May 12, 2015

Hollywood's economic ignorance, part one: Old European ideas

Furious DRebel Blogger

Now you might think that a community as obsessed with money and status as Hollywood would know a thing or two about economics. However, if you did think that you would be wrong. In fact you couldn’t be more wrong if you were Bob Wrong from the city of Wrong driving his 2010 Wrong 550, made by Wrong Motors, through the magical land of Wrong, while wearing a suit made from 100% hand woven Worsted wrong from the tailoring firm of Wrong & Wrong.

The average citizen of the Axis of Ego probably knows less about how economics really works than an all too ordinary shopkeeper in the very small village of Correct.

Their first problem is that most people don’t really know what the science of economics really is. Most think that economics is just about money, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Economics is really the study of interaction between people by way of differing forms of commerce, from barter to Bitcoin, and how outside factors, like supplies of resources, facilities for communication and transportation, affect those interactions.

Even that’s just an inch or two below the tip of the iceberg of a subject that’s far more complex than I can possibly cram into a little article like this, or even understand.

However, I do know enough about economics to know that the great bulk of what Hollywood movies and TV shows say about economics is total bunk.

So let's look at the causes of these misunderstandings.

It goes back to the Silent Era, with its portrayals of mustachio twirling entrepreneurs tying maidens to railroad tracks so they could jump grandpa's claim, or close the widows and orphans home because that will somehow make him money in some way. This attitude was understandable because many of the filmmakers and the audience were less than two generations out of Europe.

Europe had graduated from feudalism to what people thought was capitalism, but, in most countries, was really just an extension of feudalism with smokestacks. The bulk of businesspeople in the old country may have dressed like capitalists, and talked a lot about how they were capitalists, yet, in the clinch, they didn’t act like capitalists.

A real capitalist seeks market supremacy through producing a product or service that the public needs or wants, and beating any rivals through competitive pricing and product quality, achieved via innovations in efficiency and technology. However, too many tried to achieve market supremacy through political clout, and bullying the public into buying things at uncompetitive prices because they have a state-sanctioned monopoly on that good or service. That’s basically feudalism with top hats instead of tiaras.

Now when immigrants came to America they found a land that ran things in a manner a little more capitalistically than the old country. However, they still believed things were run the same way it was back home, and even if they could see it in action, their mental vocabulary was still structured around their feudalist history.

Some American capitalists did act badly, but they were nowhere near as bad as the old school oppressors back in the old country. Even John D. Rockefeller, slandered for years as the supreme evil “monopolist” didn’t use politicians or violence to get ahead. He conquered the oil business by being more efficient and innovative than his competitors, and by doing so, delivered a cheaper and better quality product to his customers. He even saved the whales by giving the masses a cheaper, cleaner alternative to whale oil.

Not exactly the tactics one would expect from an accused “monopolist” but that didn’t stop him from getting branded that by the media of his day.

These misconceptions continued on through the 1930s when the Great Depression gave everyone the impression that capitalism somehow broke when the stock market crashed in 1929. However, deeper economic research shows that the attempts by governments to micromanage the economy back into prosperity were probably what turned what might have been just a really bad, but possibly brief, recession into the decade long Great Depression, but that’s a whole other debate being done by people way smarter than I am.

The rise of Fascism and Communism in Europe didn’t help solve these misconceptions either, thanks to Josef Stalin. You see fascism and communism are the fraternal children of socialism, which is in itself a form of feudalism, where a politically connected elite control all the resources.

There are three differences between fascism and communism.

  • 1. Fascism is nationalist, while Communism claims to be internationalist. That means that fascists think their nation of origin is superior and that they should conquer you. Communists think their ideology is superior, so they get local communists to do most of the conquering for them and then use them as puppets.
  • 2. Fascists will allow some of their political allies to own some private property, including industries, as long as those allies obey the whims of the ruling hierarchy. Communists have their political allies run businesses by having a job within their government.
  • 3. Fascists were masters of propaganda within their own countries. Communists excelled in propagandizing outside their own countries.

That last point is important, because it created a misconception that persists to this day. That misconception was that what was essentially just a rivalry in style between kinds of socialism was being taught as being polar opposites. Where Communism was the extreme of the political left, Fascism, and its more racist offshoot Nazism, was thereby declared to be the extreme of the political right, when, in fact, both were jostling for the same spot on the left.

That meant that anyone who opposed communism, were just a few steps from being fascists or even Nazis. So you weren’t going to get many people giving passionate defences of capitalism in the movies, and later television, since it now seemed soiled with the stain of fascism.

Since Hollywood only deals in surfaces, they didn’t even attempt to dig any deeper to get past these misconceptions. That meant that they became intellectual herpes, annoying, unpleasant, and seemingly impossible to get rid of.

This has led to tropes like the “evil rich businessman” becoming full-on clichés, but this lack of knowledge becomes really obvious in science fiction.

While fantasy fiction has feudalism as the default economic system, science fiction is expected to either portray a new system, or make some sort of statement on the current one.

However, when you don’t know much about economics, even the fairly basic fundamentals, the societal models you come up with are going to be pretty screwy. The three most common screwy models are the Cashless Utopia, the Corporate Dystopia, and the Hoarding One Percenters, and we'll be getting into those in future posts.

(Stay tuned for part two tomorrow: The Cashless Utopia)


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commented 2015-05-15 17:39:54 -0400
Great series of posts.

One of the best Hollywood movies about economics was Moneyball. In this, you have a team which cannot compete financially against big-market clubs for talent and so had to devise methods of extracting value using means other than a large treasury. Statistics were used to identify true value of their assets and they constructed a team around those metrics.

It was very beautifully done, especially in explaining the fundamentals of the market and how to devise means to circumvent the traditional roles of cash money.

The best part was that there were no truly “bad guys”, and the protagonists were flawed but decent people, with market competition — not inherent personal evil — being the driver for change.
commented 2015-05-15 07:21:59 -0400
Good piece FD , It can’t be stated enough that the system of Capitalism we labor under is a corrupt form of statist cronyism – what the left rail against is NOT real free market capitalism but corporate-state oligopoly. There really are “big bad businessmen” in this system, politically connected carpet baggers who thrive in the captive markets they lobby their corrupt political patrons to create. Jut the same Hollywood Progs present a distorted surreal image of this corruption by showing the government as riding to the rescue of free enterprise (like cavalry) to right the wrongs of the evil mogul character – when the reality is more like Ayn Rand portrayed in Atlas shrugged (Government is often in league with the evil mogul). Mush like Obama’s Wall Street handouts.

I also like your idea of Euro-socialism incorporating the economic and class pecking order of Feudalism – German fascism and sovietism was very much modeled on Feudal values, right down to creating a new political aristocracy. This was a refreshing read.
commented 2015-05-13 09:38:26 -0400
Very interesting, Mr. Furious D. Can’t wait for part two and three.
commented 2015-05-13 07:36:32 -0400
Hmmm, “Cashless Utopias”? I wonder which branded SF he will be taking on. :D
commented 2015-05-13 04:19:41 -0400
Always get a kick out of the communist/socialist/marxist mentalities calling fascism “far right”.

Fascism is just another brand and position on the left. Nazi’s (national socialists) were fascists, right?
commented 2015-05-12 17:35:28 -0400
Great write-up. Very well said.