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Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy
Commanding Heights The Battle for the World Economy
Actors: David Ogden Stiers, Tony Benn, Stephen G. Breyer, Barbara Castle, Milton Friedman
Genres: Documentary
NR     2002     6hr 0min

Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy confronts head-on Americans' critical concerns about the new interconnected world. Based on the best-selling book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stan...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: David Ogden Stiers, Tony Benn, Stephen G. Breyer, Barbara Castle, Milton Friedman
Genres: Documentary
Sub-Genres: History, Politics
Studio: WGBH Boston
Format: DVD - Color,Full Screen - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 07/30/2002
Original Release Date: 01/01/2002
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2002
Release Year: 2002
Run Time: 6hr 0min
Screens: Color,Full Screen
Number of Discs: 3
SwapaDVD Credits: 3
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 2
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

A good introduction, but remember to use your brain
W. Chen | Medellin, Colombia | 07/10/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)

"When I first heard of this documentary it piqued my interest that such an ambitious and timely program existed. A quick background on me - I recently returned (2 months ago) from 7 months straight of traveling (Loop around Australia, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Philippines, Palau, Hong Kong, Qatar, UAE, London/Oxford) which was a follow up to a 3 month road trip around most of the US and 6 weeks in South America and 2 weeks in China. I'm still going! One of my travel themes has been to visit where things are made or processed, and where they come from - a critical aspect of globalization. From the tea plantations in Sri Lanka to the mixing & packaging of that tea from Sri Lanka and 50+ other countries for Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, CO, USA (Did you know there is only 1 tea plantation in the US? And they went bankrupt recently). Or the Silicon Valley of India - Bangalore - as shown in the movie, or strip coal mining in Gilette, Wyoming, the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, or the natural gas reserve rich deserts of Qatar, etc..

Like any documentary or book there is a perspective. The show does a good job of framing the debate. It covers the perspectives of many different influential individuals and some lay people - and in many different countries to boot - lending an air of authority - which is fine as an explanation for the documentary's position. It does provide coverage to both positives and negatives.

However, my sense is that the show is far too positive about what unrestrained globalization will bring us. Not about the process to get to a "free" market - as shown in the "Agony of Reform" episode, but about the side effects to our lives and the world in which a large portion of the world lives in.

Also what is a "free" market? There is no such thing. The movie seems to keep repeating it only in reference to price and wage controls (From what I recall), but these can be controlled in other manners. Subsidies galore in the USA and other countries both direct and indirect will testify to that.

There are certainly other issues it does not address or go deep enough into and/or issues that are overly simplified. Perhaps that will be the work of another individual to reveal - me?

The #1 issue to me that the show does not talk more about or at all is the continuing disconnect between the items we consume and where the resources it takes to build those items/services come from and the impact it has on those places. Only lightly touched upon in the final episode. Realistically - the vast majority of people don't care about what they cannot / have not seen (Thus the importance of travel). Let alone understand how a series of events in a far away place will impact their lives. We can't get something for nothing. Globalization gives that impression. Like magic. The further away we are from production - the less we see the side effects. Like pollution clouds from runaway unregulated growth and auto sales in China (Go to Beijing for one) reaching distant shores - US, among a small list of many.

Don't get me wrong - the idea of globalizatoin improving our lives is true - but only to a certain point. Any idea taken to its extreme is usually wrong.

In contrast to this latter point might be how Singapore has restricted the unbridled usage of cars by putting a heavy import tax on them and designing cities in an intelligent way rather than haphazard (Like many American towns). As Singapore is profiled in the show as a success story - is this tax against the idea of a "free" market? Or is it a conscious choice to improve the quality of life and form it a certain way.

In summary, Commanding Heights - both the PBS website and video is a good basis for ongoing discussion. The only question will be then is whether the people / you who watch it will question it or take it as gospel. It is easy to get caught up and distort our vision in the momentum of thinking a certain way. All of us - rich, poor, middle, smart, educated, not educated, etc.. can be conditioned to believe anything. What's that story about De Beers of South Africa and the diamond trade again?

The truth and our behaviors are easily distorted to the unquestioning mind.

I *highly* recommend Waste Land: Meditations on a Ravaged Landscape by Davis Hanson (On Amazon) a book that shows aerial and ground level photos of 75+ US EPA Superfund sites, coal mining in Montana, and US Minuteman missle sites. You will discover that 'wastelands', as depicted in Commanding Heights of the oil industry mess and uncleaned up contamination in Russia, is far from unique to Communism. Rather than being unique in this aspect, unrestrained capitalism looks very much the same.

Also the small and easy to read - Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things by John Ryan and Alan Durning to give you an idea of the extent of globalization with everyday products you use.

