Economics in Popular Film
Roger And Me:
Applications of Myrdal’s theory of the circular and cumulative causation
Roger And Me is a documentary that carries a considerable economic significance by presenting a modern version of capitalism, and by depicting an interesting example of Gunnar Myrdal’s theory of the circular and cumulative causation. Flint, the hometown of the filmmaker Michael Moore, has been built around the factories of one of the largest auto corporations in the world – General Motors. For decades on end the company has been prosperous, making high profits and keeping its workers loyal and content with their jobs and payment. Everyone in Moore’s family has worked for General Motors; the Flint residents have become not only economically but also spiritually and culturally connected with and influenced by the company – a fact that additionally explains the devastating effect of the closure of the eleven GM factories. That is where and when the tragedy begins, that is the push that sets Myrdal’s dynamics cycle in motion. General Motors close 11 of their factories in Flint, Michigan, laying off more than 30 000 workers. For people involved in capitalist economic processes that presents a disaster, since except for GM “there’s nothing out there [workers] can depend on”, says one of them – people are suddenly left with no employer to sell their labor to.
The decision of GM to close down the factories is met with frustration and lack of understanding on the part of the workers, since the company is not closing down factories because of economic or financial difficulties, but because they want to realize more and more profits than they already have (and they have realized record high profits already - $5 billion in 1989). One way to satisfy the greed for higher profits is to set up production in Mexico, where GM would be able to pay $0.70 per hour – much less than the minimum wage paid to American workers. The GM’s board does not hesitate to take this step although it means destroying jobs in the US and hurting the interests of the American workers. Employing Mexicans for such minimal wages implies a peculiar kind of a 20th century imperialism: GM is able to extract enormous profits and to become the world’s largest corporation by super-exploiting labor in a country less well developed and economically influenced by the USA.
Of course, the board does not confess to satisfying the greed for higher profits by taking these unpopular steps; they present all the process as catching up on the competitors. “GM has to do what it has to do in order to stay competitive, even if it means laying off thousands of people”, says a member of the board, and thus makes it more than clear that in a capitalist society the managers and the directors are concerned only with the profit maximization and with their own welfare, whereas the employees have to fight for their jobs in more and more unfavorable conditions. More than 30 000 workers have now lost their jobs, whereas the company’s chairman Roger Smith has just made $2 millions himself. The unions are no help at all in this moment. Supposed to increase the workers’ bargaining power, the unions have now become useless, since “too many people in the unions friends with the management”, whose interests, in this case, are completely the opposites to those of the workers.
The closure of the factories is the first step toward the devastating tragedy of the town, and, as of deliberately observing Myrdal’s theory of the circular and cumulative causation, things tend to get worse and worse. The laying off of thousands of workers triggers many other negative processes: a great number of workers leave the town in search of employment elsewhere; people’s living conditions worsen because of the sudden drop in earnings – the rat population has “surpassed” that of humans. This, on its part, leads to the spread of physical illnesses, and is a symbol widely associated with poverty. Poverty only leads to more poverty, as most of the laid-off people are no more able to pay their rent and get evicted from their homes. Throughout the documentary we witness more and more people, even children and old persons, being evicted by the Eviction Deputy of Flint. Besides, there has been a tremendous increase in the crime rate of the town, and there are not enough prison cells for the criminals anymore. Thus, the negative effects and consequences accumulate to form a vicious circle, from which there is no an easy way out. The economic bottom is reached when Flint is declared the unemployment capital of the country, and is qualified by the Money Magazine as the worst place to live in the United States.
However, people who live in a capitalist society have to fight to get a job in order to survive. That’s why many of the laid-off workers seek alternative employment – much more unfavorable in most of the cases, but still paying them wages for their labor. Some are trained to work for Taco Bell, others – as prison guards; still others get involved in the production of lint-rollers. Even raising rabbits for pets, meat and skins is a way to make a living. Eventually, none of these occupations turns out successful or satisfactory. This, combined with people’s effort to find an external solution, seems to strongly reinforce Myrdal’s theory that things worsen once they get bad, and that the way out is something external to happen. The first step toward breaking this cycle is the change of attitude: people have to get rid of their passivity, despair and feeling of helplessness in order to start all over again. That is why the sheriff pays an evangelist preacher to come and raise the spirits; that is why President Raegan comes to help with ideas. The second step is the idea to turn the city into a tourist attraction – an idea that seems to attract a lot of enthusiasm and positive energy. And money as well. More than $13 million are spent to build a luxurious hotel, even more go for the construction of the Water Street Pavilion. The attraction grow in size and number, but ironically, the tourists never come to Flint, and six months later the Pavilion is closed due to lack of visitors. The explanation given in the documentary is that people don’t like to celebrate human tragedy while on vacation. This fact influences the economic growth (or revival, to be more correct) of the town, thereby emphasizing on the interaction between the cultural and economic processes taking place in Flint.
Therefore, tourism is not, as it appears at first, the way out of the crises and out of Myrdal’s cycle. Unemployment, poverty, desolate houses, crimes, even more poverty… - the circle remains closed. To a great extent, it is kept closed due to the polarization between the managers and the workers, due to the inequality gap that remains between the better and the worse off. The wealth and the greed have modified the minds of managers and directors; the lack of money has had a similar effect on the unemployed and the poor. Somewhere in this interaction between economic and cultural influences one may seek the explanation and the reason why “rich get richer, poor get poorer” – the closing line of Moore, which very clearly implies Myrdal’s theory and its perfect application with respect to the economic processes in Flint, Michigan.
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