(What’s Left of) Our Economy: When Hollywood Got It on the Global Economy

“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

It sounds like something we’ve heard a lot of in this presidential campaign, doesn’t it? But movie buffs and many past or in their middle years will recognize it as the signature line of the Oscar-winning 1976 movie Network.

One of the cable channels or PBS had the smarts to broadcast it recently; if you missed it, I hope you get the chance to see it soon. But what I found most striking about the film when I saw it last week for the first time since its original theater run was not the recognition of widespread popular anger during what was clearly a period in the nation’s recent history as dreary as the present day. It wasn’t the devastating portrayal of the news business – and especially the TV news business – as a cynical and shallow exercise in sensationalism. And it wasn’t even the crackling screenplay by Paddy Chayevsky, which I’m confident will go down as a lasting monument to the power of the written word.

All these aspects of the film are spectacularly memorable – with the first two of course resonating with special force during this political year and particularly in the last few days as the controversy has escalated over the violent scenes at Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s campaign rallies. But maybe because of my own focus on economics, what struck me most about Network was how it foresaw with stunning accuracy the main arguments that have now been made (and swallowed by the Mainstream Media) for decades on behalf of job- and wage-killing trade and other international economic policies.

The magic moment is precipitated by an on-the-air tirade by Howard Beale that finally promises to backfire on the corporate bosses. These executives at the “Communications Corporation of America,” had been cheerfully, cynically – and profitably – exploiting Beale’s transformation from respected veteran newsman to a “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” whose fiery “sermons” had been exhorting his despondent countrymen to wake up and take back control again over their increasingly immiserated lives.

But one night, Beale goes too far – revealing that CCA was just about to engage in maneuvering to sell the network covertly to the Saudis. His panegyric will strike a loud chord with anyone concerned about mounting control of U.S. assets by foreign interests – especially those from countries that haven’t been especially friendly. But CCA of course desperately needed to figure out what to do about a cash cow turned mortal threat.

Enter Arthur Jensen, Chairman of the Board and CEO of CCA. Confident that “I can sell anything,” he summons Beale to his palatial offices, leads him into the “overwhelming cathedral of a conference room” (dubbed “Valhalla”), shutters the windows, dims the lights, drops his normally implacable demeanor, and “roars” to his wayward employee:

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear?! You think you have merely stopped a business deal — that is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity, it is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians. There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and [immense], interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars!, Reichmarks, rubles, rin, pounds and shekels! It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone!”

Jensen rails on a bit longer in this vein – his remarks are totally worth reading in full, as is the whole script. But what’s crucial about his jeremiad is its vivid insistence that the global economy and the current structure of globalization literally are forces or features of nature that can and should be as impervious to criticism as the primordial movements of neutrons, planets, and galaxies alike. And the intent back then was as clear as it is today – to neuter intellectually anyone who counters that the global economy is a man-made construct as potentially imperfect as any other human arrangement or construct, and thus as legitimately re-thinkable and re-structure-able.

As known by regular readers of RealityChek, what might be called Newtonian portrayals of the world economy and of America’s longstanding bipartisan, offshoring lobby-shaped approaches to it have faced increasingly strong and effective attacks even from the ranks of academic economists – who have done so much to foster it when they write for popular (as opposed to professional) audiences. Network usefully reminds us how deep the roots of this fakeonomics run – and how powerful and necessary it is to respond by getting “mad as hell.”