For the video minded I *HIGHLY* recommend these DVDs - Life and Debt (Jamaica), Charcoal People (Brazil-cars-rainforest), Orwell Rolls in His Grave (Global media), End of Suburbia (Peak oil), and National Geographic's Strange Days on Planet Earth and Taboo Season One and Two."
Not as good as everyone's saying
Caraculiambro | La Mancha and environs | 05/12/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)

"Do you remember being caught by surprise and totally baffled, way back in November 1999, upon seeing "Battle for Seattle" on CNN? You remember, that time all those protesters wreaked havoc on the World Trade Organization meeting?

Do you remember asking yourself what all those kids were so angry about, and what the WTO and the World Bank were really up to? In short, suddenly needing to catch up on all the stuff you had been missing?

Well, if you've always wanted clear explanations of these issues, you ain't gonna get them from this DVD set.

...not that it's not worth watching or buying. There is a lot in it that you will probably find interesting and informative.

Take, for example, the first DVD, which largely recounts the theoretical divisions between the competing economic philosophies of von Hayek and Keynes. This part of the series is very well-done and lays out complicated ideas in a super-clear visual way.

However, as the series unfolds, it becomes obvious that it is not living up to its early promise, while all the time hinting (as such documentaries are wont to do) that full revelation lies just around the corner.

For example, the first disk, as I say, does a swell job delineating the differences between Hayek's and Keynes's philosophies. However, although the narration makes it clear that toward the end of the century, Hayek's theories were finally coming into their own, they never really explain why.

They explain Hayek's theories as, essentially, that government should avoid vigorous taxing/spending policies, as this imperils our freedom. Fine.

But later, when his theories have gained the ascendancy, we're left to wonder why. How exactly were supply-sideism and Reaganomics endangering our freedom? Despite the slick images, you will find the discussion behind them, if you carefully chart it through the 3 disks, to be vapid and incoherent.

But the images are slick, that's for sure. They obviously spent a lot of money here and went through a lot of trouble to get even minor shots just right.

But when it comes to explaining globalism, I have to say this series doesn't do such a swell job. I got a lot out of watching the series, but not because of its discussion of that topic.

Take the Seattle thing. All we see is some footage of protesters making trouble, and the indignant WTO officials claiming they've got them all wrong. Meanwhile the narrator blandly describes what we're seeing on the screen.

How hard would it have been for the filmmakers to get some activists to talk to them and inquire, "Why are you doing this? What's you're argument? How exactly do you think the WTO is ruining the world?"

Similarly, they could have gotten WTO officials to sit down and articulate precisely how it was that they were saving the world, and how all the assertions of the masked hordes outside were baseless and counterproductive.

But at no point does the narration ever get this informative.

Instead, all we are told is that globalism is controversial. Duh. At no point is either side invited to side down and really explain their position at length. So all the viewer gets, essentially, is some cool riot footage.

So whether you are with the protestors, the WTO, or in the middle, you will be disappointed by the uselessness of the attendant "discussion." Like I say, if you're really looking for some solid information on why globalism is such a thorny issue (rather than just being told it's a thorny issue), you won't get it here. By about the middle of the third disk, it's become clear that the writers really dropped the ball on what could have been an awesome and mind-bending series.

Instead, this series has all the trappings of excellence, without the real pearl at the bottom.

However, if you're an economics teacher, you should probably get this series anyways. There are, despite what I say, many strengths (the segment with DeSoto springs to mind). Besides, how many entertaining (and, with the abovestated reservations, generally well-done) economics videos do you know of?

And I can't believe all the famous and important people the filmmakers got to speak on film! Holy guacamole!"
Good overview of ONE view of the evolution of economic theor
Amazon customer | 06/01/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)

"It was hard to rate this documentary in terms of stars because it is very informative and it presents a clear narrative of the "death of Communism (and managed economies)" and "rebirth and vindication of free-market Capitalism." It also makes some compelling, well-reasoned, arguments, which are supported with clear, concrete examples. However, it does not tell the whole story (as no historical narrative can), and in that way has some serious omissions.

The "official story" of the evolution of economic theory presented in this documentary is the following: During the middle of the twentieth century, particularly after the disillusionments of the Great Depression and World War II, the West preferred the theories of John Maynard Keynes (reducing the injustices of Capitalism through "controlled" economies) while the East (the Soviet Union and its satellites and China) turned to all out Communism. While Friedrich Hayek, a free-market capitalist a la Adam Smith, did his best to argue against these theories, the general prosperity of the post-war period in the West made his ideas unappealing and irrelevant. Then, with the economic crisis of the 1970's (stagflation in the US, paralyzing strikes in Britain), the theories of Hayek, and his followers, like Milton Friedman from the University of Chicago, found a voice in Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. By cutting taxes and spending, controlling inflation, and in the case of Britain, privatizing the commanding heights (major industries) of the national economy, economic prosperity returned. This knowledge was then applied in other countries with great success. While it has not all been rosy, it is the most promising system.

