resembling The End of Poverty. If you ever thought that Rand’s nemeses were pure caricature, this film will show you that they are not (if the stalking presence of Naomi Klein has not already done so). If you are looking to benchmark this judgment, consider this: I would not say anything similar even about the movies of Michael Moore.

Yikes, near praise for Michael Moore, and even for Ayn Rand.

To be sure, many arguments can be made against an excessive role for the market in economic development. It could be argued that public health programs should be stronger, that most privatizations have not gone very well, that free trade alone won’t much help poor nations, or that state-building and market-building must go hand-in-hand. There’s evidence for each of these claims, even if one does not agree with them exactly as just stated. Diaz picks up on the anti-privatization angle but for the most part lets the best arguments against the market lie fallow, probably because those arguments are too complex or too multifaceted to fit into the preferred narrative of the oppressed, poor victims. There’s not a word about technology transfer, remittances, immigration, education abroad, ideas of liberty or the many other ways in which the development of the West massively benefits the poorer nations of the world.

This is what troubled me about 'The Corporation'. It was pretty obvious that nuance and trade-offs were not going to part of a discussion that might with them have been interesting.
Facts aside, there is not a single moment when this film presents a genuinely critical or thoughtful approach to evidence it does not get wrong.

For all its exaggerations and clichés, you’ll actually learn more about poverty by watching Deliverance than you will from The End of Poverty. At least in Deliverance it’s clear that a lack of production is among the main root causes of poverty.

Most of all, the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation should be ashamed for having funded this movie. The Schalkenbach Foundation was set up in 1925 to promote the thinking of Henry George, best known as the author of Progress and Poverty and advocate of a tax on land. George was a flawed but brilliant and incisive thinker. He understood that wealth needs to be produced, and he also understood the strong case for free trade, most of all to protect the interests of labor. His 1886 book Protection or Free Trade remains perhaps the best-argued tract on free trade to this day; in that book George refutes exactly the arguments put forward by The End of Poverty. Has Diaz, Sheen, Portello or anyone working today at the Schalkenbach Foundation read it? One has to wonder if anyone who has read George could lend a hand to the production of the screed of mistruths and error that is The End of Poverty. I prefer to be subtler, but this movie does not allow it.



At 7:02 PM, Blogger LVTfan said...

Seems to me that Henry George had a lot to say about access to natural resources, and about how we go about sharing the natural creation, and that some treating natural resources as their own personal treasure trove was the underlying cause of poverty.

What did the film "The End of Poverty?" say about that?

It didn't hit you over the head with it. Would you have preferred to be hit over the head with it?

Henry George wrote about privilege -- laws that permit some of us to privatize that which ought to be socialized. Did that idea not come through in the film? Should the film have contained a lecture, or might some people be able to connect the dots themselves?


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