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Watching the new Netflix film “I Care a Lot” certainly got me thinking. Sometimes I think the main political division in this country is between those who generally favor government oversight (mainly Democrats) and those distrustful of “big government” (mainly Republicans). There were once some progressive Republicans like Robert M. La Follette Sr. and conservative Democrats, especially from the South, but since Ronald Reagan’s presidency almost all those who want more government regulation, for example in regard to business and the environment, are Democrats (of further to the Left), while those wanting less regulation tend to be Republicans (or Libertarian). 

Central to this political division is the nature of capitalism. As sociologist Daniel Bell stated inThe Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, it has “no moral or transcendental ethic.” And one of capitalism’s greatest defenders, conservative economist Milton Friedman, oncewrote, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

Right away, at the start of “I Care a Lot,” we’re alerted to a desire for no higher ethic than making money. We hear a female voice saying, “I used to be like you…thinking that working hard and playing fair would lead to success and happiness. It doesn’t…Cause there’s two types of people in this world: the people who take…and those getting took. Predators and prey. Lions and lambs. My name is Marla Grayson, and I’m not a lamb. I am a fucking lioness.” (All the film’s quotes are taken from thefilm script.)

I Care a Lot

Eiza González, Diane Wiest, Rosamund Pike

Not since Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” speech in “Wall Street” (1987) have I heard film words that so pithily summarize the main flaw of insufficiently regulated capitalism—seeking profits can too easily transmute into greed.

Being a historian specializing in Russia and the Soviet Union, I am well aware of all the faults of communism, and even the more moderate democratic socialism of western Europe has its faults. But this essay is not comparing economic systems—as I’ve written earlier in an attempt to avoid labels,“How about Just a Fair and Moral Economy?"

Thus, our subject here is simply how “I Care a Lot” reflects capitalism’s lack of a moral ethic, how if insufficiently regulated it can encourage greed. (And after a few brief historical digressions--some from my bookAn Age of Progress?—we’ll get back to the film’s money-making mania.)

Capitalism’s lack of a moral ethic was demonstrated by writers like Karl Marx and Charles Dickens, as well as the English government’s refusal to interfere in the “free market” to alleviate suffering in the Irish famine of the late 1840s. Later in the century, the “Robber-Baron” behavior of U. S. tycoons during the Gilded Age also indicated this deficiency. Finally, the Progressive movement beginning around 1890 attempted, as one historian noted, “to limit the socially destructive effects of morally unhindered capitalism, to extract from those [capitalist] markets the tasks they had demonstrably bungled, to counterbalance the markets’ atomizing social effects with a counter calculus of the public weal [well-being].” Progressivism did not attempt to overthrow capitalism, but to constrain it.

In 1950, Henry Steele Commager, one of America’s most prominent historians,wrote: “Who, in the half century from Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, celebrated business enterprise or the acquisitive society…? Almost all the major writers were critical of those standards, or contemptuous of them…Most authors portrayed an economic system disorderly and ruthless, wasteful and inhuman, unjust alike to workingmen, investors, and consumers, politically corrupt and morally corrupting.”

By increasing federal authority and constraining some of the worst abuses of capitalism, presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson furthered a mixed economy, neither purely capitalistic nor democratic socialist. But then in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the USA trumpeted the virtues of privatization and deregulation. They aimed at giving capitalists more of a free rein, at reducing the role, in Thatcher’s words, of “a centralizing, managerial, bureaucratic, interventionist government” that “jammed a finger in every pie.”

She privatized publicly owned industries in transportation, communications, and utilities, such as British Telecom, British Airways, and British Gas. Although her government did not privatize England’s National Health Service, it did promote more private health care. In her memoirs Thatcher claimed that under her leadership Britain “was the first country to reverse the onward march of socialism” and that under her “the state-owned sector of industry had been reduced by some 60 per cent…[and] over six hundred thousand jobs had passed from the public to the private sector.” She also asserted, with considerable justification, that Britain “set a worldwide trend in privatization in countries as different as Czechoslovakia and New Zealand.” The Economist, a periodical supportive of privatization, estimated that between 1994 and 1997 $152 billion worth of assets had been privatized in western Europe alone. 

In the United States, where the government never owned many enterprises, there was more emphasis on “deregulation.” Even before President Reagan came to office, there had been some of it in the airline and trucking industries, but Reagan appointed cabinet officers much more zealous about deregulation, and various agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cut back significantly their regulation efforts. Reagan critics charged him with failure to protect the environment, and also especially faulted him for the deregulation of the savings and loan industry, which led to an increase of risky loans and other abuses that eventually cost U. S. taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.

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I Care a Lot

Peter Dinklage

In Latin America during the 1980s and into the 1990s, Thatcher-Reagan type policies were also influential under the guise of the doctrine known asneoliberalism. Working through such institutions as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Western powers pushed privatization and deregulation. 

In general, both Thatcher and Reagan claimed that their policies were increasing individual, social, and entrepreneurial initiatives and freedoms and decreasing dependency and bureaucracy, as well as taxes. But the tax cuts benefited the rich more than the poor, and poorer people also suffered from cuts in social programs--Reagan, for example, reduced spending for food stamps, welfare payments, school lunches, and student loans.

