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+8 votes
asked ago in General Economics Questions by (1.5k points)
I would like to compile a list of movies that have some economic issue as an important theme, handle it reasonably correctly, and convey useful insights especially for teaching. My own favorites include two old British comedies, "I'm All Right, Jack" (modern industrial work and labor-management relations) and "The Man In The White Suit" (technological progress, obsolescence and employment); I would like to hear others' selections with brief stories or explanations.
commented ago by (170 points)
For the financial crisis, "The Big Short".  Also, I used the opening monologue from "The Wolf of Wall Street" for a class, to demonstrate that maybe diminishing marginal utility of money is not always a given.  The Jordan Belfort character rants about how pissed he was that he only made $49 million the year he turned 26, $3 million shy of $ 1 million a week.  So maybe that three million would have added more to his utility than to mine.  Although, come to think of it, probably not...
commented ago by (1.5k points)
Thanks, John. The monologue can be a good starting point for multiple "teaching ideas" following up on your statement. You can distinguish between contexts in which non-diminishing utility of money may make cardinal sense (e.g. risk-taking  behavior) and where it makes ordinal sense as non-diminishing marginal rate of substitution between time and money (i.e. willingness to make more effort for that extra 3 million). And the question of interpersonal comparisons of utility brings in yet another dimension: if you had that 3 million, should you be willing to give it to Belfort?  :-)

9 Answers

0 votes
answered ago by (6.2k points)
There are some suggestions (which I can't vouch for) at Game theory in film,
commented ago by (1.5k points)
edited ago by
Thanks, Al. I've checked that out, but would like to get suggestions from a wider spectrum of economists. Also, I would like to hear about movies with broader economics themes, not just strategy or game theory, for example environmental, public policy and normative issues.  Would really love to have your personal picks. "Grapes of Wrath"? "You Can't Take It With You"? "The Informant"?  - Avi
commented ago by (680 points)
Golden Balls, the British TV show, is also great for teaching the Prisoner's Dilemma!
+1 vote
answered ago by (160 points)
There is a relatively new movie based on a Harlan Ellison short story(Repent, Harlequin) called "In Time".  The movie is about time being used instead of a fiat currency.  There is a lot of scarcity and opportunity cost examples.  It is fun and the students I share it with seem to enjoy it.
commented ago by (1.5k points)
Thank you, Mark. I did not know of this one. Will check it out. - Avi
commented ago by (150 points)
The film's core: "time is money". People who do not have time, live on slums running against time to save time. Paid through time, borrow through time, steal and kill for time. People who have loads of time can live longer, longer than 100 years. Interesting move.
+1 vote
answered ago by (970 points)
I've found the movie version of "Too Big to Fail" to be nice for Money & Banking.  It has an impressive cast, including Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke.
commented ago by (1.5k points)
Thanks, Bill. I did not know this one, and will check it out. Is it better than "Inside Job," which also had an impressive cast, with many of our friends appearing as themselves  :-)  ?
commented ago by (970 points)
Its been a long time since I saw "Inside Job", so my memory of it is a bit vague, but I don't remember liking it as much.   The "Too Big to Fail" movie is a dramatization rather than a documentary.  It is largely focused on Hank Paulson, and I think it could be criticized for not being critical enough of him and other policymakers, but overall I felt it was well done.
+1 vote
answered ago by (380 points)
For the financial crisis, I like "Inside Job" and, from a fiction perspective, "Margin Call".  Really, if you haven't seen "Margin Call", you need to.  The final speech by Jeremy Irons is priceless.

On a completely different note, check out "Hudsucker Proxy" by the Coens.  The segment on the pricing of the hula hoop is classic.

