A Movie Critic Reveals the Tragedy and Triumph of the Hideous Lockdowns

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“And while I now go to the movies for work, I also go to the movies for pleasure and for the love of art. I go because I’m curious, because I like the director or star. I go because I’m happy, anxious or depressed.” Those are the words of New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis.

Dargis views and reviews movies. That’s her job. And what a triumph that is! Specifically, it’s a triumph of capitalism, of the profit motive, and most definitely a beautiful consequence of the wealth inequality that has so many so strangely up in arms. Lest we forget, the financially unequal most often get that way because they’ve mass produced a former luxury (or that which didn’t exist at all), they’ve well exceeded the needs of consumers with the means to purchase that which is mass produced, or they’ve financed the commercially creative in ways that enable enormous amounts of plenty.

Dargis is once again a film critic, and an excellent one at that. Crucial about this is that 100, and certainly 200 years ago, there were exceedingly few critics of any kind. This was true even in the rich countries. Goodness, as of the 1930s the U.S. economy was still half agriculture. In the 1830s, it was nearly all agriculture.

Looking back 90 and 190 years ago, it’s not as though people weren’t artistic, creative, or interested in analyzing the creations of the artistic and creative. At the same time, those with interest in creative pursuits had them suffocated by reality. The reality was that nearly all human exertion was directed toward the creation of food. And the exertion wasn’t always very successful. Though the arrival of new children brought joy, and extra “hands” on the farm, it also represented “another mouth to feed.”

Nowadays the much bigger worry for Americans on all economic levels is obesity, as opposed to starvation. Thanks to primitive “robots” of the tractor and fertilizer variety, along with globalized supply chains for everything, eating is increasingly a given. The previously mentioned advances were the biggest job destroyers in the history of mankind, but far from rushing us into poverty, they freed us to pursue work that was once impossible to conceive.

Dargis is once again a film critic. She’s able to do something she loves uncontrollably for top percentile compensation precisely because so much that used to be necessary, and so much more that only became necessary after the fact, is so cheap today. Food is once again a given, but it’s now true that most at all levels of economic attainment have supercomputers in their pockets that have them connected to the world, and more and more to work itself. What a triumph!

In Dargis’s case, she ties her love of movies to her early childhood. The child of “East Village bohemians,” Dargis’s “film-crazed parents” didn’t have the money in the 1960s to hire babysitters. Since they didn’t, they “brought me everywhere, including to the movies.” And so the seeds of a career were planted.

Dargis may think a lot about why she’s a critic, but she also may think very little. Whether she does or not is not the point. Art instructs, as do critics of art instruct. What they do says so much about how far we’ve come economically. People happily have the time and means to consume art, and as a consequence, the time and means to see art through the discerning eyes of Dargis.

Dargis’s uplifting story is also highly relevant in light of the economic tragedy unfolding right now. Lockdowns overseen by the political class have taken the right to work away from millions; mostly those with the least. It cannot be stressed enough that these lockdowns could never have been ordered during Dargis’s childhood. Call the novel coronavirus the first rich man’s virus, which speaks to tragedy and triumph all at once.

The lockdowns we’re enduring to varying degrees could never have happened in the 1960s simply because societal wealth wasn’t nearly as plentiful. Lest readers forget, Dargis’s parents couldn’t even afford babysitters at night, let alone all week.

Though few want to admit it, school has always been daycare of sorts. If kids were at school, and overseen by responsible teachers and administrators, parents could work. And they had to work. Few had the means to not work for weeks or months, not to mention that in the 1960s there weren’t home computers, e-mail, voicemail, WiFI and other forms of communication mass-produced for us by the wealth unequal. Since they didn’t exist, work was a destination.

If coronavirus had materialized in the 1960s, schools couldn’t have been closed simply because offices and businesses couldn’t be closed. What would people do? A simple call back then was more than a bit pricey. If you weren’t at work back then, you weren’t being paid. Simple as that.

But over the last 50+ years, production and globalization of production by wildly creative individuals has massively shrunken the cost of living. Nowadays when people say they can’t afford things like health insurance, something most hadn’t even thought of in ‘60s, what they really mean is they can’t afford it in addition to smartphone bills, car payments, rent, dining out, entertainment, etc. In modern times, Starbucks baristas are lured into the trade with free health insurance and college education. Fifty years ago, coffee stores on every street (and sometimes two or three) were an unimaginable luxury.

So with so much that we used to take for granted now a given thanks to mass production, it’s actually possible for the economy to be shut down. Politicians can oversee what’s cruel to the most economically vulnerable simply because their jobs, thanks to advances overseen by the profit motivated, make it possible for them to do work from anywhere. These same advances have made it possible for all-too-many of the well-to-do that politicians surround themselves with to similarly do their work from anywhere, or not at all while they wait out the “flattening of the curve.”

The tragedy unfolding in addition to the horrid takeaway of our liberties and right to work is that while more and more Americans can work from anywhere, tens of millions cannot as evidenced by the layoffs. Though coronavirus is surely a rich man’s virus that 99.9% of Americans would have endured when Dargis was a child, not everyone in the U.S. is rich today. Not everyone has the means to wait out the curve's "flattening." And so they suffer the actions of politicians who just don’t get it. As Dargis noted in the column that these quotes are lifted from, cities across the U.S. (including Los Angeles and New York), have and are shutting down movie theaters. Tens of thousands of theater jobs will vanish until politicians give us the "right" to get back to work. Readers can rest assured that they wouldn’t have shuttered during Dargis’s formative years when she happened on an amazing career.

Dargis’s column was an expression of how much she misses the movie theater experience even though the closures are “part of an urgent and necessary effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.” With this, there’s full agreement with the film critic about the pure pleasure of sitting in a theater, but disagreement about the closings being “necessary.”

Just as her broke, bohemian parents figured out ways to get to the movies even with a young child, so could theaters have figured out ways to meet the needs (including charging higher prices to limit seatings) of theatergoers and their employees. They weren’t allowed to. That they weren’t is a tragedy, but also in some strange way a triumph for it revealing just how prosperous a nation we’ve become such that politicians can be so careless.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is titled They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers. Other books by Tamny include The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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