Tax season is over for most of us, but with extensions and delays and those few stragglers, we thought catching up on some economics-themed documentaries would be just the thing for the spring. Our chief economics reviewer, Lawrence R. Maxted, from Gannon University in Erie, PA, has his eye on the pulse of what’s been taxing all of us lately—plus a lost interview with Steve Jobs.
Bonsai People: The Vision of Muhammad Yunus. 3 discs. color 79/56+ min. Holly Mosher, Hummingbird Pictures LLC, bonsaimovie.com/purchase. 2012. DVD UPC 823857157525. $89; acad. libs. $250. Public performance; home version $19.95.
The Micro Debt: A Critical Investigation. color. 57 min. Tom Heinemann, Heinemann Media, dist by Films Media Group, 800-322-8755; www.films.com. 2011. DVD ISBN 9781617338076. $99.95; chaptered $169.95; DVD + 3-year streaming $254.93. Public performance; closed-captioned. ECON
In Bonsai People, Mosher surveys at the village level the work of the Grameen Bank in providing bootstrap loans to poor rural women in Bangladesh. She follows the opening of a new village branch and how the manager explains to prospective clients the concept of saving and borrowing for businesses, housing, and education. She uses interview excerpts with new and established clients to highlight the successes and sometime failures of the program. Mosher weaves in the bank’s philosophic underpinnings as explained on camera by its founder and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. Yunus says the bank goes beyond routine business to help its members with basic living, which has spawned new enterprises providing health care, energy, communications, and other services. Mosher presents a generally positive image but at the end acknowledges criticisms leveled by others.
Among the sources of criticism cited in Bonsai People is the documentary The Micro Debt, which concentrates on the negative aspects of microfinance in general, with a specific focus on the activities of the high-profile Grameen Bank. Director Heinemann examines how, in its 35 years of existence, microfinance has failed to be the panacea for poverty that its supporters have professed. Using interview excerpts from development experts and bank clients, he paints a picture of a system in which very few of the borrowers succeed while most are further impoverished in the struggle to repay high-interest-rate loans. Heinemann quotes testimony that some borrowers, harassed by bankers and cosigners, have been driven to suicide (see also Toxic Tears: The Darker Side of the Green Revolution, LJ 11/15/12).
Verdict With the developed world still reeling from the subprime credit crisis, the topic of making loans to impoverished people is timely. While each is useful on its own, taken together, these two films are recommended for all viewers wishing to gain deeper insights into the workings and controversies of microlending. (LJ 2/1/13)
Chasing Madoff. color. 91+ min. Jeff Prosserman, Cohen Media Group/MPI, dist. by Cohen Media Group, www.cohenmedia.net. 2012. DVD ISBN 9780788614972. $24.98; Blu-ray ISBN 9780788615009. $29.98. ECON
Filmmaker Prosserman follows two parallel stories. First, he relates how Boston securities analyst Harry Markopolos deduced that Bernie Madoff could only have achieved his consistent record of profitability by running a fraud. The film documents the unsuccessful, almost decade-long attempts by Markopolos and a small group of confidants to try to convince the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other authorities to stop Madoff. Second, Prosserman shows how knowing there must have been a fraud haunted Markopolos, who talks on screen about the strict morals he absorbed from his Catholic education and military service. He comes across as almost paranoid as he describes his fear of revenge from Madoff. In re-creations, Markopolos takes target practice, tries on a bulletproof vest, and talks about defending his family by killing Madoff. The film is based on Markopolos’s best-selling book No One Would Listen (2010), but Prosserman surpasses it by illuminating the inner demons that plagued Markopolos.
Verdict The dual themes and some heavy-handed violent imagery may be off-putting to viewers interested solely in the fraud, but the portrait of Markopolos as an honest man in turmoil trying to do the right thing is a morality lesson worth watching. (LJ 6/1/12)
Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? And How We Can Get It Back. color & b/w. 76+ min. Frances Causey & Donald Goldmacher, dist. by. Bullfrog Films, 800-543-3764; www.bullfrogfilms.com. 2012. ISBN 9781937772154. $295 (Rental: $95).
