Two recent hit movies, ''Erin Brockovich'' and ''Boiler Room,'' delve into the seamy side of the business world. To that extent, they raise an interesting question for a free-market society: Does it matter that virtually all depictions of business and capitalism in popular culture are relentlessly negative?
As anyone who has ever sat through Act V of a Quinn-Martin television production knows, the businessman is the odds-on favorite to be unmasked as the culprit in the end.Paradoxically, the necessary backdrop for such a discussion is the enormous wealth thrown off by capitalism. Movies like ''Erin Brockovich'' and ''Boiler Room'' are essentially luxury items.
As the economist Joseph Schumpeter noted more than 50 years ago, capitalism - defined by him as basically a system in which people are relatively free to own and trade property - results in a generally wide distribution of more and cheaper goods throughout society.
''Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings,'' Schumpeter wrote in ''Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy'' back in 1942. ''The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.''
In today's America, Schumpeter's insight is verified by any number of contemporary indicators. They include home, car and stock ownership rates, income-mobility studies, the percentage of high-school students who go on to college. All had been on the increase long before Schumpeter wrote his book, and all have continue to grow since then.
So do negative depictions weaken support for the very system in which they're produced?
In ''Prime Time: How TV Portrays American Culture,'' Robert S. Lichter, Linda Lichter and Stanley Rothman comprehensively surveyed television shows from the 1950s through the mid-1990s. They believe nasty portrayals of businessmen do send a message, though in a surprising way.
The authors cite anecdotal analysis suggesting that the message viewers take away from such fare is not that commerce or capitalism is evil per se, but that a person needs to be devious and unprincipled in order to be successful.
''Television makes people want to be business people, but it also tells them that to be a business executive you have to be an unscrupulous creep,'' wrote journalist-cum-game show host Ben Stein in the late 1980s. ''The mores you see now . . . are the mores of 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty.' It's not just coincidence.''
To their credit, the ''Prime Time'' authors stress that such a hypothesis is unproven. In fact, there is no reason to believe that the rate of fraud and deception was somehow on the rise in the 1980s, or that it has proceeded apace since then.
Certainly cons and scams exist, but if anything, transactions seem to be getting increasingly transparent as the amount of information available to consumers continues to grow.
In a world in which potential customers can easily get multiple prices for the same product or service via the Internet and other widely available sources, sellers of all sorts need to come in early with their best offer.
Reputation, perhaps the single most powerful hedge against cheating, has perhaps never been as important as it is now. In a more persuasive moment, the ''Prime Time'' authors suggest television was ''the one-time servant of the status quo'' but that now it ''fosters populist suspicions of traditional mores and institutions.''
This is obviously true not simply for the small screen, but for movies and popular culture in general. Authority - whether personified as a politician, a minister, a doctor, a teacher or a newscaster - rarely goes unquestioned these days.
This kind of attitude is in many ways at the center of a commercial society. It fits squarely with Schumpeter's concept of ''creative destruction,'' which he regarded as the ''essential fact about capitalism.''
Social observers who are critical of capitalism would do better to focus on how it is constantly creating ''new goods and new methods of production.'' Implicit in such constant activity and tumult, or ''mutations,'' as Schumpeter described the process, is the need for individuals to constantly verify information and renegotiate their positions.
In this context, movies like ''Erin Brockovich'' and ''Boiler Room'' don't undermine or even challenge capitalism so much as further it. By spotlighting the duplicity possible in a market system, even as they absurdly exaggerate it, they may well help the system function more efficiently.
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