Donald Trump, The Coen Brothers, and the Decline of the American Middle Class
By Tom StreithorstMarch 26, 2016
Median male real wages are lower today than they were in 1973. Household income is lower than it was when Hillary’s husband was president. Job security is a joke. More and more of us are one minor mishap away from financial ruin. The middle class is shrinking and for the first time in human history, 20- to 30-year-olds are poorer than their retired grandparents. No wonder much of the electorate scorns the promises of mainstream candidates.
It probably says more about my politics than the Coen brothers’ motivations, but watching their latest film helped me understand the appeal of Donald Trump. Hail, Caesar!, set in 1951, is an homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when powerful studios ruled the industry — actors, directors, writers, and crew mere pawns doing their bidding. The last time the Coen brothers made a film about the studio system, Barton Fink, they mocked the old ways. This film instead is a paean to studio days.
The Coen brothers, of course, did not come up through the studio system. After graduating from NYU, Joel Coen, like many film students desperate to break into the industry, started as a production assistant on industrials. Barry Sonnenfeld, who became their first director of photography, famously called him “without a doubt the worst PA I ever worked with.” After setting fire to the smoke machine, Coen realized he wasn’t going to make it by slowly climbing the ladder.
With his brother Ethan, a Princeton University graduate who majored in philosophy, the two wrote Blood Simple. Recognizing no studio would give twentysomethings without credentials the money to make the film, they shot a two minute trailer, took it back home to Minneapolis, and showed it to family friends and potential investors. It took them a year, but they raised $1.5 million.
Eight weeks of shooting and a year of postproduction later, Blood Simple opened to critical acclaim. The brothers paid off their investors and Blood Simple launched their careers. Joel and Ethan Coen are now rich men, have made 17 wonderful movies, and have inspired thousands of would be filmmakers to self-finance their own pictures.
It has worked for some (Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith) but not for most. Ninety-five percent of all independent films find no distributer, make no money, and are shown just a few times, mostly to friends, family, and crew. Making an independent movie today means sacrificing two years of your life to buy a very expensive lottery ticket with infinitesimal chance of reward.
Let’s compare that to studio days. Actors, directors, editors, and electrics all were on contract. When one film ended, they seamlessly segued into the next one. If the studio hired you to sweep up at 18, you could become a buyer at 20, a stylist at 25, and a production designer at 35, then hold that job until you retired. A studio job provided tens of thousands with a steady income and an upper-middle-class lifestyle. Today, Hollywood, like America itself, is much more stratified. A handful of stars make millions (much more money than they would have in studio days), but everybody else lives hand to mouth.
Hail, Caesar! is a bit of a shaggy dog story, but its plot, such as it is, centers around the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock, a movie star played by George Clooney. A cabal of communist scriptwriters bring him to a modernist mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean where they hold a study group. Using old-fashioned Marxist lingo, they explain to Clooney that the studios are exploiting him. Actors and screenwriters, along with grips and gaffers, they tell him, are the creators of film. The studio merely owns the means of production. It is the workers who should profit from the movies they make. Instead, the studio expropriates the fruits of their labor, paying just a fraction of their worth.
The Coen brothers call this goofy cabal “The Future,” reminding us that this studio-free vision of filmmaking describes Hollywood as it exists today. No longer do studio executives wield unquestioned power. Creative talent does. Angelina Jolie could greenlight a film version of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage or Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat tomorrow if she wanted to. Probably no studio executives could.
So successful actors, successful directors, successful screenwriters make more money and have more clout today than they did back in studio days. George Clooney gets paid more for one film than Baird Whitlock made in a lifetime. Hurrah! No not really. For most people in the industry, the studio era provided a safer, steadier income than our current freelance world.
These days, just about everyone in Hollywood is an independent contractor living from film to film. While you are working, you make a decent living, but once one movie is done, you have to sit by the phone or badger all of your contacts until you get the next one. This is the world “The Future” envisioned, and for most of us, it isn’t that pretty. One good year does not guarantee the next, and certainly not the one after that.
And it is not just Hollywood. The gig economy makes everyone from software designers to truck drivers to strippers to academics independent contractors. My father and grandfather pretty much worked for one company their entire lives. I haven’t held a staff job since 1987. When my father got sick, his employer found him doctors and continued to pay his salary. Had I gotten sick, they would have just forgotten my name. Risk used to be absorbed by the corporation. Today it has shifted to the working stiff.
Back in 1951, Americans were the richest people on the planet. We were the high-quality, low-cost manufacturers of just about everything. We exported state-of-the-art high-tech goods, raw materials, food, and entertainment. Everybody all over the world wanted to buy our stuff. Made in Japan was a joke.
The middle class was growing. Okies from the dust bowl, sharecroppers from Mississippi who grew up hungry during the Great Depression found steady high-paying union jobs that provided them prosperity beyond their childhood dreams. Anybody who wanted work found it, and wages kept going up. If you worked for a big corporation, either blue collar or white collar, your job was safe. Unless you slept with the boss’s wife or joined the Communist Party, you could expect to stay with the same employer until you retired, and then you would get a fat pension.
That was the promise of America made to returning soldiers after the Second World War. If you worked hard and kept your nose clean, you could have a middle-class existence. You would be richer than your parents, and your children would be richer than you. A 30-year-old in 1950 could expect his inflation-adjusted wages to double by the time he hit 50.
That promise has been broken. Wages stopped rising a generation ago. Back in the day, firms understood they had a responsibility toward their employees. For a CEO to lay off workers was a sign of failure. Today, it makes the value of his stock go up. Today our economy is entrepreneurial. A handful of us can become much richer than ever before, but for the rest, life is precarious.
Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that Donald Trump’s proposals of trade war and Mexican walls will not bring back the paternalistic corporations of yesteryear. Unrestrained global capitalism has changed the playing field, and American workers will continue to pay the price. But behind the angry talk of Trump supporters is the recognition that the world they were promised, the world of Hail, Caesar!, is gone. Pretending it isn’t has made establishment candidates laughingstocks. If they want to beat Donald Trump, the Democrats might be better off nominating Bernie Sanders.
Tom Streithorst has been a union member, an entrepreneur, a war cameraman, a commercials director, a journalist. He is an American in London and has been writing for magazines on both sides of the pond since 2008.
Tom Streithorst has been a union member, an entrepreneur, a war cameraman, a commercials director, a journalist. These days, he mostly does voiceovers and thinks about economic history. An American in London, he’s been writing for magazines on both sides of the pond since 2008. He is currently working on a book on how the incredible productive power of capitalism and technology have the potential to bring us all prosperity and happiness but so far, we keep screwing it up. He also writes a regular column about economics at pieria.co.uk.
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