No it’s not the title that has anything to do with economics. While all of Clint Eastwood’s films have a strain of conservatism running through them, this tale of a father-daughter relationship in boxing understands two key concepts in economics: Risk and Incentive.
The issues of risk comes into play with Eastwood’s character Frankie Dunn shows both the sides of risk. Early in the film he is afraid to take risks. He holds back fighters from title fights, fearing that they might get hurt, that they aren’t ready, that if something goes wrong they will lose their one chance for success. Because of this refusal to take risks he loses one fighter after another for his whole career. And he had failure time and time again. Economics tells us that real economic growth only comes from taking risks…anything else will just lead to hundreds of year of stagnation. Of course while growth and success can only be accomplished by risk…the film also shows that risk, comes, with, well, risk. In this case tragedy when Frankie’s fighter Maggie Fitzgerald Hillary Swank is paralyzed and ultimately dies.
Frankie Dunn: It wasn’t fault. I was wrong to say that.
Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris: You damn right. I found you a fighter. You made her the best fighter she could be.
Frankie: I killed her.
Eddie: Don’t say that. Maggie walked through that door with nothing buts guts. No chance in the world of being what she needed to be. It was because of you that she was fighting the championship of the world. You did that. People die everyday, Frankie – mopping floors, washing dishes and you know what their last thought is? I never got my shot. Because of you Maggie got her shot. If she dies today you know what her last thought would be? I think I did all right.
But the movie makes it quite clear that risk and the tragedy that may come of it, are better than stagnation.
How does it really drive this point home? Through a look at Maggie’s family. The embodiment of welfare trash.
Maggie: Not anymore. It’s all yours, Mama. For you and Mardell and the kids.
Earline (Mother): Mary M., you bought this for me?
Maggie: Yeah, all yours, free and clear. Darling….
Mardell (Sister): There’s no fridge. No stove neither.
Maggie: They’ll be here before you move in.
Earline: How much money did this cost you?
Maggie: Never mind that.
Earline: You shouldn’t have done this.
Maggie: You need a decent place.
Earline: You shouldn’t have done it. You should’ve asked me first. Government’s gonna find out about this, they’re gonna stop my welfare.
Maggie: Mama, no, they ain’t.
Earline: They are. You’re fine, you’re workin…but I can’t live without my welfare.
Maggie: Mama, I’ll send you money.
Earline: What about my medicine? Medicaid gonna cut me off. How am I supposed to get my medicine?
Maggie: I’ll send you more money.
Mardell: I hope you don’t expect J.D. to move in with us. He’s getting out, you know.
Why didn’t you just give me the money. Why’d you have to buy me a house?
Maggie: I didn’t have to Momma, but it’s yours. You want the money, sell it.
Earline: Find a man Mary M. Live proper. People hear about what you’re doin’ and they laugh. Hurts me to tell you, but they laugh at you. [Laughs]
Her family has no aspirations, has no drive, no goals, no virtue, and no redeeming characteristics. I would like to say they are merely a bad caricature of welfare dependency…sadly they are a far too accurate depiction of a far too common truth. When you have no incentive to do better because welfare and Medicaid and a dozen other programs can get you up to the income of about $45,000 a year, why would you even bother starting minimum wage job only on the hope (the risk, if you will) that through hard work, personal sacrifice, and long hours you’ll get something better. When people have no incentive to do better (and no one is going to pay you $45,000 out the door) it’s only human nature to not want to work that hard.
Even then, it is only that Maggie has a different incentive other than money that drives her to push herself, self respect and happiness. It is the incentives for these things that push her, making her not an exception to the idea that incentives are what drive people, but rather stark proof of this economic fact.
Maggie: Momma, you take Mardell and JD and get home ‘fore I tell that lawyer there that you were so worried about your welfare you never signed those house papers like you were supposed to. So anytime I feel like it I can sell that house from under your fat, lazy, hillbilly ass. And if you ever come back, that’s exactly what I’ll do.