Tag Archives: Harold Ramis

Movies that understand economics #1 Bedazzled

Elliot Richards: “This doesn’t prove anything. I could have done this myself. I even had to pay for it.”
The Devil: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Now unfortunately the nature of Hollywood and the fact that it exists on a different plane of reality (one where the economy is run by unicorns and movies that make 50 million above cost somehow were losses) a lot of the economic facts of this series are going to be more accidental truths stumbled upon by the writers and directors than intentional bedazzledmoves to show us how real economics works. However, I might be able to say that director Harold Ramis, who brought us Groundhog Day with its clear understanding of the idea that all skills can be learned with time and effort or what is really valuable in life, and Ghostbusters with its very insightful moments that the EPA is populated by dickless idiots and correct observations like, “You’ve never worked in the private sector, they expect results.” But who knows, maybe I’m reading intent where there was none…regardless, the movie Bedazzled, the story of a hapless loser who sells his soul for seven wishes from the Devil, does offer us some excellent economic lessons.

Anyone familiar with Robert Heinlein’s classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress should find the acronym above very familiar. TANSTAAFL. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

It’s one of the most basic lessons of economics. EVERYTHING has a price. Even if you don’t pay for it now or even ever…someone will pay for everything.

Our clueless hero, Elliot Richards, in Bedazzled learns the hard way that just wishing for things doesn’t work (despite the Devil warning him very clearly that there is no such thing as a free lunch).

Everything you want comes with a cost. And whether it is time, effort, blood and sweat…or just your soul…every cost will be paid. And I think this movie is very clear about this.

Richards: I don’t want another wish. […] I really don’t want it.
The Devil: What do you mean you don’t want it, you get seven wishes.
Richards: Well there are things that I want but nothing you can give me.
The Devil: What is that supposed to mean?
Richards: Well um last night when I was lying in jail I was talking to this guy. I realized that wishing just doesn’t work. All my life I’ve wished to be better looking, to be richer successful, talented, whatever. And I always thought wouldn’t it be great if someone could just wave a magic wand and make that happen. Well, I realized that it just doesn’t work by magic.
The Devil: I think I’m going to be sick.
Richards: I’ve been starting to think it isn’t really how far we go in life anyway, it’s how we get there that really matters.

Everything comes with a cost. And any time you think that there is something without a cost that you are getting something for free…be very worried because that is where the costs are the highest. Because it is often either being paid for by someone else…or it is taking something away from you that is more valuable (but less tangible) than just money or property. And, in the long run, the soul pays all debts.

Even with charity. Someone gave you a hundred dollars out of charity…it still costs them a hundred dollars and the loss of the opportunity to spend it on something else…now they may get paid back in the psychological happiness that comes from personal charity, but they will get paid back. And you will pay the cost of feeling either indebted to that person or to be worthy of the act of charity. (It’s why a welfare state is so dangerous, it strips the act of charity of all the psychological benefits and costs and merely costs the middle class their money to pay people who will not work for a living.) and thus will never “earn” anything or appreciate it and they will in the end be the bigger looser.

There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

2. Contract Law is Sacrosanct (and always read the contract)

deal with the devil

This is what a deal with the Devil looks like.

Modern society and economics is based on contract law. Be it anywhere from the social contract to your cell phone contract. And, all pun intended, the Devil is in the details.

The Devil: “Let’s look at your contract.”

It is part of the joke that the contract for Elliot’s soul is a 2,000+ page legal document printed in small font legalese. (Pro tip…anytime any kind of legal document is 2000+ pages it is the work of the Devil and should not be signed or passed).

Obamacare regs

This something worse than a deal with the Devil.

Contracts are so important that even the Devil has to abide by them, as there is an escape clause in Eliot’s contract, and as much as she hated it, she had to obey it. (Another pro tip: don’t trust anyone who fails to honor contracts; they will screw you any chance they can find.) That’s how important contract law is, even the Devil follows it. Modern economics are based on contract law and to all the anarchists out there who think you can run an economy without contract law necessary to enforce it, you’re beyond stupid. Anarchy at it’s best.

The other point here that the movie makes clear is that you should always read the contract. If you don’t read the contract and just wait to see what’s in it only after you have entered into it, you will always, always, always get burned….as Elliot finds out in how badly his wishes turn out…and as America is finding out right now.

3. Trade is only an exchange of value for value.

The Devil: Seven utterly fabulous wishes for one piddling, little soul?
Richards: […]“If it’s so useless then how come you want it so much?”

One thing to understand about modern economics is that in any legal, consensual exchange both people must receive what they consider an exchange of value for value (in fact an exchange only take place when both parties feel they are improving their situation). And if people want something, or are willing to give you something, then that means you are exchanging something of value.

True this is a variation on the free lunch principle, but it needs repeating.
If someone is willing to give you free phones or food or promises of healthcare you may want to ask why they’re giving you these things and what they want in return…and what the long term consequences of such an exchange are.

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Most Patriotic Films #28: Stripes

“We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse.”

Stripes.  This is not the greatest movie ever made.  This is not the best work by the actors, the writers or the director if you look at any of their careers.   And perhaps it’s just the snob in me, but I don’t find much of the film very funny (with the exception of their drill performance at graduation…sorry couldn’t find a decent youtube clip to share).

