Capitalism on film

Larry Ribstein —  17 June 2010

Although I wasn’t doing any blogging the last couple of weeks, one of my theories was out there frolicking on its own. Now that I’m back, it’s time to do a little cleaning up.

I was chagrined by the attention I received from Marc Abrahams, identified as “editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize.” Writing in The Guardian, Abrahams discusses my recent paper concluding that Hollywood’s negative portrayal of capitalists in films like Wall Street could have helped focus public blame for the financial crisis on capitalists such as hedge funds. Abrahams erroneously describes the paper as saying “we should “ignore. . . any suggestion that there’s been a financial crisis’ or that any financiers would have had anything to do with it.” As Abrahams himself states elsewhere in his article, I characterize financiers as one of the possible causes of the financial crisis. The question is whether filmmakers helped exaggerate their role, with implications for public policy. Apart from distorting my ideas to make them look silly, Abraham had nothing to say about why my actual conclusion is improbable. I can only speculate that he’s been watching too many movies.

I got better press in Alex Tabarrok’s WSJ.com story about why films mistakenly cast capitalism as a villain. Tabarrok endorses many of the arguments in my three papers on capitalism on film – the one linked above, my longer paper, Wall Street & Vine, and my paper on Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Imagining Wall Street. Tabarrok specifically credits me with one of the theories:

“University of Illinois law professor and movie analyst Larry Ribstein has written a paper arguing that filmmakers enter “a Faustian deal” in order to produce their art. Filmmakers see themselves as selling a part of their artistic soul to make their movies, and naturally they rage against the devil doing the buying. It doesn’t take a Freud to see that some of this rage comes pouring out on the screen.”

Tabarrok also notes two other arguments I discuss in my papers, “the difficulty of using a visual medium to depict the invisible hand, and an ethical framework which Hollywood shares with most of our culture that regards self-interest as inherently immoral or, at best, amoral.” And he shares the surprise I have expressed in my papers that Hollywood has rarely exploited the great stories that could be told about entrepreneurs.

My only quibble with Tabarrok is that I wish he had tempered his praise of the portrayal of capitalism in The Wire by noting, as I do in my writing, filmmakers’ typical habit of implicitly condemning capitalism by equating it with organized crime.

I’m happy that Tabarrok, at least, takes my “improbable” research seriously.

Larry Ribstein

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Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law