Thursday, December 05, 2002

Economic Reasoning With a Hand Up Your Butt

On Friday night I watched "It's a Very Muppet Christmas," and I found it more entertaining than most of Henson Productions' recent output. As a longtime fan of the Muppets, I'm willing to forgive some of their more recent failures (e.g., "Muppets Tonight," an unfortunate attempt to resurrect "The Muppet Show") and give them another chance from time to time. "A Very Muppet Christmas" had me chuckling most of the way through -- especially when I saw that the Muppets' Christmas spectacular was called "Moulin Scrooge."

Unfortunately, the show was marred by its misguided political-economic message. The plot revolves around the efforts of an evil banker (Joan Cusack) to take away the Muppet Theater unless the Muppets make their overdue loan payment by midnight of Christmas Eve (the contractually specified deadline). If she succeeds in repossessing the theater, she plans to turn it into (horrors!) a skeezy nightclub.

Since the primary viewers of the show were probably Muppet devotees like myself, this was a safe message. The Muppets are great -- who would want to see the Muppet Theater get shut down? But here's the problem. If the public really loves to watch the Muppets, then the Muppets should be able to raise enough revenue to cover their operating costs and pay off the loan. If they can't, then clearly people don't want to watch the Muppets, in which case they *should* lose the theater. Resources should be allocated to their most valuable uses, as determined by the revealed preferences of consumers. In the real world, the Muppets are bankable enough that Henson Productions is unlikely to close its doors (though it has been bought and sold a handful of times). But in the fictional world created by the show's own plot, apparently the Muppets aren't so bankable after all.

Predictably, the Muppets stage a huge Christmas show that will bring in *just* enough money to pay off the loan -- which suited me fine. If they can generate the cash, then their existence is economically justified after all. In addition, Cusack's banker proves to be not merely profit-seeking, but actually unethical as well: after somehow getting her hands on both copies of the loan contract, she alters them to move the payment deadline to 6:00pm instead of midnight. That little maneuver enabled me to set aside my ideological objections and accept Cusack as a suitable villain for the remainder of the movie.

Until the end, that is. At the last minute, as Cusack basks in her triumph and orders the Muppets to evacuate the theater, one of the Muppets (an amusing Mexican-stereotype shrimp named Pepe) saves the day. How does he do it? Does he find another copy of the contract? Does he find a means of proving that Cusack had altered the originals? Nope -- he petitions the City Council to declare the Muppet Theater an historical landmark, thereby prohibiting Cusack (or any future owner) from ever using the site for anything except, well, Muppet theatrics. In the end, good prevails over evil -- not because the truth comes out, not because the good creatures of the world demand justice, not because promises are honored and legitimate contracts enforced, but because our friend the government steps in to curtail private property rights!

I know, I know, it probably seems like I'm overreacting. And I am. Still, I can't help but think that plots like this affect young minds (and older ones, for that matter). Pop culture does influence people's political and economic beliefs. Movies and television shows that perpetually cast the businessperson as the bad guy, and the proponents of special privileges from the government as the good guys, do the public a disservice. I believe the Muppets can do better.

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