Thursday, September 24, 2009

Economics in Film

For some reason it's film season for economics.

For example: The Informant!, which came out about a week ago, stars Matt Damon in a true story about how the vice-president of agri-business giant worked undercover with the FBI to reveal that his company was engaged in an unprecedented global price fixing scheme. Now price fixing may not sound like much—and I thought as much myself until I heard this week's podcast of This American Life.

This week on the This American Life radio program, Ira Glass (the host) replayed a clip from c. 2000, which, it turns out, was essentially responsible for getting this story onto the big screen. Apparently a screenwriter was listening to the program, thought the story would make a good movie, and, well, here we are.

So, what did this screenwriter see in story about price fixing?

Ira Glass explained it something like this: We rarely, if ever, get a chance to find incontrovertible proof of a conspiracy. We may be able to tell that something's amiss, we may have hunches, but in the end we can only speculate, grope in the dark, and collect circumstantial evidence. There's never proof, never closure. Except now. This story represents that one rare opportunity we have to truly truly know what's going...which in this case turns out to mean that evil men are hatching to take over the world.

Ira Glass makes it clear that world domination is by no means a stretch from price fixing. He played some of the FBI's clips of these business executives carving up the markets of the world amongst themselves at some Marriott hotel. [Carving up—as in carving ham, or roast: they argue over the best parts, but in the end they make sure that everyone has a decent meal.] They laugh, chat, and work out complex sums; crumpled wrappers litter the room and stale coffee sits; and, really, in all respects the meeting seems perfectly normal. The only catch is that they're in the process of puppeteering the world food market—food that almost every person on this planet depends on—and, in doing so, ruining small businesses and exploiting the rest of us (and especially the poor). Which is why price fixing is so egregiously criminal and all, but you wouldn't know it from their casual demeanor and guiltless expressions.

I think what makes this storyline so gripping is its dark undercurrent. Nothing is more scary than the idea of men manipulating our lives with such ease. Gods we can live with, but self-appointed gods are too much.* These agri-business crooks get caught, sure enough, justice is served (at least nominally), but the story still doesn't leave you with a happy ending, because all the time you can't help but think: How many more of these guys are there?

Uncannily enough, that's where Michael Moore seems to pick up in his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story. I don't know much about the movie, but from the previews it seems he's trying to show how big corporations (like the ones from The Informant!) are engaging in unfair practices to con over the rest of us.

Michael Moore is rather radical, of course, and I realize he trucks primarily in publicity stunts, but looking at his track record I'm still really curious about what he has to say. After all, he got the two big-picture ideas of his last two films mostly right: the Iraq War was, after all, misguided and misplanned; and health care is, after all, a national problem. Let's see if Mr. Moore can go 3 for 0 (speaking big-picture, of course).

*This line comes from one of Tagore's short stories, "Housewife":
But clearly no god can be more malevolent than a man-god. The immortal gods cause nowhere near so much trouble. If we pick a flower and offer it to them, they are pleased; but they don't harass us if we don't offer it. Human gods demand far more; if we fall the slightest bit short, they swoop, red-eyed with fury, not at all godlike to look at.


  1. Ooooh, I love a good anti-corporation flick. I'll bring my air-popped popcorn that I popped myself, some pumpkin cookies made from locally grown ingredients, and some homemade moonshine. Jk about the last one!