Saturday, January 10, 2009

It really is the economy, stupid

I saw Roger and Me last night, best known as the film that made Michael Moore the left-wing icon he is today. While some things about the film haven’t aged well—the hairdos are hilarious—the theme is no less relevant today.

As the film begins, Moore shows us home movies of his childhood in Flint, Mich., when General Motors was king. His dad worked for GM, and the images of dancing spark plugs and Pat Boone crooning for Chevy paint a picture of the American Dream.

Fast forward to the ‘80s as GM closes 11 auto plants across the country in favor of the sunny climes and slave wages of Mexico, even though GM was making record profits. Flint, a one-industry town, is devastated.

The film documents Flint’s descent into poverty as celebrities visit to give empty motivational speeches, local PR wonks make lame attempts to wrap shit in a pretty package, and Moore makes repeated attempts to interview GM CEO Roger Smith.

The first time I heard Smith’s name was in college (roughly about the time that Roger and Me was taking place). I had an economics class with Young Koo, a Korean professor who talked about “suppry and demand.” Lee Iacocca’s name was a household word at the time, but Koo pointed out that he wasn’t the highest paid auto executive. Who was? Roger Smith.

How strange that I saw Smith as a hero back then instead of the real-life Mr. Burns that this film reveals him to be.

Roger and Me shows the human toll behind the headlines. We follow a deputy sheriff evicting people in the most civil way he can. We hear from a man who had a panic attack on the way home from the plant after learning he lost his job. In the film’s most controversial scene, we see a woman killing and skinning a rabbit to help pay the rent (of course, more people made a fuss about a rabbit than the 30,000 people laid off). We see a parade (it literally is a parade at one point) of Middle American icons—Miss America, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, Robert Schuller—offering uplifting, but empty, words of encouragement. But the most stunning images are the journeys through block after block of abandoned houses and businesses in Flint. Add “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to the list of songs I’ll never think of in the same way again.

Economics was a bit of a bore for me in college. It was one of those classes that I took because I heard it would help me get a job, even though I would rather have been reading Shakespeare. And it was pretty dull, but it didn’t have to be.

For behind all the dry statistics (I’m still trying to figure out just what the kinked demand curve was supposed to represent), there are people. Since Roger and Me came out, we’ve had the dot-com boom, the dot-com bust, housing foreclosures, corporate bankruptcies, scandals, you name it. And behind each economic shift, people are affected.

Economics is more than just a boring subject in school. In a big way, it is life.

1 comment:

geewhy said...

Flint is actually suffering more now than it was when Roger and Me came out, which is hard to imagine. It's kind of like a slow-motion New Orleans...a city brought to its knees by circumstances beyond its control with no one willing or able to help.