So if this isn’t the best film, why did it make this list?  Well for this scene.

The night before their graduation from boot camp, this band of losers has lost their DI and is on the verge of either having to repeat boot camp (or just be dishonorably discharged, which is probably more what they deserve)…but Bill Murray brings them together by reminding them more than anything, they’re American soldiers and that means something.

“Cut it out! Cut it out! Cut it out! The hell’s the matter with you? Stupid! We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi. We’re not Spartans. We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts! Here’s proof: his nose is cold! But there’s no animal that’s more faithful, that’s more loyal, more loveable than the mutt. Who saw “Old Yeller?” Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I’m sure. I cried my eyes out. So we’re all dogfaces, we’re all very, very different, but there is one thing that we all have in common: we were all stupid enough to enlist in the Army. We’re mutants. There’s something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us – we’re soldiers. But we’re American soldiers! We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years! We’re 10 and 1! Now we don’t have to worry about whether or not we practiced. We don’t have to worry about whether Captain Stillman wants to have us hung. All we have to do is to be the great American fighting soldier that is inside each one of us. Now do what I do, and say what I say. And make me proud.” [Italics Added]

Why is this a great scene?  Because it points out all the things that make America great.

Yes, “that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world.”  And as Americans we’re proud of that.  We even have a sign at the front door “”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” with the implication, our nation will turn the tired into the productive, our nation will turn the poor into the prosperous, our nation will turn the huddled masses into individuals who stand tall.  The statue may be standing with a torch in her hand, but she really is giving the finger to Europe.  Or put another way, in the opening to his book Peace Kills: America’s Fun New Imperialism, P.J. O’Rourke describes America’s relationship to the old world:

“Americans hate foreign policy. Americans hate foreign policy because Americans hate foreigners. Americans hate foreigners because Americans are foreigners. We all come from foreign lands, even if we came 10,000 years ago on a land bridge across the Bering Strait.  We didn’t want anything to do with those Ice Age Siberians, them with the itchy cave-bear-pelt underwear ad mammoth meat on their breath.  We were off to the Pacific Northwest—great salmon fishing, blowout potluck dinners, a whole new life.

“America is not ‘globally conscious’ or ‘multi-cultural.’ Americans didn’t come to America to be Limey Poofters, Frog-Eaters, Bucket Heads, Micks, Spicks, Sheenies or Wogs. If we’d wanted foreign entanglements, we would have stayed home. Or – in the case of those of us who were shipped to America against our will – as slaves, exiles, or transported prisoners – we would have gone back.  Events in Liberia and the type of American who lives in Paris tell us what to think of that.”

In other words, every “decent country” that threw us out, can go do something anatomically impossible to itself.  We took the worst of your worst and created the best of the best.

But O’Rourke’s lighthearted listing of racial epithets leads to the next point that makes the speech in Stripes so great. We’re mutts.  Over 2 centuries we have taken bits and pieces of almost every culture in the world, kept what works, kept some stuff that is neither good or bad, and thrown out most of the B.S. (we’re still trying to get rid of all of the stuff that doesn’t work).  We’re mutts.  I haven’t heard the phrase used a lot lately, which is sad, but I’m sure we all remember the phrase “the melting pot.”  The idea that, time and time and time again, we have incorporated new cultures into our own and made those cultures part of us. It’s gone a little out of use as liberals now love to promote every subgroup to embrace their difference at the cost of success and the cost of remaining an outside group…but the sane among us remember that it used to be standard practice that no matter how bad you were treated when you got here, once you assimilated into American culture you were not only accepted but American culture assimilated your culture into its own (everyone seems to forget that the Irish were once treated worse than anyone…and while a lot of Romney’s ancestors were Scots and Germans, I seem to recall that 2008 was two men of Irish decent battling against each other for the highest office in the land).  With the exception of first and second generation immigrants, it’s damn near impossible to find someone in this country who can trace their ancestry back to one country.  Hell, Elizabeth Warren seems to be the only person in the country without a drop of Native American blood.  And I think we all know that within one to two centuries race will be a forgotten concept in this nation as most people will be able to trace ancestors back to every major ethnic group in the world.  And that’s what makes us great.  We’re mutts.  As a whole we don’t care about anything but merit.

And finally there is the line, “There’s something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us – we’re soldiers. But we’re American soldiers! We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years! We’re 10 and 1!” Now I’m actually going to forgive the fact that there is a little insult here to the armed services.  The film started filming in November of 1980, which means it was probably written in 1979 and early 1980…that is during the impotent Presidency of dim Jimmy “I’ll always support anti-Semitism given a choice” Carter.  Can you blame someone for having a low opinion of this nation when U.S. citizens are being held by insane zealots and the proper response of blowing Iran to hell isn’t being taken, or when the strong stance against Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is to boycott the Olympics?  And as to the 10 and 1, it’s only been in recent years that it has been pointed out that we never lost a military encounter, we only lost the political ones because Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ and Nixon were all too gutless to actually fight a real war, opting instead for police actions.  But the point is correct we’ve been kicking ass for 200 years and have never lost a war because of our military, only because of our politicians.  And it’s not because of numbers or arms, it’s because, unlike a lot of other countries, we have a reason that is morally right to fight for: liberty.

Again, this is not the greatest film ever.  But it is a great scene that does highlight what is great about this nation.

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