Essay 39: Movies as a “Parachute” or Backdoor Into the Field of Economics

Here’s a second example of using movies to “sneak up on” a field such as economics.

Think of the movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from 1948, a Humphrey Bogart classic:

In 1925, in the Mexican oil-town of Tampico, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), two unemployed American drifters, survive by bumming for spare change. They are recruited by an American labor contractor, Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), as roughnecks to construct oil rigs for $8 a day.  When the project is completed, McCormick skips out without paying the men.

Returning to Tampico, the two vagrants encounter the grizzled prospector Howard (Walter Huston) in a flophouse. The loquacious and penniless ex-miner holds forth on the virtues of gold prospecting and the perils of striking it rich. The two younger men feel the lure of gold and contemplate its risks. Dobbs and Curtin run into McCormick at a cantina, and after a desperate bar fight, they collect their back wages in cash. When Dobbs wins a small jackpot in the lottery, he pools his funds with Curtin and Howard to finance a gold prospecting journey to the Mexican interior.

The flophouse mentioned above (“Oso negro”) has a quick scene which is a marvelous “parachute” into economics:  a group of men begin to reflect on why gold is so expensive while the basics of life like water or air are not.  Howard (their “cracker barrel philosopher-sage,” played by Walter Huston) explains that a thousand men set out to find gold.  999 of the men fail to find any, one finds some.  The price of gold has to reflect the costs of finding it (i.e., men, equipment, time, effort, opportunity costs, risks, danger, etc.) by all thousand and include the 999 failures and not just the one success.  This is an example, albeit primitive, of something like the labor-theory of value explored by Ricardo and then Marx:

Labor theory of value

The labor theory of value (LTV) is a heterodox theory of value that argues that the economic value of a good or service is determined by the total amount of “socially necessary labor” required to produce it. … Marx did not refer to his own theory of value as a “labor theory of value.

Again, using this movie as a charming or enchanting “jumping off place,” you would begin to “dive into” those pages of the textbook that are relevant, much as you’d use a dictionary to look up some words. You then read towards the front and the back of the textbook, coming at it your own way, mindful of these questions of yours which begin to give the field a “shape.” You could do the “standard slog” through the textbook, none of which you remember three days after the course because nothing was based on your own “enchanted” searching and exploring.

Lastly, the author of the original 1927 novel, on which the movie is based, B. Traven was a German anarchist and he may have analyzed the world and its prices and costs (i.e., economics) like Howard in the movie.  This too is itself another “pathway” into economics, a biographical one.