Paupers with Popcorn and T-Shirts


Washington. -- In Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park," the camera momentarily focuses in on a rack of T-shirts and other dinosaur souvenirs that its fictional developer, Dr. John Hammond, hopes to cash in on once the park becomes popular.

Disaster strikes before he can realize his dream, but in real life the T-shirt scene has many movie critics buzzing.

Was Mr. Spielberg delivering serious social commentary directed at a materialistic, entertainment-driven culture manipulated by advertising and clever commercial tie-ins? Or was he poking self-deprecating fun at his dual life as filmmaker/huckster?

Or was this something more cynical, the ultimate in advertising, showcasing the products for sale by disguising a blatant on-screen commercial as either social commentary or XTC good-natured self-criticism?

My suspicious mind opts for the darker view, considering the lengths to which the entertainment industry has gone to link movies with other pleasing aspects of life, such as eating and drinking and buying new clothes.

Match this tie-in instinct with Hollywood's master marketer, Steven Spielberg, and my scenario gains in plausibility.

If "Jurassic Park" be art, an arguable point, then it might as well imitate life in all its money-grubbing, profiteering, commercialistic, materialistic, amoralistic glory.

This is all to make a point about consumption -- our consumption, with all the $4 tubs of popcorn, $1.75 soft drinks, and $25 T-shirts that money can buy. It is about the lines in Washington and other cities that stretched for blocks, with people standing in 90-degree heat for hours waiting to see Hollywood's adventure hit.

This cannot be the same country that only a year or two ago was worried about the end of the Western world as we know it, about an endless recession with no job growth, and about debt so heavy that no one would ever spend again.

This cannot be the same country that some Republicans in Congress were talking about the other day. They were saying that Americans were overtaxed and overburdened by debt, and could not afford to pay a couple of hundred dollars more a year in taxes to deal with the deficit.

This cannot be the same country that President Clinton is talking about. In pushing mild austerity with a modest tax increase and spending cuts, Mr. Clinton said in a radio interview last Monday that "we have to give up a little something today to get more tomorrow."

But as "Jurassic Park" indicates, Americans are not in a giving vein, as Shakespeare's Richard III might put it. These are the same Americans who paid $100 million in two weekends to see one movie, who spent untold millions on gas, food, drink and parking related to their viewing, and who ogled with envy the promise of all those tie-in products.

This frustrates an eminent economist like Barry Bosworth of the Brookings Institution, who has spent much of his adult life lecturing and writing about the desperate need of Americans to save more of their income and to force their government into a saving vein by cutting the deficit, so that more money will be available to build the economy.

Watching the fuss over "Jurassic Park" gives him pause whether his message will ever be heeded. "This is a funny society," he said. "It reminds me of the futuristic literature I read as a youth, such as Orwell's '1984.' These powerful psychological messages affect people's habits. Virtual reality is on its way. Everything is becoming very artificial."

In this world, solid analysis all too often gives way to manipulation, enabling propagation of the pleasing message, false or no, and opposition to anything that smacks of economic pain.

Americans willing to blow $100 million in two weeks on a movie might logically have a hard time contending that they can't afford another 4 cents on their gasoline tax. As Mr. Bosworth says, 95 percent of the world would laugh at this American hypocrisy.

John Silvia, chief economist for Kemper Financial Services Inc. in Chicago, is circulating a chart showing that consumption (basically, consumer spending) has risen steadily as a share of ,, annual domestic economic output since the 1960s. In 1960, consumption accounted for 61 percent of the domestic economy. Now, it is 67 percent.

"If the trend is your friend, you must invest in the consumer," he said. "Yet rhetoric is such that Americans are told they must save, not spend. The greed of the 1980s has given way to the miserliness of the 1990s. Therefore, the upward trend of consumption must break down. Or will it?"

By raising the question, Mr. Silvia indicates he has doubts that Americans will listen to this austerity message delivered by President Clinton, Ross Perot, economists and many members of Congress. They are being pulled in an opposite direction by a culture that disposes them toward spending.

America's political class cannot compete with its commercial class. It will never be clever enough nor advanced enough. Only one thing might change it: If Mr. Clinton hired Steven Spielberg instead of David Gergen to sell his economic program.

"Jurassic Park, Part Deux" would have the president sending members of Congress who have resisted deficit reduction on a junket to Dr. Hammond's newly opened park, filled with a set of brand-new, cloned dinosaurs. Dinosaurs viewing dinosaurs.

To save themselves, the members of Congress would cut dinosaur taxes and rebuild the park at taxpayer expense, complete with all the amenities.

William R. Neikirk is a senior writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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