I say this documentary makes some compelling arguments because it convinced me of the failure of managed economies where the central government controls the major means of production, sets prices, etc. The reality is that the laws of supply and demand work despite such efforts (which we see in the formation of black markets). Furthermore government controlled economies work less efficiently than free-markets (i.e., cause shortages, provide no motivation for hard work and risk-taking, etc.).

However, this documentary did not convince me that government intervention in the form of progressive taxation, social programs and laws protecting workers has failed. In fact, the documentary briefly talks about how well Germany's economy did after WWII because it got rid of price control and did not nationalize its commanding heights. However, Germany is a European welfare state with progressive taxation, and lots of social programs, and it has done very well. I know laissez-faire types insist that the US economy is much stronger than the Western European economies (higher GDP, lower unemployment), but this depends on how you analyze the situation. Yes, Europe has higher unemployment, but that's because they provide a living wage. As a result, they don't have the problem of large numbers of working poor. In the US, on the other hand, we have lower unemployment but millions of people who work and cannot support themselves. Also, GDP says nothing about how that wealth is distributed within a country. In the US 1% of the population owns 50% of the wealth, in Europe the wealth is distributed more equally and, according to recent studies, there is much more social mobility than in the US.

My main problem with this documentary are its omissions regarding:

1) The portrayal of Reaganomics. Reagan, like our current president, was not a fiscal conservative; he relied heavily on deficit spending; he increased the national debt more than any president before him (of course Bush II has now outdone him). He continued to spend heavily on the military, while cutting taxes, as a way to strengthen the economy. Thus, you could argue that he was a Keynesian (although Keynes had hoped that the economic recovery caused by governmental spending during WWII, could be achieved "without" war and/or excessive military buildup). Conservatives like to ignore the fact that the military is a huge (and I would say wasteful) government program comprising about 1/2 of the federal budget. It is also hard to truly gauge the success of Reagan's policies since it has not fallen upon us pay back any of the debt. We continue to borrow heavily, while cutting taxes, to finance our dubious military adventures overseas, Iraq being the most recent example. But, as the documentary itself tells us, the fall of the Soviet Union was due largely to their spending half of their federal budget on the military. A similar situation brought about the fall of the Spanish empire. So, what is going to happen to us?

2) Other factors that contribute to economic prosperity. Economic theory is just one factor related to the West's economic prosperity. Another important one is our cheap access to the natural resources of developing nations. The United States has used its military and CIA to install and/or support brutal regimes and oligarchies in order to ensure our access to the resources of these countries. These governments have terrorized and exploited their populations, while making cozy deals with US companies for their own personal enrichment. There is plenty of information on this (any decent history book should do), but for a good general overview of this specific theme, I recommend Stephen Kinzer's new book: "Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq." In this country we conveniently forget that in order for everyone on the planet to consume at the levels we do, we would need two other planets, just to provide the natural resources. Our standard of living is clearly dependent on our "advantage" over the so-called "third world." Furthermore, their remaining in the "developing" phase is also helpful to our economy since that way they have to buy our products but we don't have to buy theirs. It's interesting to see that when the tables are turned (i.e., the current trade deficit with China), classical liberal economic theory starts to lose a lot of supporters in the US. Thus, despite all the talk about improving the plight of the poor (5/6ths of the world's population), there is no honest discussion about what that would really mean for the West, and whether or not we are really willing to give up our "economic advantage." Free market capitalism is great as long as we are on the winning side.

3) Chile. This is an egregious case of whitewashing history. The story is presented as follows: The right-wing dictator, Augusto Pinochet, overall did Chile a service by overthrowing the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende in a coup. After the overthrow, the kind-hearted, freedom-loving Milton Friedman decided to go down to Chile and give Pinochet some private lessons on free-market economics. Pinochet adopted these measures and Chile lived happily ever after as the most prosperous country in Latin America.

