The Market for Corporate-Bashing

June 19, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why is Hollywood so anti-capitalist?

Marginal Revolution’s Alex Tabarrok was fretting about that question in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. Alex loves capitalism (“the most humane and productive economic system the world has ever known”), so he’s miffed that American movies frequently make capitalists the heavies. Why does Hollywood refuse to show capitalism in its true, wonderful glory?

His explanation begins with a psychological analysis of the people who make the movies – writers and directors. They have, he says, a deep personal resentment of capitalists. They see capitalists as forcing them to sacrifice their art on the altar of commerce.
Capitalists work hard to produce what consumers want. . . . . filmmakers need capitalists for financial support, and so their resentment toward capitalists is especially strong.
Capitalists are nice, hard-working folks. Filmmakers are spiteful ingrates.

Ben Stein, too, thirty years ago, was struck by the anti-business leanings of writers that the media business was lavishly rewarding. Stein put it somewhat differently.
The Hollywood TV writer . . . is actually in a business, selling his labor to brutally callous businessmen. One actually has to go through that experience of writing for money in Hollywood or anywhere else to realize just how unpleasant it is. Most of the pain comes from dealings with business people, such as agents or business affairs officers of production companies and networks.
Hard-working writers, nasty capitalists.

I don’t know whose version is closer to the truth, Stein’s or Tabarrok’s. Both are economists,* both vigorously pro-capitalist. The difference is that Stein has actually worked as a writer in Hollywood.

As his quintessential anti-capitalist, Tabarrok singles out James Cameron, director of the two highest grossing films ever, “Titanic” and “Avatar.”
Despite his commercial success, Mr. Cameron is a notorious corporate basher.
That sentence, especially the word despite, makes sense only if you assume that success is antithetical to corporate bashing. Tabarrok is an economist, I’m not. My knowledge of the field barely extends past what you get at Father Guido Sarducci’s “five minute university” – “supply ana demand.” But I would think that the success of “Avatar,” “Titanic,” and the rest tell us that Cameron is supplying what consumers are demanding, and apparently, that’s corporate-bashing.

* Some people have questioned Stein’s economics perspicacity, especially after his August 2007 New York Times column in which he dismissed concerns about the subprime collapse: “these subprime losses are wildly out of all proportion to the likely damage to the economy from the subprime problems.”

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