Review – Capital in the Twenty-first Century: The Documentary

All around the world, countries are printing money at an incredible rate to stem the tide of an economic collapse precipitated by a global pandemic.

And for many millenials, financial despotism is just run-of-the-mill at this point.

Between the financial crisis of 2008 and this new depression (Ray Dalio’s words), millenials have had to bear quite a lot of the system’s inability to foster a life of well-being, due to crippling amounts of wealth inequality. Granted, income has remained stagnant since the late 1960s, but the real issue that we face concerns wealth. Any young person knows that the amount they make in real time wages has been sapped by a rentiers economy and a health care premium that costs more than my property taxes. Wages are the same and housing prices have soared in some places up to six times the amount.

Many young people have gone to prestigious universities and have little to show for it besides a part time-job in the freelance or contractor sector and thousands of dollars in debt, while Harvard University lays off its workers. All despite its nearly 40 billion dollars in endowments.

This should not be normal.

But ever since Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century published in 2013, he has taken pains to remind us that inequality is in fact quite normal. Meaning that if political policy and economic management do not step in and provide services for the lower and middle classes, destitution is the likely outcome. To speak of the golden years of the middle of the 20th century is actually a fluke in modern history.

That is one of the big takeaways from his book that makes it into the new documentary by Justin Pemberton, and is it any coincidence that I had to see this using KonoNow, an app that allows me to contribute funds to local art house theaters? It gave the whole thing an underground feel, as if I was going into the digital basement of the art world, putting on my beret and grabbing a white russian as I stirred the half and half and watched with terror the great history of capital as it unfolded.

While the story is largely tragedy, the documentary itself is beautifully visualized. At one hour and forty-two minutes, the documentary slides between various experts and historians, including Piketty himself, as they guide you from the movement of ternary and slave societies into the modern world of industrialism and capital. Images cascade and split the screen and arrive at a mile a minute, or sit and envelop you in their horror or beauty. Many parallels are made from the words spoken to the images laid before, sometimes in an obvious and dramatic way, other times in methods that are more subtle. At one point, the documentary pivots using old trains to new ones, and transitioning from transportation to technology with phones, the slide of the rail car to the slide of a smart phone, that really made me appreciate whoever edited the work and provided context for this new bout of “winner-take-all” digitization of wealth collection in new tech like cellphones and search engines.

For anyone with a history degree, or anyone who has read the book, the voice over and corresponding images are relatively familiar. For anyone who has seen other economic documentaries such as Inequality for All or even Inside Job, many of the throughlines from those will appear in your consciousness as you watch. Oh, yes, Reagan and the air traffic controllers. Yes, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program.

Still there are other elements that surprise, such as the rise of fashion and Christmas as some of the beginnings of spurring on consumer spending. If you have walked past Christmas with several Xbox’s under your arm, this might cause you to second guess yourself.

The downside of the documentary is the “mile wide, inch deep” dilemma of covering such a long time span. One could have imagined a multi-part, Ken Burns style thorough investigation into the nature of capital, with parts addressing industrialism, the introduction of consumer credit, the modern banking system, credit default swaps, and on and on.

So when the viewer arrives in the 21st century and much glancing talk is given to tech companies, only the obvious references are given, such as self-driving cars and the coagulation of wealth of Google into the Bahamas. One wishes that more of Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots made it more into the feature, besides simply images of robots attempting to mimic human faces and gestures.

A particular criticism that I would have, if there are any, concerns the idea later in the documentary that many Americans are fully aware at this point that social mobility is incredibly low. That may be true, but as far as I am aware, many Americans are still contested about what can be done about it. Many still cling to the Reaganomics belief in trickle down economics, despite the fact that we know now beyond doubt that it was a colossal failure for the middle class. Even when Piketty provides the much needed answer, as he did in his book, of an inheritance tax and a tax on capital earnings, it’s easy for me to imagine some baby boomers balking at the thought of losing any of their wealth, despite the fact that a system of social security and a safety net hitherto unheard of provided for that very wealth in the first place.

That is exactly who this documentary is for. The most indicting detail in the piece concerns a game of monopoly, and I will not spoil it here. But it hints at something that perhaps goes beyond Piketty’s original thesis. The moment ties the thing together into a more psychological cohesive whole.

I highly recommend that younger and more astute college-aged family members show this documentary to older and wealthier members of society, as they have political power in numbers, as well as financial power in wealth, in order to create some kind of change. Because I’m not willing to bet simply on coronavirus as a way to get the word out that society is in desperate need of wealth redistribution.

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