Finally, for something rather out there, "The Return of Martin Guerre" has more economics (transition to capitalism) than most people initially notice.  You can think about it as "how a landless peasant acquires land in a society with no market it in -- where land is allocated through kinship".  (Become a kin.)
commented ago by (1.5k points)
Many thanks, Peter. I had seen  these but had not recognized the economic aspects of Martin Guerre. Will try to watch it again. BTW on the issue of pricing, the scene about bargaining in "Life of Brian" is also brilliant.
+1 vote
answered ago by (440 points)
In Merchant of Venice (which has been filmed several times);

Antonio “My ventures are not in one bottom trusted / Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate / Upon the fortune of this present year: / Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.”

by the way, Man in a White Suit comes to the London stage soon.
commented ago by (1.5k points)
Thank you. And the play has more interesting economics and law than simply diversification - contracts, credibility, ...

 I saw the stage revival announcement. Brave actors, trying to follow Alec Guinness and Joan Greenwood. But will catch that if I am in London this Fall.
+1 vote
answered ago by (150 points)
commented ago by (1.5k points)
Thanks. Come to think of it, "You've Got Mail" has a related theme mixed with the romantic comedy that is its main theme.
commented ago by (140 points)
Enthusiastically seconded.
0 votes
answered ago by (1.1k points)
Two recent movies that received critical-acclaim and dealt with important economic issues are "I, Daniel Blake" and "Sorry to Bother You".

"I, Daniel Blake" is a British movie which depicts the terrible consequences of austerity and welfare cuts.  Although at times a bit didactic, it is a moving account of the adverse impact of austerity. It does a good job of capturing structural problems inherent in the economy. There is a scene where there is workshop on CV writing and how to set yourself apart from other job applicants, and the instructor tells them "For every barista opening at Costa, there are 15 applicants" and the lead character, Daniel Blake, says "So if there aren't enough jobs, then what's even the point of this" (am paraphrasing, don't remember the exact dialogue). It can also be used to talk about the unintended effects of government policies. To become eligible for a certain benefit, Daniel needs to apply to at least five jobs, and credibly show he put an effort into it. But his doctor has told him that he is physically unfit to work. He goes about handing out CVs and going to interviews, only to have to turn them down, wasting everyone's time in the process.

"Sorry to Bother You" is an American dark-comedy and one of the few films that tackle organizing and unionizing in the workplace. It does a good job of presenting the prisoner's dilemma. If the workers unite, they can get a good deal from management, but the workers can be tempted to defect by bosses (a combination of coercion and rewards). The trailer does not do justice to how amazing this movie really is.
commented ago by (1.5k points)
Thank you, 6n7g8i! I did not know either of these.
+2 votes
answered ago by (280 points)
Mary Poppins - the bank run scene (when they boy asks for his money back, causing a bank run, and his father getting fired).
commented ago by (1.5k points)
edited ago by
Thank you, Tomas. Yes, that is one of my favorite scenes, and I use it regularly for teaching, and for illustrating game theory to general audiences. Others: (1) The battle of wits (which cup has the poison?) from The Princess Bride, for illustrating both mixed strategy and unawareness, (2) the barroom scene from A Beautiful Mind to get across the idea of Nash equilibrium (which the movie gets wrong), (3) the "variable threat bargaining" scene in Ransom, where Mel Gibson changes the "threat point" and turns the table on his son's kidnappers by offering the amount of ransom they are demanding as a bounty on their head instead, and of course (4) the three-person duel from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But beyond single scenes, I also want to know about movies where strategy is an essential aspect or theme for the whole movie. The best exemplar is probably Dr. Strangelove. So do keep thinking and producing more suggestions.
+1 vote
answered ago by (2k points)
Wall Street is good because a big idea is Efficient Markets (weak--- you can make money off of private info, but nothing else). Korean dramas are worth checking out too. I really believe that someone with econ PhD training helped with the writing of The Great Queen Seondook.  There's market cornering and tradeoffs of one life vs. a village and other stuff like that. I'm now watching the Chinese drama Nothing Gold Can Stay, which is about a merchant family's deals, with political pull and corruption, entry by new competitors, joint stock companies, search for new markets, product quality,  management conflicts, risk taking, and new technology (western cotton looms, 1880s) as themes.