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The Political Economy of Gotham City

July 25, 2008

Here’s a recent op-ed that I’ve been working on. It’s still a bit rough, but I’m planning on sending it off soon so I thought I’d post it here first…..

As moviegoers all over America did recently, I excitedly purchased my tickets for the newest “it” film – Batman: The Dark Knight. Sitting in the theater, I couldn’t help but notice some economic lessons for America in the woes of Gotham City.

 At one point during the film, the Joker tries to communicate his desire for chaos to Harvey Dent by saying “Do I really look like a man with a plan, Harvey? I don’t have a plan. The mob has plans, the cops have plans. … I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s. Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I am not a schemer. I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are… It’s a schemer who put you where you are. You were a schemer. You had plans. Look where it got you. I just did what I do best – I took your plan and turned it on itself. … Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.” When we feel like a plan can control the uncertain future, we gravitate toward those plans and the people who offer them, even though they often create harm in the long run.

Consider today’s gas crisis. Politicians everywhere are attempting to come up with “the plan” that will save us from continually higher and higher fuel costs. Many find this comforting, thinking: “At least something is being done about it.” Think too of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. We turn to our leaders, crying for a solution to the problem – for a plan that will rescue us from the seemingly inevitable downturn in the markets. We trust in plans made by faulty humans and fail to look into the future for the chaos that these plans might cause.

 Another lesson from Gotham City: Rule of law works, playing politics doesn’t. Political systems are corruptible when transparency is lacking and when politicians don’t have to follow the rules they write for others. In both of the recent Batman movies, it was painfully evident that when given the opportunity to take a side-payment, government officials of all levels were up for the gamble. There were only a few, heroic people in Gotham willing to hold them to the letter of the law. The people of Gotham trusted these politicians to create the plans the desperately desired, yet the politicians themselves weren’t held to the law as they should have been, and consequently were corrupted.

As a child, Bruce Wayne learned his first economic lessons from his father. His father wanted to help the community of Gotham City during the recession. He contributed heavily to building projects around the city. The most important thing that Wayne did was to invest heavily in his own company; causing economic growth to ripple throughout the city. Because Bruce Wayne’s father had grown his own company, he was able to reinvest the profits in the community of Gotham, helping those who most needed it.

Gotham wasn’t completely lost, and our situation in America isn’t completely hopeless either. Holding our government officials accountable to what they say and do is important in keeping them honest – and keeping their actions from negatively impacting our lives. Most importantly though, we can learn from Batman that planning doesn’t work like we want it to. Planning ourselves out of economic downturns only serves to cause chaos in our markets. Batman also can teach us that developing our own profit allows us to help those that are less fortunate. If we really want to succeed in getting out of our current recession, we need to forget planning our way out of it and instead focus on developing shrewed and efficient business strategies for the hard times ahead.

Perhaps it is the same for us in America as it was for the citizens of Gotham City: the night (and our economy) is always darkest before the dawn.

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