Public performance; SDH subtitles; home version. Passion River, www.passionriver.com. DVD UPC 091037489968. $24.95. ECON
Filmmakers and activists Causey and Goldmacher assert that the United States has for decades suffered from clandestine class warfare that has gradually impoverished average Americans. Their documentary cites as its smoking gun a 1971 memo to the American Chamber of Commerce by soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Louis Powell titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” It laid out a strategy for big business to influence politics with its financial muscle. The documentary says the strategy’s initial success was during the Reagan administration when the government shifted “from protecting the public good to working for the rich and powerful.” It says the pro-wealth paradigm has since met with bipartisan political support. Viewers are offered corrective measures such as publicly funded elections, tax reform, financial regulation, and strengthened labor rights and are treated to interview excerpts, file footage, graphics, off-screen narration, and pro-labor songs.
Verdict While the program highlights economic fairness issues that will resonate with angry viewers from the 99 percent, it is overly simplistic in blaming a conspiracy of the rich for America’s economic ills. (LJ 3/15/13)
An Inconvenient Tax. color. 74 min. Christopher P. Marshall, Observer Prods., dist. by Seventh Art Releasing, www.7thart.com. 2012. DVD UPC 804879172390. $59;
acad. libs. $279. Public performance. ECON
This documentary looks at the complexities of the U.S. income tax, also explaining the tax’s Civil War origins and its expansion to most wage earners during World War II. The film consists of myriad interview snippets representing a spectrum of views, from speakers ranging from Ron Paul to Noam Chomsky. Humorous vintage film clips are intercut, while an Uncle Sam character appears in various scenes toward some unclear purpose. The speakers discuss how the economic implications of the tax came to the fore during the Kennedy administration, when it was decided to reduce tax rates as a spur to economic activity. After Ronald Reagan took on high taxes as unfair, the income tax became a political issue on both sides of the aisle. The tax code therefore expanded to include provisions that appeal to different voters. The experts complain that these vote-getting special preferences have both complicated the code and cost the government revenue; they consider possible reforms.
Verdict The film effectively hammers home its point that the present income tax system is overly complicated, basically unfair, and needs an overhaul. General viewers will find this film informative if a bit dry. (LJ 11/1/12)
Murdoch’s Scandal. color. 60 min. Frontline, WGBH, dist. by PBS, shoppbs.org. 2012.
DVD ISBN 9781608837021. $24.99. SDH subtitles. ECON
This Frontline documentary, first broadcast on March 27, 2012, follows the scandal in Britain surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Murdoch (b. 1931) made his initial fortune in the 1950s and 1960s in tabloid journalism, with its insatiable appetite for salacious stories that led in turn to reporters and editors going to extremes to garner scoops. The first sign of illegal activity arose in 2005 when Prince William’s phone was hacked by Murdoch’s News of the World. The incident was initially labeled as the actions of a lone rogue reporter, but the film explores through interviews and news footage how a competing reporter, a lawyer, and a Member of Parliament pursued an investigation until they uncovered the Murdoch organization’s systemic use of phone hacking, private investigators, and police bribery. The production highlights the incestuous relationship between the police and politicians that gave the Murdoch organization inordinate influence.
Verdict Though the scandal outlined here is limited to Great Britain, the Murdoch empire is global. Such unbridled media power as presented in this incisive chronicle is a chilling threat to society that all viewers need to ponder. (LJ 3/1/13)
Personal Finance Essentials: Financial Literacy for Young Learners. 5 vols. color. 190 min. Meridian Education, 800-322-8755; www.meridianeducation.com. 2012. DVD ISBN 9781617339486. $499.75; ea. vol: $99.95. Includes: Budgeting and Financial Decision-Making; Checking Accounts and Everyday Banking; Credit, Borrowing, and Debt; Saving and Investing; Taxes and Tax Benefits. ECON
This five-program series provides a wide spectrum of financial information oriented toward young people. Checking Accounts and Everyday Banking includes what to expect from banking services and how to choose among online, traditional banks, and credit unions. It even graphically explains the proper way to write a check and how to balance a checkbook. Saving and Investing contains explanations of concepts such as compound interest, yield, and investment risk. All of the programs feature an off-screen narrator presenting basic financial information, while on screen, actors dramatize appropriate activities, experts fill in details, and graphics emphasize points. The inevitable overlap among the programs reinforces learning. Main menu scene selection facilitates customized viewing.
