A brief announcement for my readers (you brave few): The time has come to remove this blog from your “economics graduate student blogs” folder. New Ph.D. in hand, I have assumed my tenure-track position at University of California, Riverside.
Dr. Edgeworth Boks tells me that the tone of this blog must change. I am now an emissary for the profession, says Edgie. I must cultivate a diplomatic evasiveness. I must avoid writing anything that might offend my seniors in the profession. I must dull my satirical impulses and write with artful discretion.
To wit, I give you this new post called the Boob in the Café. There is a new film out. HBO. Have you seen it? The Girl in the Café. It is another entry the parade of Hollywood movies focusing on economic issues. Though they often strike high-brow poses, there is a rigid formula to these kinds of movies—as precise as that for any action movie, romantic comedy, or third-rate buddy movie.
1. A good character believes that the public sector should take action to accomplish a laudable economic goal (e.g., create jobs, end poverty, help Africa, reduce pollution, protect a park or building).
2. An evil, selfish, money-grubbing, or apathetic character opposes the intervention.
3. The good characters describe the good that could be accomplished by the intervention, quite eloquently.
4. The bad characters talk about money.
5. The desire to help others is equated with favoring the intervention; sloth, selfishness, and apathy are equated with opposing the intervention.
6. Characters are good precisely if they believe the intervention will work.
7. There is little serious debate about whether the intervention would actually work.
8. Almost always, there is substantial evidence in the economics literature that the intervention would not work at all or would have trivial effects.
I’ll give 3 examples:
A. I’ll never forget the movie “Dave” in which Kevin Kline plays an evil president and his look-alike, who takes over when the bad president dies. The difference between the old, dead, evil president and the new, humble, decent president is that the new president favors a “jobs” bill that the evil president did not. Goodness consists of wanting to solve unemployment and make the economy better by massive expansion of the public sector.
I’m not saying that creating jobs in the public sector is intrinsically misguided. Government spending is one way to stimulate the economy in the short-run. But recessions have been very short in the past several decades and most short-run effects of interventions don’t really kick in until after recessions have ended. And there is no evidence that expansion of the public sector is a cure for problems of poverty and unemployment in the long-run. In any event, it’s not the kind of issue that should be used to distinguish a good person from a bad person.
Anyone who mentions this in a movie, however, is a bad guy, with a secret stash of stock-options in some Enron-like company.
B. The issue in the American President, as I recall, hinges on the length of time allocated before internal combustion engines must be phased out (or emissions reduced, I can’t remember.) The good president briefly considers a longer phase-out process (which is to say, he flirts with the forces of evil), but then comes to his senses and pushes through the faster phase-out. Once again, there’s no consideration of transition costs or negative consequences associated with this decision, no consideration of real-world costs and benefits. Believing that an action will help people is equated, in the moral lexicon of this movie, with helping people.
C. The newest entry is The Girl in the Café. This movie is so self-righteous and it strives so hard to sound informed and intellectual, that I shall have to devote an entire post to it soon (“The Boob in the Café, Part 2”).
In the meantime, I propose a new Hollywood movie. A group of people are shipwrecked on an island. They begin to starve. There’s no way off the island. A good character, call him Ben, has an idea. Ben says they should start collecting sea-gull feathers. They should all hike to the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. There, they should use tree sap to glue the feathers to their arms. Finally, they should all leap off the cliff and flap their arms. If they do that, Ben says, they’ll be able to fly home. A nasty character—let’s call him Milton—says that if they jump off the cliff they’ll fall into the ocean and die. Ben points at little Charlie—6 years old and starving—Look at poor Charlie, don’t you want to save Charlie? No one debates Milton’s claim that the jump-off-the-cliff-and-flap policy is flawed. Instead, they all focus on how wonderful it would be to save Charlie. It turns out, Milton only espoused the “we-can’t-fly” position so he could get back at Ben for stealing his girlfriend, Jennifer, 20 years ago. After much drama and some partial nudity, the gang sides with Ben. They all paste feathers to their arms and leap into the sky, flapping their arms. This being a Hollywood movie, they fly home, saving little Charlie in the nick of time.
Heart-warming, yes? I don’t know about you, but my eyes misted up there at the end.
I invite my readers to submit other instances of economic naivete and in the plots of Hollywood movies.
(And watch for The Boob in the Café, Part 2.)
Mr. Dr. Philip Babcock