'Catching Fire' in the Coming Century: Will We Heed Its Pointed Warning?
And as with its predecessor film from last year, The Hunger Games, this new film is a big hit. As a commentary on Obama’s America, that’s all the more revealing since movie audiences tilt young. In fact, Americans aged 12-24 represent only 10 percent of the US population, although they account for nearly a third of US moviegoers. So it’s the young—supposedly a cohort of Obama loyalists—who are bulking up the audiences for this PG-rated film.
Yet it must be observed that the source material precedes Obama; the first novel, The Hunger Games, appeared in 2008. Indeed, author Suzanne Collins has said that George W. Bush’s Iraq War was a major inspiration for the whole Hunger Games trilogy.
In other words, if American presidents, and their policies, are to be given “credit” for Collins’ dystopian fantasies, the credit must then be apportioned between the two parties.
The film is, indeed, a fantasy of a post-apocalyptic American future. The specifics of the apocalypse are left unstated, at least in the movies, but the results are clear enough: the vast bulk of the American population—living in what’s now called “Panem”—is both impoverished and oppressed by a totalitarian government.
Meanwhile, within the pleasure dome of powertown, those in “The Capital” are flourishing. The exact nature of the country’s political economy is unclear, but the decadence of the elite population—with considerable fashion flair—is on full display.
Meanwhile, the ruling class has developed the Hunger Games—a kind of televised gladiatorial combat to the death—both to amuse the rulers and simultaneously bamboozle and terrorize the ruled. After the bow-and-arrow-wielding heroine, Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, emerges as a winner/survivor of the Hunger Games, she is put on a victory/publicity tour around Panem. As one adviser tells her, “From now on, your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.”
So yes, the film is all fantasy, but it draws much of its strength from its shrewd projection of current trends; the gladiator combat is a kind of accelerated rendering of the TV show Survivor, the video game Grand Theft Auto, and the sport of Ultimate Fighting. Meanwhile, ubiquitous cameras and big data allow every aspect of the Hunger Games not only to be observed but, to a large extent, to be manipulated. Once again, we can squint at today’s videogames and see a cruel future in which gamers play out life-and-death scenarios with real people.
In addition, the emcee of the Hunger Games, a character with the delicious name of Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci, seems to be a metastatic projection of today’s happy-talking hosts. Flickerman has a showman’s gift-of-gab spiel; he displays an unflagging ability to stay on message, no matter what the guest says. Thus when various Hunger Games contestants go “off message,” protesting the barbarity of the games on live TV, Flickerman just smiles even wider, offers a little quip, revs up the bloodthirsty crowd, gets a cheer, and keeps the show moving. It’s a skill that many of today’s talking heads would admire.
Yet at the same time, Catching Fire owes much to earlier movies. The 1976 film Logan’s Run, for example, is about the sacrifice of youth, and the 1987 movie The Running Man also features a despotic government that turns stylized eliminationist violence into a TV spectacle. And the 1998 movie The Truman Show imagines what life is like when every granular aspect is televised. Finally, for extra dystopic oomph, Catching Fire draws heavily on the sort of iconography seen in Nazi propaganda, most notably Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
Okay, so that’s the film’s grim scenario. And audiences are responding to it.
So let’s suppose that we take the film seriously enough to want to do something to stave off such bleak and brutal future. Specifically, if these foreboding trend lines are emerging in the age of Obama, is it sufficient simply to undo the works of the 44th President?
Undoing Obama, Obamacare, etc. would certainly count as progress, but it’s doubtful that the long-term negative trends foreseen in the movie would be reversed as a result.
Income inequality, for example, has been increasing since the late 1970s. Meanwhile, the poor aren’t getting poorer. They have held steady for the last half century; welfare spending has seen to that. Instead, it’s the middle class that’s been hit hard. In particular, the gap between growth in productivity and wages in America has grown wide; wage workers are capturing a significantly smaller share of national output. We might take a look at these statistics from the AFL-CIO on the widening skew of wages, productivity, and profits and decide which, if any, are incorrect.
If these union data are incorrect, then maybe there’s not so much to worry about—although the perceived hollowing out of the middle class could help explain why the country has been voting Democratic at the national level of late. The Democrats have won the popular vote for president in five of the last six elections.
Meanwhile, if the data are correct, and if these trends continue, then it’s possible to see the tendencies of violent entertainment and staggering inequality vectoring into some sort of horrific Hunger Games-esque scenario in the future.
To be sure, it’s perfectly possible to blame the government for many of these dire trends. For decades, US corporations have been overtaxed—the US has the highest corporate income tax in the industrialized world—over-regulated, and over-litigated. Perhaps, after decades of adversarial government policies, many corporations have simply said, “Enough! We’re moving our production to low-wage China and our corporate headquarters to low-tax Ireland.”
In any case, the economic power-shift is evident: the US has gone from producing more than three-fourths of the world’s cars in 1950 to less than an eighth of the world’s cars in 2012. By contrast, Japan and China, which produced virtually zero cars in 1950, account today for more than a third of global production, outproducing the US by a factor of three to one. In addition, Brazil, India, Mexico, and South Korea—which also produced virtually zero cars in 1950—are together producing more than the US.