In 2017 President Trump resumed the big deregulation push witnessed earlier in the 1980s. Especially notable was its occurrence in regard to environmental restrictions. Under him the EPA morphed into an Environmental Non-Protection Agency. The Opioid crisis, which became full blown in the Trump years, wasperhaps the best example of what happens when insufficiently regulated capitalism is allowed to operate. For Purdue Pharma was allowed to put profits first. Before any ethical considerations. Before the interests of people. Even if it killed them, many of them.

Even before he became president Trump displayed some of the worst traits of a capitalist possessing no moral ethic. Like Marla Grayson, so expertly played in “I Care a Lot” by Rosamund Pike, Trump displayed no higher ethic than making money and self-promotion. His statements like“My whole life is about winning. I don’t lose often. I almost never lose” and his dividing people into “winners” and “losers” reminds us of words of Marla such as “There’s two types of people in this world: the people who take…and those getting took. Predators and prey. Lions and lambs…and I’m not a lamb. I am a fucking lioness…I don’t lose. I won’t lose.”

What Marla does in “I Care a Lot” is grow rich as a professional, court-appointed guardian for numerous elderly wards, most of whose assets she seizes while having them confined to nursing homes, which she insists is for their own good. Unfortunately, in our system such behavior does exist. How widely is debatable, but the director of the film, J. Blakeson,said “there are lots of these predatory guardians who do pry *on vulnerable and elderly people, and sort of entrap them in these guardianships and basically sort of strip their life apart. The true life stories of it are really quite harrowing and horrifying.”

*Marla’s scam is best illustrated by her treatment of an older woman named Jennifer Peterson (played skillfully by Dianne Wiest). Martha and her accomplice (and lover), Fran (Eiza González), discover that Jennifer is apparently wealthy and without family. They do so with the aid of a Dr. Karen, who tells them, “There’s a few I wouldn’t mind getting off my books. You know, the real high-maintenance assholes. But there is actually someone I have been meaning to talk to you about. I’ve been feeling her out, and…I think she might be” [what the doctor and Marla call] a cherry,” meaning in this context, someone ripe for picking. But the doctor tells Marla, “I can’t just give you a cherry for free. I need something in return,” and asks, “You hold stock in Golden Light Care Homes, right?” After Marla, says “Yeah, we have a chunk,” Dr. Karen responds, “Sign some over to me.” Having come to this agreement, the doctor further agrees to indicate in writing that Jennifer suffers from dementia and needs a guardian, which a judge agrees can be Marla. She is also aided by another crooked individual, Sam, who runs the Berkshire Oaks nursing home, where Jennifer is soon, against her will, confined, restricted, and sedated.

Unfortunately for Marla, unbeknownst to her, Jennifer has a close criminal relationship with a gangster named Roman, played by the excellent Game-of-Thrones actor Peter Dinklage. Among other actions, Jennifer is hiding Roman’s stolen diamonds until Marla manages to make off with them by opening the older lady’s safe deposit box.

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Eventually Marla and Fran (see above) conflict with Jennifer (still confined to the nursing home) and Roman, and the former pair almost lose their lives. Amid this turmoil, Marla tells Jennifer, “Listen to me carefully…I’m never letting you go. I own you. And I will drain you of your money, your comfort and your self-respect… This is your life now, Jennifer. You are just another old lady in a care home, with dementia, with incontinence, with arthritis. With no one. Except me…Jennifer…you’re gonna die in here. Alone and in terrible pain.”

After more back and forth, Roman finally realizes his best bet is to make a deal with Marla. He tells her, “You’re a rare person, Marla. Your determination is…scary. But this guardianship grift, it’s ripe, but right now it’s small potatoes. I propose we create a monster…a countrywide guardianship corporation, with you as CEO and co-owner. Use my money, use your…skills. Destroy the competition. Take control of the entire market. [We’ll create] a corporation with 80 different companies, all registered offshore, charging each other invoices, burying profit. A real estate arm, a legal arm, a training arm, a medical arm, a pharmaceutical arm.” Marla responds, “Our own chain of care homes,” and Roman adds, “Exactly. With thousands of guardians working for us. With hundreds of thousands of wards in our care. That way, you win. But I win too. And we make each other billions of dollars. Legally. Mostly.

There are still a few more scenes in the movie, and I’ll leave viewers to discover them for themselves, but enough has already been revealed to indicate how making money became a mania for both Marla and Roman. More than a century ago, American philosopher William Jameswrote of our “moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease.”

Certainly our nation’s people are about much more than just money seeking. It’s even arguable if gaining success, in the form of making lots of money, is our main “national disease.” But there’s no doubt it’s very important to many people and some, like Marla and Roman in “I Care a Lot” are willing to use scams or other criminal methods to enrich themselves--gotten any scam phone calls lately? Since capitalism is amoral, neither moral nor immoral, and has “no moral or transcendental ethic,” progressives who stressed the need for a higher good than profit seeking were right. And seeking the public well-being is just such a good.

walter moss

Privatizing such institutions as prisons—handing them over to companies that put profits first--and deregulation--allowing drug companies like Purdue Pharma to make millions by pushing opioids—is not the way to achieve that good. Among the many lessons we should have learned from four years of Trumpism is that deregulating businesses, freeing them to earn profits any way they wish, will not further the common good. Too many people like Marla and Roman (and in real life, Trump) possess no higher ethic than enriching themselves. Effective laws and honest public servants seeking the common good must contain them--and, if necessary, bring them to justice.

Walter G. Moss