The documentary claims that the Pinochet regime disappeared "hundreds of people," yet by the most conservative figures, six thousand political dissidents were disappeared (secretly abducted, tortured, and murdered). This documentary also makes no mention of the US involvement in the coup: since Allende wanted to nationalize copper, and other major industries controlled largely by US companies (ITT, Pepsi Cola, Kennecott Copper, etc.), Nixon and Kissinger decided to overthrow him. And, while it was true that Chile was undergoing serious economic problems under Allende, this was largely due to Nixon's strategy to crush Allende by making the Chilean "economy scream." For more on our involvement in the Chilean coup I recommend the last two sections of the documentary "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" (or you can read Hitchen's book by the same title). Costa Gavras's film "Missing," as well as documentaries by Patricio Guzmn ("The Pinochet Case," "The Battle of Chile: The Struggle of an Unarmed People," and "Chile, Obstinate Memory") also give moving accounts of Pinochet's reign of terror. Milton Friedman is shocked that people protested his receiving the Nobel Prize in economics because of his collusion with the Pinochet regime. He even has the gall to say that his reforms brought democracy back to Chile (16 years after we destroyed it!!!). Following this logic, the new socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, is also a result of his (failed?) free market policies.

4) Bolivia. This story is presented as follows: The well-known Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs goes down to Bolivia, one of the poorest country in Latin America, to help the Bolivians control hyperinflation with some free-market policies. His policies are a success. And it's even more wonderful because they didn't even need to install a bloody dictator to do it. Reality: While this documentary was being made, Bolivians were risking their lives rioting in the streets against these policies, particularly the privatization of water by Bechtel (apparently destitute Bolivians didn't like having to pay Bechtel in order to collect rain water in a bucket). Two presidents were removed from office, several people were killed and hundreds were injured. The people were also calling for the nationalization of Bolivia's natural gas. This widespread grassroots movement brought the left-wing Evo Morales to power through free and fair elections in 2006. One of the first things Morales did was nationalize the natural gas industry. Why? Because Bolivians want more money from "their" natural resources to go to them, and not to private foreign companies. Perhaps government control of this industry isn't the ideal situation, but government is the only tool that this nation had to wrest some of its wealth out of the hands of foreign corporations. If we are honest, we have to admit that Americans and Europeans would never tolerate foreign industries reaping the vast majority of the profits from our natural resources. We wouldn't like free-market economics so much if Latin Americans were getting rich off our natural resources as we continued to live in utter poverty.

5) IMF, World Bank and WTO. This documentary doesn't explain how neo-liberal economic policies have been forced on the poor countries, with devastating effects. In return for supplying loans the IMF and the World Bank demand from their creditor nations that they cut public spending (including on their military), eliminate and/or reduce tariffs, and promote foreign investment and property rights. Rather than helping these countries, these policies help the West secure its dominance over them. For example, by requiring poor countries to eliminate tariffs that protect the few domestic products they produce while continuing to protect ours, we give "our" products an unfair advantage. Also, by promoting foreign investment we ensure that most of these countries' wealth remain in foreign hands. And while the required cuts in public spending often result in fewer social programs, reduced educational opportunities, more environmental pollution, and greater poverty for the vast majority of people, the loans they receive in return are often pocketed by multinational corporations and the country's elite with little ever reaching the people (see John Perkins's "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man "). It is hypocritical to insist poor countries simply cut all deficit and social spending when we do not carry out such extreme measures in our own countries. If all of a sudden we had to make cuts like these, there would be public outrage. Furthermore, requiring cuts in military spending is clearly a way to maintain military dominance over these countries. For more on the devastating effects of neo-liberal (free market) policies enforced by the IMF, World Bank and WTO, I recommend the documentary "Life and Debt" (about Jamaica).

6) Corporations. Classical liberal economists (like Thatcher, Reagan and Friedman in this documentary) love to insist that private property is an essential part of freedom; they claim the two go hand in hand. When you own something, it's yours and you can do what you want with it; you are not subject to the will of others. I agree with this argument, to some extent. The problem is the tendency towards the concentration of wealth within free-market economies. Sure, it's great that the small business owner can control what happens within his/her business, or if a home owner can decide what to do with his/her house (rather than the state), but when the CEOs of huge multi-national corporations, with GDP's bigger than those of most nations, can do whatever they want, we have tyranny of the corporation, not freedom of the individual, and certainly not democracy. For example, if Wal-Mart, one of the biggest employers in the US, decides not to pay overtime and not to promote women, they are "free" to do so, unless the government intervenes. But, if we remove government restraints on business, regular citizens are left with no means to fight back. "Big government" may not be ideal, but at least it is somewhat responsible to the people; corporations are not. Thus, it is incorrect to frame the debate as a choice "for" or "against" individual freedom. The real choice is: are we going to defend the right of big corporations to do as they please or the basic human rights of the "little guy"? It is also necessary to mention the pernicious effects big companies have on "democracy" as well. Their huge campaign contributions to politicians give them disproportionate influence over elected officials; there is a reason why Bush invited Ken Lay ("Kenny Boy" from Enron) to the White House, but he did not invite you and me. For more on the current tyranny of the multi-national corporation, I recommend the documentary "The Corporation."

