Capitalism, the Movie

February 4, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Oscar nominations were announced, and Hollywood columnist Michael Medved is perturbed that two of the nominees, “Avatar” and “Up in the Air,” paint an unfavorable portrait of US corporations.

How could Hollywood continue to turn out these anti-business films when Americans, according to Medved, are so pro-business?
In a 2009 Gallup Poll about the “biggest threat to the country in the future,” 65% selected “big government” or “big labor,” while fewer than half as many (32%) fingered “big business.”
I’d just picked up Joel Best’s Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data, so it occurred to me that if government, business, and labor were equally perceived as threats, lumping any two of them together (government and labor), would leave the third with half as many. But Medved didn’t have to put his thumb on the scale. Here’s the graph from Gallup.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

People who see big government as the biggest threat do in fact outnumber those who point the finger at big business. But business beats out labor as a threat by three to one.

So why, when offered films like “Wall Street” or “Wall-E” do Americans not stay away in droves? If Medved had browsed more of the Gallup data, he might have found that American feelings about big business are more complicated than his own unconditional love. Even in the one question he does cite, nearly a third of us see big business as “the biggest threat to the country’s future.” That proportion had increased since the previous time Gallup had asked the question. In fact, suspicion of corporate influence was growing throughout the Bush years, perhaps because corporate influence itself was growing.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Hollywood has been making movies about greedy capitalists ever since nasty mustachioed landlords were tying poor damsels to railroad tracks. Some of these were successful; others bombed.*
As William Goldman famously said of Hollywood (and Medved quotes him), “Nobody knows anything.” That includes Michael Medved.

(The photo is not a still from a movie. It’s a scene I happened upon in Brooklyn last fall.)

Thirty years ago, Ben Stein seemed similarly perplexed by this same anti-business tendency among very well-paid Hollywood writers. Stein has a more sensible explanation than does Medved, at least as far as screenwriters are concerned. See my post here.

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