Loyal reader Lewis Lehe writes to ask about how economics is explained in popular media.
Are there any films/videos/pieces of visual media that show "the unseen" well? Films can only depict a few characters or places, so they tend to underweight benefits that are spread across large groups. Roger and Me is a fine example: we can see the devastation of Flint, but it would be difficult to see the gains from comparative advantage–i.e. returns to shareholders, slightly cheaper cars for consumers and so forth…
If there are no films that do this well, what ways could a filmmaker remedy these imbalances?
Larry Ribstein who has written extensively on economics in the movies notes:
The closest to what you're looking for in a movie speech is Larry the
Liquidator's speech (Danny De Vito) to the shareholders in Other
People's Money, in which he explains why their "dead" company should be
liquidated, despite the immediate loss of jobs, and the money put to
work creating more viable jobs.
There are films and television shows which convey the idea of the invisible hand but unfortunately they are not much about benefits. I am thinking, for example, of The Wire, which uses character but in the final analysis is about how character is dominated by the larger forces of supply, demand, and money. In The Wire drug dealers come and go but the drug market is forever. The Wire also shows how money and markets connect and intertwine white and black, rich and poor, criminal and police in a grand web that none of them truly comprehends–a product of human action but not of human design. (Traffic, the movie and miniseries, shows in a similar way how drug markets connect the high and the low in both the United States and Mexico.)
It's not comforting that in some ways the best vision of how markets work comes from portrayals of the drug market but The Wire does show how a filmmaker could tell the story of the seen and the unseen and still make a successful work of art.