It is callousness and hubris of the worst kind to say the current free-market economy offers "the best we can do." Twenty thousand people continue to die every day from starvation or lack of access to basic medicines even though there is more than enough food and medicine to feed and care for every person on the planet. Some women who work in the garment industries in developing nations have to wear diapers because their employers will not let them go to the bathroom. Workers in underdeveloped nations that protest their inhuman working conditions are frequently threatened, tortured and/or killed. Corporations are not being held responsible for the destruction of the environment they are causing, which will have devastating effects for all of humanity. And the US continues to use its military to secure its hold on important natural resources in developing nations (i.e., oil in Iraq and Colombia) at the cost of its citizens. Faced with issues like these (which were not emphasized in this documentary), should we really just say: "Hayek got it right and we're currently living in the best of all possible worlds"?"
Thorough and engaging
Adam Faanes | North Richland Hills, TX United States | 03/25/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)

"For those who want an introduction to international economics and globalization, this is the thing to see. I agree with what the Washington Post said - "No more important program for making sense of our life and times has been seen in at least a decade." It made me want to be an economist.In the first segment, it covers the development of economic theory through Keynes, Hayek, and Friedman, and the historic solutions and events between the war of 1914 and the 1970s, ending with the change of tack that accompanied Reagan and Thatcher's elections. In the second, it follows the "agony of reform" - that is, the paths taken by many states to transition from planned economies to market economies, following the cases of Russia, Poland, Chile, and Bolivia. The last segment follows the contemporary problems and methods of the global economy, with particular focus on crisis: mainly, the 1998 Asian Economic Crisis.It is important to remember that this documentary is about economics, and that its concern is about the quality and quantity of wealth generated rather than externalities (the environment, &c.) Taken in this context, I think that it does extremely well: anyone who knows at least a little will leave the show literate in global economics. It does have a certain pro-globalization stint to it, though I hardly find that it is outright dismissive of globalization's criticisms: the second half of the third segment is entirely about arguments against globalization, and the first half of that segment is entirely about the crises that have rocked the global economy. And, after all, Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Clinton are two of their biggest commentators, who are at least pragmatic globalists (If the writers favor any viewpoint, it's Clinton and Sachs'). That said, I think that this is probably the least biased (or, most centrist, depending on your point of view) documentary on globalization in existence - the others you'll find will almost without exception skew more than this one will. Not to mention that its cast of commentators and the ability of its filmmakers are excellent, and something that's normally very dry is made really entertaining.There are some things that it probably does leave out more: it doesn't give the criticisms of the IMF and World Bank really, particularly those that come from the right and business, which is somewhat peculiar. This might be because of center-left bias (think Bill Clinton) that rather likes these multilateral institutions, or because they just ran out of time, which seems pretty likely - they had to cram into the two hours that those issues would make sense in information about three global crises, the methods of modern international finance, two meetings of the WTO, and Hernando de Soto.The other thing they somewhat miss is what happened to Bolivia, Argentina and some of the other Latin American countries "after" globalization who ended up trashed by economic currents. Part of this is because many of these events happened or came to be examined after the series aired, but I think that in their search for an emblematic case they found a pretty good one: the case of Thailand, which was one fo those countries that got "trashed" in 1998 - they provide a particularly stirring personal anecdote of one businessman who lost everything in the crisis on real estate, and is now working his way back up to his dreams as a street vendor. The thing is that they don't link this to Thailand's development as a globalizing economy (that is, Thailand isn't covered in section 2.) so we don't make the intuitive connection between globalization and increased economic risk.The third thing that concerns me is that they did not cover the "moderate" paths to globalization experienced in France, Ukraine and Germany, or the successful totalitarian export economies of South Korea or Thailand. Again, I think this is because they ran out of time: the emblems of Chile and India almost get at these ideas, and the importantly but not strikingly different paths taken by the countries I listed were close enough that the viewer could infer the important insights. I suppose I'll have to read the book to see if that covers those alternate paths any better.That's my take on the program's shortcomings - I think that they faced the problem that they could either cover all subjects, remain aloof from any accusations of bias, but say really nothing about anything, or they could (as they did) stab deeply at a number of emblematic cases and avoid some things that they saw as low-priority. This of course came at cost, but by far I think that this is something that everyone should see - I think they should show it to students, as they'd certainly leave knowing a thing or two about the founders of modern economics and how foreign exchange works. Hell, they might even know what short selling is...No one having watched this film will leave without having learned something new and important about global economics."