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The “Culpa” Question


It may have been a while since we’ve shared a drink – or a thought – in this corner of Below the Line, but that doesn’t mean things haven’t been happening.

Or more interestingly, things have been happening, but there’s a lot of arguing over what those things mean. Everything, it seems – short of tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes – is subject to a Rashomon-like subjectivity, or interpretation. And even the aftermath of natural disasters – depending on your views of the cosmos, of government, of fate, of God, of “sin,” etc. – can be subject to extreme, agenda-filling spin.

Such is the case with the economy. Since our last column was filed, house prices have fallen, food prices have risen, and gas prices have exploded. The dollar is weak, and jobs have been shed.

Even future GOP presidential nominee John McCain has been hard-pressed to call this anything other than a recession (though the other word, starting with a “d,” and ending with “epression,” is waiting in the wings). And yet, in spite of all the empirical evidence at the unemployment office, the grocery store, and the gas pump, there are those who insist this economy is “just fine,” thank you.

One such is commentator Kevin Hassett, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who took to columnizing himself, this fine June day, that very idea of a recession was an idea cooked up by the “liberal media” (you mean, we’ve gotten Rupert Murdoch wrong this whole time? Or was he referring to the outlets owned by GE?) to discredit the aforementioned Senator McCain! In other words, the liberal media has arranged for your gas and groceries to be higher, and for your home valuations to plummet!

Imagining that the “liberal press” has that kind of power, one wonders if Hassett will next be citing passages from the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

But let’s say you’re one of the, I don’t know, vast majority of Americans who believes we are, in fact, in a recession. How did we get here? Who is to blame? (For surely that 16th century Elizabethan scriptwriter was wrong when he wrote “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…?”)

Well, if you’re part of the lesser number of Americans who rely on a paycheck from the entertainment biz, you might be interested in what another think tank has to say: That’d be the Milken Institute (founded by 80s era junk bond maven Michael Milken), which charts how not only hard-dollar capital, but social and human capital, flow through an economy.

This same early June week, they’ve released a report called The Writers’ Strike of 2007– 2008: The Economic Impact of Digital Distribution .

A Reuters release sums up the report this way: “The recent Hollywood writers’ strike tipped California into a recession, resulting in a loss of $2.1 billion to the state economy and costing 37,700 jobs, according to a research report. The report takes on increasing importance as the Screen Actors Guild and Hollywood’s major movie studios are embroiled in their own contract talks that threaten to throw the industry into another work stoppage as soon as the SAG contract expires on June 30. ‘The biggest thing that [a potential SAG strike] really does is it slows down the recovery’ said Kevin Klowden, managing economist at the Milken Institute and one of the report’s authors. Klowden said the three-month writers’ strike that ended in February cost the entertainment industry alone $500 million. But because Hollywood overlaps with other state industries, the strike had a wider impact overall.”

It’s interesting to note that the cover of the report shows writers on a picket line. I have not read the report cover to cover as I write this – I have read the official synopses, press releases and coverage – but there seems to be a hint that California’s recession was something done to it by writers.

One imagines the report’s cover could just as easily have shown a board of directors meeting for one of the studio-owning conglomerates, but such an image is not as inherently dramatic as a picket line.

And while our own readers – writing on BTL’s blog – spared neither side in their own view of how this last, economy-plundering strike was stumbled into, one expects that California’s gas prices would still be among the highest in the nation, for example, had the writers stayed at their keyboards and kept churning out episodes of Men in Trees.

But the problem is, Hollywood’s strike year – coming on top of all the other, non- Hollywood related economic misery – isn’t over yet. The actors’ union – well, one of them, anyway – has yet to sign on the dotted line and settle its own current contract dispute, though no strike has been called as of this writing. That’d be SAG, which finds itself at odds with AFTRA – the TV/ radio/soap opera folks – which did agree to a settlement with producers.

As of this same sunny June week, AFTRA’s leadership ratified the agreement, which supplied some revenue for internet rights but isn’t, in SAG’s view, an adequate enough slice of the expanding digital pie.

So this week of competing, Rashomon-like stories was kicked off with SAG staging a rally not against producers, but against AFTRA. The SAG leadership is encouraging its “overlapping members” – and there are quite a few with a boot in each union – to vote against ratifying AFTRA’s agreement.

Which will mean, of course, that Hollywood’s strike year – actual, and de facto – will continue.

People always thirst for a good story. Short of being able to find them in regular supply on their screen of choice, they may settle for someone’s version of “who’s to blame” for their present woes.

But none of that will make energy or food easier to buy, currency worth more, or jobs suddenly easier to get.

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