It’s a simple reality that the US economy is changing in ways that seem to be hurting the middle of our society. Indeed, our once huge and prosperous middle class seems to be an artifact of the 20th century, when the US was one of just a few manufacturing powers. And don’t let anyone kid you: wealth comes from a finite number of ways. To be rich, a nation must manufacture things, grow things, or mine things; other kinds of “wealth creation” are mostly illusions. For instance, we have learned that “financial innovation” as a source of wealth for the nation is dubious. Yes, such “innovation” seems to be good news for financiers—but for anyone else? That’s arguable.
Yet for decades American policy has privileged financialism, even as it has regarded physical production with disdain. And what the environmentalists and NIMBYs haven’t chased offshore, the taxers and trial lawyers have done their best to finish off.
Ah, one might say, what about computers and everything else digital? Won’t cyber-technology keep America prosperous, even if everything else is shut down or offshored?
Perhaps, but the economic implications of digitalization seem to be mixed, good and bad.
Two years ago, Marc Andreesen—the creator of Mosaic, the first web browser, who later turned into a big-time venture capitalist—wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal provocatively titled “Why Software is Eating the World." Andreesen argued that in a host of areas, from movies to music to books, software is changing everything. He further observes that the trend is visible even in industries which are “widely viewed as primarily existing in the physical world.” As he says of automobiles:
In today's cars, software runs the engines, controls safety features, entertains passengers, guides drivers to destinations and connects each car to mobile, satellite and GPS networks. The days when a car aficionado could repair his or her own car are long past, due primarily to the high software content. The trend toward hybrid and electric vehicles will only accelerate the software shift—electric cars are completely computer controlled. And the creation of software-powered driverless cars is already under way at Google and the major car companies.
This is all pretty cool, and it’s great news for software engineers—but not for other kinds of engineers and producers; as we have seen, the US long ago lost its dominance in auto production. In other words, digitalization seems to be a kind of wealth transfer from the traditional bastions of metal-bending to the new citadels of e-commerce. Indeed, Silicon Valley’s moguls are typically supportive of efforts to “green” America—that is, to de-industrialize the nation.
And what happens to the redundant US population? Well, the techsters, being good liberals that they are, would support endless welfare payments to keep the population in adequate custody. The Roman phrase for this pacification technique was panem et circenses—bread and circuses. So yes, Hunger Games author Collins knew what she was talking about when she called her new nation, “Panem.”
Moreover, a problem for the American workforce is that it doesn’t take many workers to make software. As Joel Kotkin reported recently in Forbes, Silicon Valley employs fewer tech workers today than in 2000. Of course, as Victor Davis Hanson has noted in National Review, employment in the Valley has risen—in the low-wage service economy. All those billionaires can afford to hire lots of domestic servants—who, of course, don’t get paid much.
Indeed, the overall phenomenon of open-borders multiculturalism is changing America. California, for example, is now 40 percent Hispanic—up from just six percent in 1940. There’s nothing wrong with new blood, but there is something wrong with depressed wages; farm workers make less today than they did decades ago. And it’s not just in agricultural work that wages have been whittled down; if the supply of labor exceeds the supply of jobs, then job incomes must fall.
Indeed, Silicon Valley moguls, led by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, are actively encouraging more immigration; Zuckerberg calls it “One of the biggest civil rights issues of our time.” Thus Zuckerberg not only gets credit for being “progressive,” but he also can look forward, if he wins, to plenty of cheap labor for a long time to come.
In addition, the politics of California have changed. The Golden State voted Republican in seven of ten presidential elections from 1952 to 1988; it has gone Democratic in all six of the last presidential elections, 1992 to 2012.
Yet as we have seen in the Obama era—a horrible new aspect of which is the “knockout game”—the rise of liberalism does not make for social peace in our diverse society.
Finally, as another “Hungering” trend, there’s the nature of digitalization itself. For a while, it seemed as though the Internet was almost an unalloyed good. Communications became cheap, information became abundant, if not free, and everything became more efficient. Yes, there were economic dislocations, but the benefits—including an ever-rising stock market—seemed greater.
Then we woke up. Now we see that both the tech companies and the government are spying on us, sometimes separately but, more often, in tandem. How do we feel now about Google? Or the National Security Agency? Or the IRS, the Justice Department, or whoever will be enforcing the Obamacare rules? Digital is double-edged, that’s for sure. Nobody can think that we can reverse the Internet, but something is going to have to be done to make sure that its benefits are spread widely throughout the country—not just concentrated in the Bay Area.
And oh, by the way, do we think that Republicans, were they to take power in the near future, will reverse these digital encroachments? Yes, the GOP might well undo Obamacare, but which top Republican, other than Sen. Rand Paul, has talked seriously about peeling back the combined power of Silicon Valley and Washington, DC?
So if we extrapolate these economic, demographic, and technological trends forward, do we get the Hunger Games? Who knows, but what we get won’t be good.
What’s to be done? How do we defend ourselves as Americans while preserving the benefits of progress? That’s the mega-question of the century. Because we do know this much: we’ve been warned. And not just by Catching Fire.