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The Viking Child and I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this afternoon. I’ve liked Tim Burton for a long time, and this film is one of his best. Johnny Depp is certainly one of the most interesting, and most talented, actors of his generation. A Dahl purist might object to the invented backstory of Willy’s disturbed childhood as the son of Saruman the Dentist; it didn’t bother me, it was sufficiently Dahlian to fit, and it helped flesh out the persona of a man who looks like Anna Wintour on purpose.
But if I want to blog about a movie two weeks in the theaters already, I have to have some oddball schtick and here it is: Willy Wonka as a primer on economics.
When we first meet the Bucket family, they are mired in comically desparate penury: one breadwinner, five dependents, and cabbage soup every night. Mr. Bucket is an honest and industrious man, but he can’t earn much, because he puts caps on toothpaste tubes by hand. Since an employer can’t afford to pay him more than the value he adds to the product at the margin, he makes a peasant’s wage and eats a peasant’s diet.
There’s a massive, modern, efficient factory right next to the Bucket house – the Wonka works – but there are no employment opportunities there. Grandpa Joe once worked for Mr. Wonka, but that all ended with a rash of industrial espionage. Some of the Wonka workforce were bribed to steal secret recipes for his competitors, and in response Wonka fired everyone and closed the factory. Wonka’s competitive advantage at candymaking is his fertile creativity; if his intellectual property rights can’t be defended, he can’t afford to keep inventing things. And although this was bad for Wonka, it was worse for Grandpa Joe. Wonka eventually found an alternative source of labor that wasn’t so untrustworthy. Grandpa had to go lie in bed with three other old people and eat cabbage soup every day.
Keep that in mind the next time you feel like bashing Big Pharma when they defend their drug patents.
Although things are bad for the Buckets at the beginning of the film, they get worse. Mr. Bucket loses his job at the toothpaste factory, when the demand curve for toothpaste shifts east in response to an exogenous demand increase for candy caused by the Wonka Golden Ticket craze (since of course toothpaste and candy are complementary goods). You might think that what’s good for toothpaste is good for the Buckets, but paradoxically the firm’s increased revenues give them the cash position to enter the capital market and purchase a machine that screws caps on toothpaste tubes and makes Mr. Bucket redundant.
Then Charlie finds a 10 pound note (or maybe it was a 10 euro note, or some made up currency. Ten somethings, though) half buried in the snow, takes possession of it, buys a Wonka bar and gets the last Golden Ticket. You might cavil that Charlie should have taken the note to the police and reported it as lost. I say he mixed his labor with an abandoned physical good, all according to John Locke, and it became rightfully his.
Most of the time spent in the Chocolate Factory is microeconomics free, but afterwards the Bucket fortunes improve when the toothpaste makers hire Mr. Bucket back at a significant wage increase to fix the machine that screws the caps on the tubes. This illustrates that Mr. Bucket’s previous poverty was in part due to insufficient capital to mix with his labor. While in the short run the capital purchase seemed bad for Mr. Bucket, in the end it’s once again shown that workers are more productive and better compensated when they have more capital to work with.
Next week: Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption and The Bad News Bears