[A Review of "Lets Make Money", a film by Erwin Wagenhofer. Distributed by Bullfrog Films, 2008]
German director Erwin Wagenhofer’s 2008 film, Let’s Make Money, is an in-depth examination of the global economic and financial system in the age of neo-liberalism. Beautifully filmed, with locations from a number of locations around the world-including Burkina Faso, Germany, Ghana, India, Jersey, Singapore, Spain, the UK, and the US-Wagenhofer seeks to illuminate the global economy for those of us who are kept in the dark; and yet suffer the consequences.
Wagenhofer looks at the global financial system from a number of different angles, each illuminating part of the problem of neo-liberalism, which is capitalism with almost no institutional constraint. This neo-liberalism took its current form under the regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. Key to this was deregulation of the banking industry, attracting money from off-shore, giving investors in particularly the UK access to cheap capital, and which was supported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. These international financial institutions created a four-part project known as "The Washington Consensus," which included deregulating financial markets, liberalizing trade flows (attacking the trade barriers developed by "developing" countries trying to protect their economic base), breaking hold of state’s power (by reducing tax income), and then privatizing state resources through sales to private investors; each intending to benefit the elites in various countries around the world at the expense of "ordinary" people.
The film is based upon interviews with investors, government officials, and people who can provide entrée into the slums and impoverished towns of the various countries, or a broader understanding of what is actually taking place. Shown are the efforts of investors to make money, and with no consideration of ethics, much less the impact on human lives. Yet, the affects are illuminated, such as the diversion of 97% of gold profits to the Western countries and only 3% to Africa, despite the gold coming from Ghana, and the gross impoverishment of the people.
Wagenhofer looks at the impact of cotton on Burkina Faso, a country in Central Africa. Despite producing some of the world’s best cotton, and cleaned by hand, Burkina Faso cannot compete on the global market, especially because of cotton subsidies to cotton farmers by the US Government [as well as by the European Union-KS].
He shows the real estate bubble in Spain, and the efforts of investors to purchase housing developments on the southern coast-with almost all of the constructed apartments remaining vacant. Almost all have golf courses, in a country where only a relative few play golf. These houses are too expensive for younger Spaniards, and will remain housing developments that are empty, while transforming the Spanish coast and countryside for the worse, and wasting massive amounts of water.
Also explained are the tax havens in Jersey, an island off of the UK. A government official claims their financial services are as good if not better than the Swiss, and brags about the investment of banks from around the world on the island. Another government official explains the almost total secrecy of these tax havens, and how, when set up properly, they are almost impossible to discern who is involved. These tax havens are the nemeses of developing countries; it is estimated that for every $1 of development aid to Africa, $10 leaves the continent for these secretive tax havens.
For this reviewer, the highlight of the film was the section shot with John Perkins, who served as and then wrote a book, Economic Hit Men, about his activities as a global banker. Perkins points out that economic hit men identify countries that have resources coveted by large multinational corporations, such as oil, and then these hit men convince the World Bank to loan tremendous amounts of money to these countries, to finance huge development programs that can be carried out by these corporations. These programs benefit only a small minority in the country, as well as large investors in the corporation, but leave the country with huge debts that can never be paid back. In turn, these economic hit men return to governmental leaders in these countries and seek "favors" by those deeply indebted, forcing them into subservience to the United States. (Perkins compares this process to how the Mafia operates.)
Perkins talks about his role as an "economic hit man," and says if the bankers can’t get their way, then the "jackals" (his term, but obviously referring to the CIA) are sent in to convince or kill the leaders, and if they still don’t get their way, then the US military is sent in. It was Perkins who ties in the CIA (and, by implication, the "security services" of other countries) and the military to support and protect the economic activities of global investors. Most interestingly, however, is his discussion of Saddam Hussein’s resistance to this process, and he argues that’s why Iraq was invaded.
The film, made from a European perspective, is especially interesting because it looks at issues affecting Europe, and these are different in some ways from the United States. There’s more focus on Africa in this film than most Americans are used to seeing-documentaries of US origin tend to focus more on Latin America and/or East Asia (both missing in this film, although Singapore is used as a backdrop in one section). There is also the direct statement from a governmental officer in Burkina Faso that if the Europeans don’t end their subsidies and let Burkina’s cotton compete equally in their markets, and after pointing out that two million people are directly employed in Burkina’s cotton industry with each supporting around 15 people, he says that Europe will be overrun by Africans. The film also has several segments with Hermann Scheer, a German parliament member.
Yet the European perspective misses some things that I would have thought important to understanding the global economy. It misses the predominant role of the US, economically and politically. It-through Perkins-talks about how the US controls the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and the United Nations, most of the time. But other than Perkins’ comments about the US military getting sent in after the bankers and the "jackals" have failed, there is no mention about military invasion and intervention around the world. In a film so visually powerful, mere mention of something so important simply seems insufficient. But, then again, it wasn’t Germany who led the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan or ….
The film is obviously made for a European audience. It uses a series of interviews by knowledgeable people who are quite forthcoming about what they are doing and why. For some reason, however, these speakers are all male, as if there are no expert female analysts. Yet, this reviewer thinks the film would have been stronger had there been someone or something to tie the interviews together more for the audience: this film assumes a level of understanding that most Americans simply don’t have, even college students. Accordingly, it will be better understood if there is someone-such as an instructor in a "Developing Nations" or a "Global Finance" class-who can help people watching make all of the connections made by the film.
This is an excellent film that will get audiences to raise many provocative questions. It’s clear that we must join together to change this "system." It doesn’t provide "solutions" per se, but the information provided is excellent and well-done. It deserves wide distribution.
Kim Scipes, Ph.D., has a Masters in Development Studies from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, and currently works as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN. He teaches Sociology of Developing Nations and, during the Summer of 2009, Sociology of the Current Financial Crisis. His web site is at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes.