Zuckerberg as evil capitalist

Larry Ribstein —  11 October 2010

I still haven’t seen “The Social Network” (waiting to watch it at home), but that won’t stop me from writing about it, as long as others are.

 Gordon Crovitz, writing in today’s WSJ:

 The hit movie * * * is crafted through the lens of lawsuits brought by others seeking a piece of the company, now valued in private markets at $33 billion. * * *But to understand how innovation actually happens on the Web, Mr. Zuckerberg’s alleged emotional motivations are much less interesting than how he attracted more than 500 million people—one in 14 people in the world—to use this six-year-old service. * * *

Harvard law Prof. Larry Lessig writes in The New Republic that “there was more than a hint of self-congratulatory contempt in the motives behind how this story was told,” with Hollywood showing disdain for digital innovation. Mr. Lessig likens the movie to a jester in the court of King George III dismissing the new American colony with the message that the “new world is silly at best, deeply degenerate, at worst.” * * *

Contrary to the message of the movie, ideas alone can’t be patented. Otherwise, innovation would be frozen. Instead, our system promotes innovation, leaving the next college coders free to improve on what came before, just as Mr. Zuckerberg did.

 As I’ve often written (long version, most recent short version), Hollywood’s view of business is shaped by the resentment of the artists who make films of the capitalists who make money from their art.  So, Zuckerberg is the capitalist who succeeded by sheer luck or theft or just crawling over the backs of the people who had the ideas. 

By all accounts it’s a good movie.  Just keep in mind it’s only a movie.  That’s especially good advice for any film that purports to be about business.

Larry Ribstein

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Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

13 responses to Zuckerberg as evil capitalist

  1. 

    Janet,

    Yeah, I understand where Barry Ritholz is coming from. I understand the sense of exasperation upon reading the WSJ editorial page.

    My suggestion, though, is to just ignore it. It’s not worth it. It’s crazy, it’s unhinged. And it’s not worth one second of your time.

    There are many sources of news and commentary out there that are reasonable, informative and insightful. The WSJ, Forbes, Fox News, etc. are none of those things.

    Turn them off. Tune them out.

  2. 

    Hey Luke above,

    Check out this Ritholz post:

    http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2010/10/clueless-or-liars/#comments

    It speaks to your point. Money quote:

    “I used to think that the partisan, money-losing screeds that are WSJ OpEds were written by intelligent idealogues. Their errors were thought to be a function of a variety of cognitive mishaps and biases. These are typically associated with sports fans, but afflicts partisans as well.

    I am no longer convinced of this.

    I now believe they some combination of heavy metals or other pollutants has somehow rendered the judgment centers of their brain inoperative.”

  3. 

    “Hollywood’s view of business is shaped by the resentment of the artists who make films of the capitalists who make money from their art.”

    If you actually go to see the movie, you may just see how hollow that line reads.

    It’s a morality tale along the lines of Citizen Kane. Young Mark Zuckerberg makes a mint, it is true, but at the end of the film, he’s still friendless, he’s still a jerk and the one thing he wants (a certain girl) as far beyond his grasp.

    He’s driven by his insecurity. Successful? Sure, by some measures. But at what cost?

    Whether Zuckerberg in “real life” is the person depicted in the movie (and almost certainly he is not) is beside the point. It’s a story, and its message for our time is . . . well, what is it. Go to the movie and decide for yourself.

    Hollywood artists resent capitalists? That’s a laugh. Do you see movie stars and directors clamoring to rub elbows with Steve Forbes and Bill Gates? Or is it the other way around?

  4. 

    Luke,

    Fair point.

    To be honest, I’m going to have to stop for a while and think about that.

    Initial thoughts:

    – You’re absolutely right. Why waste the time? Period.
    – I think the Todd Henderson affair is still sticking in my craw. The original post by TH was one thing, but the follow up — the “I stick by every word” but I’m taking those words down, the I can write whatever I want, but you can’t criticize me because I have a thin skin and my wife doesn’t like being the laughingstock of the blogosphere — still just amazes me in its myopia and audaciousness.

    That said, it’s a good point: why bother?

    Why not leave the echo chamber that is truthonthemarket.com and pursue other more worthwhile endeavors?

    Good point, indeed.

  5. 

    Guys,

    Aren’t you missing the forest for the trees?

    Did you notice where Larry’s review of Wall Street was published? Forbes. Yeah, the same Forbes that put out that Dinesh D’Souza piece that Obama is a Kenyan anti-colonialist. Or was it a Black Muslim Terrorist Socialist? I have trouble keeping track.

    Forbes, like the WSJ editorial page, is in the business of publishing (for the most part) movement conservative idealogues. So, why bother? Why even enter into a conversation with someone who first finds a conclusion, and then searches for “facts” to support that conclusion?

    That’s the definition of a waste of time.

  6. 

    “I have looked at a pretty good piece of the “universe” in my article, linked in the Forbes review. It doesn’t include the most recent films, but it includes many, all conveniently indexed in the paper.”
    OK.

    I’m looking at the index. How are these films anti-capitalist?

    – Aliens
    – All The President’s Men
    – American Beauty
    – Apocalypse Now

    Yeah, I could make a case that those four are anti-business/capitalist, but in the case of “All The President’s Men” and “Apocalypse Now” and could make a stronger case that they’re anti-government. Moreover, to say “Aliens” is anti-business is kind of missing the larger point, is it not? Isn’t “Aliens” a Man (or Woman in this case) vs. Nature (the alien beast) story in essence? The business/capitalist angle is background at most.

    Yeah, I get your point that “. . . Burke, the company man, wants to make money off of the title monster . . . “, but again, he’s just a villain that happens to work for a business. How do you account for the other villains that work for government? How do you create villains that don’t work for business? Do you dictate that villains can’t have jobs in the private sector, as that paints business in a bad light?

    And, not to be a stickler, but it was “Alien” (singular) which saw the mining company (business) send Ripley and crew to that nasty planet. It was “Aliens” (plural – the sequel) which saw the GOVERNMENT send Ripley and marines back.

    Regarding “I have looked at a pretty good piece of the ‘universe’” , respectfully, I don’t think you have. Here’s the beginning of a list of films that start with “A”:

    – A.I. Artificial Intelligence
    – Abel Raises Cain
    – Abominable Dr. Phibes, The
    – Abraham Lincoln
    – Accepted
    – Accidental Husband, The
    – Accidental Tourist, The
    – Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

    Good luck finding anti-business/capitalist bias in that list.

  7. 

    Greg,

    I agree with you when you say:

    “. . . it’s a complex movie about complex characters, and although it is definitely just a movie I think it does an excellent job, and certainly isn’t out to paint capitalism as bad.”

    It’s a good movie. The characters are fairly rich and complex.

    I don’t agree with you, however, when you (and Larry) say:

    “I generally agree with your view of Hollywood’s view of business . . . “ (which, I take to mean, Hollywood is anti-business, anti-capitalist).

    Hollywood is the business of entertainment, right? And when it comes to drama, they need to tell a story that draws people in, and one of the techniques to do that entails the hero/villain conflict, right?

    So, when Hollywood tells a story, their characters often times have jobs. People can have a job in the public sector or the private sector – to grossly simplify. People can work for “government” or they can work for “business” (or in non-profit, but that gums up the distinction).

    Does Hollywood portray government in a bad light sometimes? Sure. Does Hollywood portray business in a bad light sometimes? Of course.

    Doesn’t that kind of mirror our lives? I’ve had bad, frustrating experiences at the Post Office as well as on the line with my health insurance company.

    I also like having my mail delivered and not paying full price for prescriptions.

    Or, look at it another way. Shakespeare was anti-royalty. Discuss.

    Yes, he was. Evidence: Richard II.

    No, he was not: Henry V.

    Storytellers create heroes and villains. That’s what they do. They find the villains in business and government. Villains can also be space aliens and zombies. The stories need villains.

    Or put it yet another way. Hollywood is in business to make money, right? If they portray business in a bad light, and that turns off the audience, then they won’t make as much money, right? There seems to be an audience for hero/villain stories, and Hollywood seems to be happy to make the villain business, government, Borg or zombies just as long as it MAKES MONEY.

    Moreover, if you want Hollywood to portray business in a more positive light, how would you do that? Would you want some power, some authority to dictate that to a business enterprise (say, the Federal Government)? Or would you rather allow the market to determine those choices?

  8. 

    I have looked at a pretty good piece of the “universe” in my article, linked in the Forbes review. It doesn’t include the most recent films, but it includes many, all conveniently indexed in the paper.

  9. 

    To complete my thoughts above . . .

    You get my drift. If you pick out only the films that bolster your point, then yeah, Hollywood is anti-business.

    If you look at the universe of films, not so clear.

  10. 

    James, if you like the Forbes review, you’re going to love the “long version” of Larry’s take down of Hollywood.

    It starts thusly:
    “American films have long presented a negative view of business. This article is the first comprehensive and in-depth analysis of filmmakers’ attitude toward business. It shows that it is not business that filmmakers dislike, but rather the control of firms by profit-maximizing capitalists. The article argues that this dislike stems from filmmakers’ resentment of capitalists’ constraints on their artistic vision.”

    He then makes his case by examining films such as “Erin Brokovich” (e.g., “Although Erin Brockovich purports to be based on a true story, its truth is, at best, selective.”) and “Pretty Woman” (“Pretty Woman (1990) may be the clearest film condemnation of the cold-hearted capitalist.”). Yeah, “Pretty Woman”.

    But what happens if you take Larry’s thesis and apply it to the top grossing movies of 2010? How does his thesis stand up?

    #1 Toy Story

    Oh boy, I guess you could make a case that the pre-school is a stand in for . . . business . . . erm . . . capitalists. Or not.

    #2 Alice in Wolderland

    Hard pressed to find an anti-business bias there.

    #3 Inception

    Aha, we actually have some capitalists in this story. But . . . the Ken Watanabe character is actually pretty admirable. It’s kind of funny when he says he bought the whole airline. He’s brave, you know dealing with getting shot and all, and he lives up to his end of the bargain at the end. And Cillian Murphy’s character isn’t such a bad guy either – rather, just a pawn. I guess you could say Cobol Engineering is peopled by bad guys, but they’re a minor part of the plot, right?

    #4 Shrek Forever After

    Moving on.

    #5 The Twighlight Saga: Eclipse

    Capitalists? Not so much.

    #6 Iron Man 2

    Hey, a capitalist. So, Hollywood doesn’t like Tony Stark? Well, actually . . . ah, uncomfortably . . . they do like Tony, don’t they. His nemesis? Well, no, somebody has to be the villain, no?

  11. 

    Wow.

    I just read Larry’s review of the remake of “Wall Street” for Forbes.

    In it he writes:

    “This time the devil is the manager of Jake’s hedge fund, Bretton James (Josh Brolin).”

    Ah, that’s not how I saw it. Bretton James headed one of the Too Big To Fail (TBTF) investment banks.

    My evidence:

    1. His mentor, the previous head of Bretton James’ firm, becomes Secretary of the Treasury (as in Henry Paulson and Lloyd Blankfein).
    2. He’s in the room with the other TBTF banks during the crucial meeting which leads to TARP — no hedge funds were present.
    3. Stone himeself said in an interview: “. . . Bretton James is based a bit on Robert Rubin (Citicorp), who’s really enriched himself. I think he’s the richest ex-Secretary of the Treasury ever. There’s also a bit of Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan) in him. And if Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs) were handsomer, you could say he’s Josh Brolin.”

    Why is this important?

    Well, to my mind this demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the facts surrounding the events of the financial crisis. As I sat there in the movie, I immediately identified Bretton James as a stand-in for the head of Goldman Sachs.

    Larry apparently saw him, erroneously, as a stand-in for a John Paulson or Ray Dalio.

    Later Larry writes:

    “Why, given all these choices, pick on hedge funds? They actually had the best record in the financial crash. Some of them, like Gekko in the new movie, saw the future and had the guts to bet on it.”

    Um, because hedge funds weren’t the villain – the TBTF banks were, and even that is a gross simplification. For example, John Paulson (not to be confused with Henry Paulson), made perhaps the most famous bets against the so-called Housing Bubble. But then he turned around and invested in those famous “troubled assets” – that bet isn’t looking so good.

    Moreover, TBTF banks did not have a good record in the financial crash; hence, TARP.

    I could go on, but the basic point is this: Larry doesn’t seem to understand Financial Crisis/Greater Recession 101.

  12. 

    Larry, go see the movie. Zuckerberg doesn’t come off as evil or just lucky or whatever — he comes across as very driven, very smart, and he knows his strengths and weaknesses. The sympathetic friend who got pushed out is described as having made $300k over a summer trading options. Even Sean Parker, the rapscallion Napster partner with weaknesses for sex and drugs, is essentially right about the business decisions he presents. (And this is not a movie here to succeed at business is to fail at life, though it does imply that they are not quite the same thing.)

    I generally agree with your view of Hollywood’s view of business, but just go see the movie – it’s a complex movie about complex characters, and although it is definitely just a movie I think it does an excellent job, and certainly isn’t out to paint capitalism as bad.

  13. 

    There’s nothing innovative about Facebook. Anyone remember AOL, Geocities, Friendster, MySpace?

    Hollywood movies (as well as commercial media and news narratives) are all about the journey & struggle between heroes and villains. Somebody’s gotta be the hero, somebody’s gotta be the villain. This pattern is as old as storytelling itself. Yawn.

    What I don’t understand is why any super rich person cares about what other people think about them. Back in the day, you could build your empire, buy the press and never care a whit what the little people say about you. Nowadays the hedge-fund managers and high-income earners fret endlessly over their public image. Reminds me of overpaid athletes who, upon being lightly tapped or brushed during a play, dive to the floor writhing in agony to draw the foul.