What is the connection between an awful movie starring Robin Williams and America's economic prospects? Bear with me and I'll tell you.
The movie I have in mind is Man of the Year, a political farce in which a comedian gets elected president. I missed it at the theater last year (like everybody else, apparently) but got around to watching it on DVD the other evening. Despite the bleak reviews, I was expecting to enjoy it. The writer-director, Barry Levinson, made two of my all-time favorite movies (Diner and Tin Men) and a previous political comedy (Wag the Dog) that was funny and interesting. But Man of the Year is pitiful.
The character played by Williams hosts a topical news-and-comedy TV show, a lot like Jon Stewart's The Daily Show on Comedy Central. By popular demand, he runs for president. The campaign goes badly when he tries to earnestly address the issues; but as soon as he lets his inner comedian express himself—in a torrent of facial tics, lewd quips, and political incorrectness—the campaign catches fire and he gets elected (well, almost). This might have worked as a joke at the expense of a presumably infantilized American electorate, which is where I thought the movie might go, but Levinson wants you to believe that the voters were in fact right to acclaim this good, decent, funny man as their leader. That did not work at all.
The casting was no help. Probably, it doomed the project all by itself. In Jon Stewart, you see a serious, informed, and intelligent man behind the jokes. That is his appeal. Robin Williams's comedic personality twitches on the line, and often well over the line, that separates the sane from the mentally ill. Incipient lunacy, I'm guessing, is not a trait that commends a politician to voters.
More generally, I'd like to say that the premise of a comedian getting elected president has no shred of credibility—though as I wrote the words I was already thinking of how to phrase my retraction when President Stewart gets sworn in. Allowing for this distinct possibility, I still insist that it could not happen as it did in the film. Yes, Americans like to laugh at politicians, one sign of a healthy society. Maybe, as I keep reading, most Americans under 30 get their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, a Daily Show spin-off that is an even funnier work of genius.
All of that may be true. Nonetheless, and there is no contradiction here, Americans take their politics seriously—which is another sign, in fact, of a healthy society. What makes politicians so comical is that they are dealing with serious stuff. So while I can imagine America electing a comedian president, it could happen only if the candidate reinvented himself (or herself) as a statesman.
No candidate could win by sidelining the issues and telling jokes about lesbians. Voters may find politicians risible, but they see the issues they have to confront as no laughing matter.
Now, what does all this have to do with the economy? Thank you for asking. This is where another aspect of the movie comes in. I have long been intrigued by the way films deal with capitalism in general and with Big Business in particular. For the past few decades I have been collecting movies that cast Big Business in a good light. Strictly speaking, I should say, I don't yet have an actual collection, because in 30 years I haven't been able to find one. (If you know of an instance, I'd love to hear from you. There might be a prize.)
In the meantime, what I have culled from the countless movies I have seen that innocently and unthinkingly cast private enterprise in a bad light are a few dozen that do this in a fresh or comically incompetent way. And my newest award in that category goes to Man of the Year.
The film's plot twist relies on the fact that a private company has just been granted a national monopoly to install and operate electronic voting machines. It turns out that the programming (or something) is broken, and that the vote counts are all skewed. A sweet blonde working for the company discovers this—the wrong man is going to be elected!—and alerts her superiors. She naively expects them to correct the fault. (Obviously, she doesn't see many movies.) Instead, they wage a campaign of intimidation, reckless physical assault, and forcible injection of narcotics (if this weren't a comedy, there would presumably have been torture) to fuddle her brain and shut her up. All in a day's work for the head office. In case this should seem at all far-fetched, a character in a dark suit radiating sinister intelligence (Jeff Goldblum) lays out the irresistible corporate logic behind this self-evidently suicidal cover-up. As far as market forces are concerned, it all makes sense—and what else matters really?
(In the end, the falsely elected comedian discovers the error, owns up to it, and steps down.)
Hollywood has always taken a very dim view of the enterprise system—with all its waste, corruption, and excess—that Hollywood itself epitomizes. It's a Wonderful Life, after all, was about Jimmy Stewart's moral triumph over rapacious capitalism. So that is nothing new. But anti-capitalist sentiment cycles up and down, and, post-Enron, it has been distinctly on the rise—in the movies, notably, but not just in the movies. Tinsel Town, the mainstream media, Lou Dobbs, and (oddly enough) the ingratiating CEOs of many major corporations are all pulling together. They hate the way corporate America is downsizing, outsourcing, raping the planet, and putting profits before people. This time, it's personal.
It's also political. With Democrats controlling Congress and the party's sights set firmly on the White House, anti-business rhetoric suddenly has a new salience. This week's wobble in global stock markets might cool the ardor a little. It might remind Democrats that they cannot crank things up too far without the risk of getting themselves accused of precipitating a Wall Street crash. Meanwhile, though, the theme of corporate irresponsibility and the need to check it is getting pretty well established.
If a Democrat is elected president and the party retains control of Congress, the anti-business mood is likely to gain traction in several areas. Health care reform is one. In fact, in this case, politicians of both parties want businesses to carry more of the burden. New health care proposals in Massachusetts and California, both courtesy of Republican governors, defray part of the cost of expanded access by requiring businesses to do more. Higher corporate taxes will most likely move up the agenda (even though America's are already high by international standards). Tighter regulation for environmental protection and workers' health and safety will also advance. So too might rules for disclosure and accountability on top executives' pay, and other financial matters.
Case by case, the merit in these proposals varies from substantial (executive pay) to less than none (taxing profits), but put the merits of the individual policies aside. What they have in common is a fallacious premise—namely, that the cost of a new fiscal or regulatory burden stays where you first put it, with the companies concerned. The idea is very appealing: If businesses are told to give their workers more-generous benefits, or to pay higher taxes, or to use alternative fuels that reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions, or whatever it might be, the rest of us—workers and consumers—get that benefit at no cost.
But that is rarely, if ever, true. In the end, the costs of those policies, as well as the benefits, mostly find their way back to voters at large as higher prices or lower wages (and this is to say nothing of the dynamic effects on incentives to grow and innovate). In short, business is not a separate segment of society that can be squeezed to advance the interests of the other segments. Economies are not built that way.
Hollywood's conviction, endlessly restated, that business is the bad guy (either front and center in a starring role, or, more usually, standing to one side in a black hat with the other extras) affirms and maybe encourages this great reigning misconception. I think I object to that even more than I object to the idea that anybody in a senior business role is either ethically illiterate or heading for a grisly fate at the hands of dark corporate powers. That idea, after all, is just an insult to one's intelligence, whereas the underlying economic misconception promotes bad policies with real consequences.
There you have it: What an awful film starring Robin Williams has to do with America's economic prospects.