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"Boiler Room" Boilerplate

Does it matter that Hollywood always vilifies businessmen?

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Boiler Room, the recent and highly entertaining film about rogue stockbrokers who foist junk investments on unwitting and malleable investors, strives mightily to be more than a mere diversion. It aspires to social commentary, to make us face uncomfortable truths about our oh-so-depraved world. "I wanted this movie to be an exposé," the film's 27-year-old writer-director Ben Younger told the Chicago Tribune. "Here's what's going on, people, wake up!" The movie's protagonist, a novice seduced by the affluence and power that accrues to his successful colleagues, calls selling stocks "the white-boy way of slinging crack rock." Another character, a brokerage-house recruiter played by Ben Affleck, smugly proclaims, "Anyone who tells you that money is the root of evil doesn't fucking have any."

Much of the press surrounding Boiler Room stresses the film's verisimilitude, its willingness to represent the sleazy details of, as a New York Times critic put it, "the hard-sell ethos of buying and selling, lying and cheating." Many of the movie's reviews note that Younger himself was once recruited by a "boiler room" stock-selling operation and that he spent a long time interviewing brokers at those disreputable firms that hawk shares in unlisted or phony companies (such outfits are estimated to make up about 1 percent of all brokerage firms).

Commenting on the feedback he's gotten since the movie's release, Younger told The New York Post, "I thought I was just depicting [shady brokerage houses], not all of Wall Street. But now I know that there's 50,000 people out there who think this movie is all about them, and the reason is all these firms are completely the same." The March issue of Details, the trendy men's magazine, features an article titled "Inside the Boiler Room" that asks the question, "Is Hollywood's shocking new Wall Street exposé on the mark?" The answer: "We got some inside information that says, `Be afraid.'"

But Boiler Room raises other questions, as well, ones that are more difficult to answer in any sort of pat or moralistic way: Does it matter that most depictions of capitalism and business in popular culture are relentlessly negative? Should we be concerned that, as the Times review quoted above suggests, "buying and selling" and "lying and cheating" are often seen as kissing cousins, if not actually married?

Ironically, the pretext for such a dis-cussion is the enormous wealth thrown off by capitalism; movies such as Boiler Room are, after all, essentially luxury items. As the economist Joseph Schumpeter noted more than 50 years ago, capitalism–defined by him simply as a system in which people are relatively free to own and trade property–results in a generally wide distribution of more and cheaper goods throughout society. "Queen Elizabeth [I] owned silk stockings," he wrote in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942). "The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort."

In contemporary America, Schumpeter's insight is verified by any number of contemporary indicators: home, car, and stock ownership rates, income mobility, the percentage of high school students who go on to college, the number of household appliances, and retirement incomes. All of these had been increasing steadily before Schumpeter wrote Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy and all have continued to grow since.

To the list of indicators we might add products such as Boiler Room. It's worth underscoring that the movie breaks no ground in fingering capitalism as both corrupt and corrupting. It's simply the latest example of what might be called the "salesman as scumbag" genre. The movie openly references two relatively recent, highly acclaimed works that trod similar ground in similarly heavy boots: David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (which won a Pulitzer Prize for drama during the greed-is-good '80s and was made into a movie in 1992) and Oliver Stone's film Wall Street (1987). Mamet and Stone themselves drew on a tradition perhaps best represented in the post-war era by Arthur Miller's heavy-handed and dramatically incoherent Death of a Salesman (1949), which unmasks its title character as a "phony little fake" even as it seeks to elevate him to tragic stature.

In Prime Time: How TV Portrays American Culture (1994), Robert S. Lichter, Linda Lichter, and Stanley Rothman comprehensively surveyed TV shows from the '50s through the early '90s and document what anyone who has ever sat through Act V of a Quinn-Martin production already knows: "Business characters were twice as likely to be bad guys and three times as likely to commit crimes as were characters in other occupations. …[They] were also at their worst when they were shown actually engaging in business, rather than purely personal pursuits. …Most of their criminal conduct was directly related to their business activities." (That showbiz–an industry hardly renowned for its humane treatment of people–sees fit to time and again castigate the business world for callous heartlessness is itself an irony worth savoring.)

So, do such depictions matter? Do they weaken support for the very system which finances them? The authors of Prime Time believe they might, though in a surprising way. They cite anecdotal analysis which suggests that the message viewers take away from such fare is not that capitalism is evil per se, but that a person needs to be devious and unprincipled to be successful. "Do the ends justify the means?…Yes, say students who watch television regularly," concluded one commentator. "Television makes people want to be business people, but it also tells them that to be a business executive you have to be an unscrupulous creep," wrote journalist cum game show host Ben Stein in the late '80s. "The mores you see now…are the mores of Dallas and Dynasty. It's not just coincidence."

To their credit, the Prime Time authors stress that such a hypothesis is as "unproven" as it is "provocative." In fact, there is no reason to believe that the overall rate of fraud and deception was somehow on the rise in the '80s, or that it has proceeded apace since then.

Certainly cons and scams exist, but if anything, transactions seem to be getting increasingly transparent as the amount of information available to consumers grows. In a world in which potential customers can easily get multiple prices for the same product or service via the Internet and other sources, sellers of all sorts need to come in early with their best offer and to stand by it. Reputation–probably the single most powerful hedge against cheating–has perhaps never been as important as it is now.

In a more persuasive moment, the Prime Time authors suggest that television, "the onetime servant of the status quo… now fosters populist suspicions of traditional mores and institutions. A medium that originally helped legitimize authority today tries to demystify it." This strikes me as obviously true not simply of the small screen, but of movies and popular culture in general. Authority–whether personified in a politician, a minister, a doctor, a teacher, a newscaster, etc.–rarely goes unquestioned these days.

Such ubiquitous–and glorious–antinomianism is in many ways at the heart of a healthy commercial society. It fits squarely with Schumpeter's concept of "creative destruction," which he regarded as the "essential fact about capitalism." Where social critics traditionally focus on "how capitalism administers existing structures," wrote Schumpeter, they would do better to focus on "how it creates and destroys them" and how it is constantly creating new goods, "new methods of production or transportation,…new markets, [and]…new forms of industrial organization." Implicit in such a tumultuous world of ongoing "mutation" is the need for individuals to constantly verify information and renegotiate their economic and cultural positions.

In this context, films such as Boiler Room don't undermine or challenge capitalism as much as they further it. Indeed, by foregrounding–or even by absurdly exaggerating–the duplicity possible in a market system, they may well help it to function more efficiently.