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.

Hillary’s Choices

Why is Caitlin Flanagan dismayed that Hillary Clinton is no longer a warm and approachable idealist (“No Girlfriend of Mine,” November Atlantic), when no successful president in living memory has ever been? We are constantly told that candidates for the presidency need the “fire in the belly,” but even more essential to success are a thick skin and a towering ego.

For president, I want someone who advocates the changes that I want to see and knows how to get them done. Considering the situation our country is likely to be in by January 2009, do we really want to send a nice person into that job?

Eugene Ingledue
Laughlintown, Pa.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

Hillary Clinton has always had “fire in the belly,” and she never was “warm and approachable.” That’s why she was such a dazzling figure: she took the womanly concerns of children’s welfare and family poverty, and she attacked them hammer and tongs, not caring a whit whom she alienated in the process. Now she has sold out those great causes in the name of a new one: her own ambition.

Eugene Ingledue desires a president who “advocates the changes” he wants to see. If I may presume that these changes include overturning the Patriot Act and ending the war in Iraq, might I suggest he select a candidate who didn’t vote for them?

Doing Well and Doing Good

Henry Blodget’s breezy overview of socially responsible investing (“The Conscientious Investor,” October Atlantic) would have us believe that long-term supply and demand applies to products and services, but not to the stocks of companies that provide them. If only 9 percent of fund dollars are now invested according to socially responsible principles, there should be room to keep boosting demand for clean stocks and raising their share prices for decades to come.

When I invest in clean-tech companies, it’s not to make a fast buck. I invest in solar, wind, plug-in hybrid, and organic-produce companies because I like what they’re doing and want them to succeed in the marketplace. I am creating demand for what they do, and so are millions of other Americans.

By the same token, there’s no compelling reason to buy stock in a company whose product, when used as directed, kills its customers and investors. Such a company has to pay fantastically high dividends to continue attracting investors, because its business model is morally repugnant and self-defeating over the long term.

Blodget thinks present interest in sustainability gives a near-term “bump” to certain stocks, necessarily limiting their future returns. But the overarching need to stabilize the global climate will be with us long after this fad and the next are gone. Why not invest now in the start-ups that will be delivering profitable solutions long after tobacco, coal, and oil have breathed their last gasp?

Chris Calwell
Vice President, Policy and Research
Ecos Consulting
Durango, Colo.

Henry Blodget inaccurately states that the movement to divest from Sudan targets “any company doing business with Sudan.” The movement is actually narrowly focused, targeting only about two dozen problem companies aiding the regime in Khartoum. Most of the divestment pressure targets Sudan’s oil industry; oil revenue provides arms and funding for the genocide, rather than development for the Sudanese people.

Eric Cohen Investors Against Genocide
Lexington, Mass.

Someone at The Atlantic has a marvelous sense of humor. Who but a humorist could imagine, let alone publish, an article on socially responsible investing by Henry Blodget, a former Merrill Lynch research analyst barred for life from the securities industry? What should we readers of The Atlantic expect in the future? “How to Raise a Puppy Humanely,” by Michael Vick?

Vince Reardon
San Diego, Calif.

Henry Blodget replies:

It is true that The Atlantic’s editors have a great sense of humor and irony. It is also true, as Eric Cohen states, that Sudan divestment organizations do not advocate divesting in “any” company doing business with Sudan—just a subset of them.

On Chris Calwell’s assertions, two points. First, a lot more than 9 percent of fund dollars are invested in stocks that socially responsible investors approve of; the 9 percent figure just refers to those stocks picked specifically for their social merits rather than their investment potential. So it’s wrong to think that 91 percent of fund dollars are going to pour into SRI stocks once other investors get a clue. Second, you don’t have to be George Soros to see that there are fantastic investment opportunities in solar power, wind power, biofuels, etc. The trouble is that the rest of the world doesn’t have to be George Soros, either. All that demand drives the valuations of those investments up—and reduces their future returns. Meanwhile, cigarette companies trade at fire-sale prices because everyone thinks they’re going to be sued out of existence, but people keep buying cigarettes. So cigarette-company investors earn extraordinary returns (and, one hopes, spend them on solar panels).

The best reason to be a socially responsible investor is the one Chris Calwell alludes to: you get to feel good knowing that your investment dollars are helping make the world a better place.

Advice and Consent

In his piece “The Great Assimilator” (November Atlantic), Christopher Hitchens states that Henderson of Henderson the Rain King is Saul Bellow’s only non-Jewish central character. Well, not quite so. Albert Corde, the protagonist of The Dean’s December, is also a Gentile.

Peter G. Parker
Houston, Texas

Editors’ Note:

Paul Elie’s article, “A Man for All Reasons” (November Atlantic), incorrectly stated the date of Wilfred McClay’s talk to the Family Research Council. Dr. McClay delivered the lecture in November 2001, not March 2002. The author of a letter in the December Atlantic was incorrectly identified as Sam Bass Warren; he is Sam Bass Warner. We regret the errors.