Verdict The series presents valuable, up-to-date data, but the quantity of material and the quasi-lesson format may deter some viewers. Though motivated young people may find it fulfilling, the series would probably be best used in group situations where a discussion leader could amplify and personalize the information. A more limited but entertaining and cheaper alternative is Your Life, Your Money: Empowering Young Adults To Get Their Money Right (2009). (LJ 2/15/13)
Something Ventured: Risk, Reward and the Original Venture Capitalists. color. 85+ min. Dan Geller & Dayna Goldfine, Geller/Goldfine Prods., dist. by Zeitgeist Films, www.zeitgeistfilms.com. 2012. DVD UPC 795975114134. $29.99. SDH subtitles. ECON
Since 1960, venture capitalists have invested over $450 billion in new companies such as Intel, Apple, Genentech, and Cisco that today employ over 12 million people. The film recounts the pioneering efforts of those individuals, including Tom Perkins, Don Valentine, and Arthur Rock. Using intercut interview segments with these investors and company founders, period footage, still photos, and presentation slides, the documentary explores how such companies got off the ground. The financiers discuss their backgrounds, motivations, and strategies used in assisting unproven start-up firms, even to the extent of deciding when to fire a founder. They relate how Apple Computer was a hard choice because the concept of a personal computer seemed so outlandish and the developers were such unlikely businesspeople. The initial 1976 infusion of $349,000 helped transform Apple; its market capitalization today equals $546 billion.
Verdict The sharp editing between speakers and their clear explanations make this film a lively, informative, and highly recommended introduction to venture capitalism for a broad audience. (LJ 10/1/12)
Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. color. 72+ min. Paul Sen, PBS, dist. by Magnolia Home Entertainment, www.magpictures.com. 2012. DVD UPC 876964004862. $26.98. BIOG/BUS
By the time of this 1995 interview for the PBS documentary Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires, Steve Jobs (1955–2011) had been forced out of Apple Computer and was running the small software company NEXT, which within a year would be bought by Apple, bringing Jobs back to the company he had founded. Most of this footage was lost until now. Jobs talks about his early love of computers, meeting Steve Wozniak, and how they turned their hobby into a business. Jobs discusses the Apple II, LISA, and Macintosh and desktop publishing, and he laments his ouster from Apple, saying it is a dying company on a probably irreversible downward glide path. He applauds Microsoft’s success but declares its products third-rate. Jobs muses about management styles, education, and the Internet. At all times, the camera remains in close-up on him. He is candid, often reflective, somewhat arrogant, and absolutely mesmerizing. It is eerie that at this juncture, Jobs had no idea that he would eventually turn Apple into one of the world’s great companies, producing iconic products such as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
Verdict Apple devotees and anyone interested in the computer industry will want to watch this interview. (LJ 2/1/13)
Too Big To Fail. color. 98 min. Chris Hanson, dist. by HBO Films, www.hbo.com. 2012. DVD ISBN 9780780683020. $19.99; Blu-ray ISBN 9780780683013. $24.99. ECON/F
Based on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s 2009 book of the same name, this HBO production skirts the line between documentary and drama. Peppered with news clips, it re-creates the events surrounding the 2008 Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and resulting freeze of the global credit markets. The central figure is Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, powerfully played by William Hurt. It is Paulson’s decision not to bail out Lehman that brings down the markets. The film shows Paulson, his team, and others grasping at solutions that seem to evaporate before their eyes. At one point Paulson tells Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke to scare Congress into action, to which Bernanke responds, “I’m scared shitless myself.” The best line, though, is Paulson’s contrite answer to being asked why there wasn’t better regulation: “No one wanted to. We were making too much money.” In an unsettling postscript, the film explains that by 2010 the ten biggest banks held 77 percent of U.S. banking assets, making them too big to fail.
Verdict The viewer is dropped into the middle of the growing crisis, which then careens out of control only to reach an uncertain resolution. With the crisis still reverberating today, this film, with its taut performances and sensory barrage, underscores even better than the book does how close the world came to the evisceration of the entire banking system. (LJ 11/1/12)