Letters to the editor

God and Hollywood

Hanna Rosin’s hatchet job on my film of Philip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass (“How Hollywood Saved God,” December Atlantic), and by extension on me, is so comprehensive in its disdain that one might go so far as to imagine she had seen the movie!

She hasn’t, of course, though that fact was not mentioned in her assemblage of carefully cut-and-pasted quotes and surmises pumped up with paraphrase. For example, it is true that I said that clerics and religious people had been presented as boobs and hypocrites in many Hollywood films in the past few decades. But her statement that this was, to me, an “explanation for why [I’m] not selling out” is her own invention. We were talking about entirely different things at that point in our interview, and the notion that I somehow regard myself as doing the religious right a solid is grotesque.

Elsewhere she simply seems not to have finished her background reading. If she had got to the end of my script, she might have noticed that the Genesis story she says I have stricken from the movie is addressed, though in the mouth of the villain Mrs. Coulter. “A long time ago, one of our ancestors made a terrible mistake. They disobeyed the Authority. And that is what brought Dust into the world. And ever since then, we’ve been sick. Sick with evil—sick with Dust.” It shouldn’t take much for somebody with half a brain to understand the import, and Rosin, who writes about theology, ought to be able to catch it. But evidently it didn’t suit her thesis, which is that I “sold out” the book I happen to love. What did I sell? Who sold the rights to the books? Not me.

From the article, we discover all sorts of new and interesting information—Hollywood studios are afraid of controversy! Actors sometimes don’t have an easy time answering press questions!—and some fascinating paradoxes. A page after a lengthy description of religious imagery in the film, we find a picture in which one of the characters “flies over a land denuded of religious imagery.” Eh? I suppose one can blame an overenthusiastic caption writer for that one.

It has been an interesting experience to be accused, in the same month, of forwarding the aims of a stealth-atheist conspiracy and of selling out the secular ideals of a great work of literature. Thank you for expanding my sense of the absurd!

Chris Weitz
Los Angeles, Calif.

Hanna Rosin replies:

Comprehensive disdain? Certainly not. What I conveyed was more a sigh of resignation. The second half of Chris Weitz’s letter captures the spirit of my story more accurately than the first. Yes, we all know Hollywood is afraid of controversy. And here is a particularly choice example of that instinct in action.

I never said Weitz sold out the books. It was plain, in both our interview and my story, that he loves them. I merely described the delicate process by which he reconciled the books with the needs of a Hollywood studio. “Kidnap the book’s body and leave behind its soul,” is what I wrote. The script contains all the rich characters and adventures of the books. But not, as I explained, the deeply subversive anti-God message. Is that a surprise? Probably not. I don’t think anyone expects a Hollywood studio to make a $180 million holiday-season movie that trashes the Old Testament.

At the time I wrote the story, neither Weitz nor the studio would let me see the film. My story was based on the shooting script, as well as several earlier versions. Readers can find my review of the finished movie at www.theatlantic.com/compass.

Free Trade Reconsidered

I believe that Clive Crook needs to extend his understanding of trade economics before suggesting that “comparative advantage” alone completely justifies trade liberalization (“Beyond Belief,” October Atlantic). David Ricardo’s arguments were made nearly two centuries ago. Things have changed since then.

Crook does explain the elementary basis of comparative advantage well, adhering to Ricardo’s theory that comparative advantage occurs when two countries trade in two goods. However, moving the analysis to a more intermediate level, it has been shown that when many countries are trading many goods, whether trade improves conditions in all the countries depends on a number of related variables. It is possible that some countries will not have all the appropriate values for these variables, and comparative advantage will not hold.

Crook also ignores more-advanced issues. Ricardo assumed that neither labor nor capital was mobile across borders, and that trade balances would remain in equilibrium with no protracted trade deficits. In the world today, capital is highly mobile. It crosses borders as companies invest in other countries, often to build high-tech industries in low-wage countries. Capital movements finance the U.S. trade deficit, to the detriment of our export industries. Labor is also mobile: physically, as immigration is high, and virtually, as rapid communications have enabled a great deal of outsourcing.

Ricardo assumed only finished goods were traded. But modern trade is dominated by global companies that distribute the production of intermediate goods among different countries to minimize costs and maximize profits. Sounds like they are stuck in absolute advantage.

In view of the significant progress made in production methods and trade in the past two centuries, economists are right to question whether countries always benefit from liberalization and to determine what conditions are needed to assure that such benefits accrue to the bulk of the population.

John D. Shilling
Washington, D.C.

Paul Samuelson, Alan Blinder, William Baumol, and the others Clive Crook cites are not denying the validity of comparative advantage. Using available resources in those activities at which they are most efficient continues to be the way for countries to maximize output. When all countries do this, the gains from trade are the reduced prices of all goods in the world market. However, that proposition tells us nothing about how these gains will be divided.

Samuelson’s famous articles were really about the theorem of factor-price equalization. When there is free competition in a market, only one price can prevail. Globalization is creating such markets. It will promote economic efficiency and produce higher global output, but this will entail a leveling-out of factor costs of production (and incomes and standards of living) around the globe. There will be, as Samuelson says, winners, but also losers. Intuitively, one suspects that China and India will be a bit better off on average and the U.S. considerably worse off.

Warren C. Robinson
Professor of Economics Emeritus
Pennsylvania State University
Washington, D.C.

Clive Crook replies:

I agree with John Shilling that trade models recognize exceptions to the standard endorsement of liberal trade. My article said so. It drew particular attention to Jagdish Bhagwati’s early finding on “immiserizing” growth. Most subsequent “bad news” theories of liberal trade—including Samuelson’s recent intervention—are variants of it. Bhagwati himself argues that such instances have very limited real-world relevance. Shilling implies that successively more-sophisticated theories of trade refute the standard view. I think this is incorrect. The limited exceptions to the case for free trade have been encompassed by mainstream theory for decades, whereas the unraveling of the consensus is quite recent. To account for the unraveling, one therefore looks to new facts, not new theories. But, so far as I can see, the facts that supported the earlier consensus have not changed.

Warren Robinson predicts that global free trade will make China and India better off and the United States “considerably worse off,” on the grounds that economic integration tends to equalize incomes. Incomes in America are higher than in China and India because American productivity is higher. China and India can narrow the income gap as their productivity catches up. But if America’s productivity continues to rise, its incomes will continue to rise. China’s growth need not be—and so far patently has not been—at the expense of the American economy as a whole. Particular groups of workers can suffer as a result of trade; nobody disputes that. But did Europe’s growth after 1945 make America as a whole considerably worse off? Did Japan’s? Robinson’s prediction sounds plausible, but economic theory and economic history offer little or no support for it.

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