Profiting From Others’ Misfortune

I’m a big fan of capitalism.  it’s by far the best, fairest, most rational, most efficient economic system — in normal times.  But when disaster strikes, and the “Invisible Hand” and the law of supply and demand entice some businesses to engage in rampant price-gouging, it makes capitalism look bad.

price-gouging-2That’s what’s happening in Texas right now.  Hurricane Harvey has proven so devastating, and the likelihood of continuing devastation and economic disruption is so great, that supply and demand, which together are supposed to regulate pricing, are completely out of whack.  As a result, some people in Texas are charging the people trapped in the hurricane zone outrageous, grossly inflated prices — like $99 for a case of bottled water, gas for sale at $10 per gallon, which is about three times as much as it sold for prior to the hurricane, and marginal hotel rooms rented at Ritz-quality rates.

Texas, like other states, has laws against price-gouging in times of emergency or natural disaster, but it’s hard for the price police to keep up with the businessmen who see a catastrophe as a way to make an easy buck and pad their profits.  For every gouger who is caught, there undoubtedly are many others who make a lot of money selling at exorbitant prices to people who don’t know enough to raise an issue about it.  It’s an old, time-honored story, because price-gouging is as old as economic activity itself.

Natural disasters like hurricanes often bring out the best in people.  We’re seeing a lot of that in Texas, with people selflessly heading out to try to rescue those who are stranded, or opening their homes and their wallets to help those who have suffered terrible losses.  It just makes you sick to your stomach that, mixed in with the many Good Samaritans, are greedy people who take advantage of the unfortunate and put money ahead of simple human kindness and decency.  How do the gougers sleep at night, knowing that they are profiting from the misery of others?

Box Office Bombs

This summer of 2017 has been one of the worst ever for Hollywood.  According to the Hollywood Reporter, the number of tickets sold is likely to hit a 25-year low, and summer box-office revenue in America is down about 16 percent.  If it weren’t for international ticket sales, which increased slightly, the movie industry would be looking at a summer of complete, catastrophic, virtually across-the-board failure.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALESWhy did the summer of ’17 suck for Hollywood?  If you read the Hollywood Reporter story linked above, a theme quickly becomes apparent:  almost every would-be blockbuster seems to be a remake or the latest installment of a tired “franchise.”  Pirates of the Caribbean 5.  The latest Transformers CGI-fest.  The Mummy and Baywatch.  And some of the new efforts, like King Arthur:  Legend of the Sword, were colossal bombs.

It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that the film industry has run out of creative gas. When every big commercial film is a remake of a TV show, a comic book, or another remake, you’re not exactly giving moviegoers lots of new, interesting fare that might lure them to the box office.  You’re not finding the next Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind at your local theater.  Kish and I were totally unmotivated by this summer’s fare. Whenever we checked what was at the local megaplex our reaction was always . . . meh.  We were far more interested in what was playing at the local art film houses, or what was on Netflix.  The only big movie I saw this summer was The Dark Tower, which was an excuse for a bunch of guys to go have a beer and watch an action film.  I would never have gone to see it otherwise.

Will Hollywood learn a lesson from the dismal summer of ’17, and start looking for some new, fresh, original ideas for films that will get people out of their houses and off to the theater?  Maybe — but don’t count on it.  There were some franchise and remake successes this summer, with the new Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Despicable Me 3, and Wonder Woman films performing well.  Hollywood likes franchises and remakes because they seem safe and conservative, with built-in audiences and no need to come up with original story ideas, so Hollywood will probably point to the successes, disregard the duds, continue with remakes, and comic book stories, and “franchise” flicks.

And if that happens, the rest of us will continue to stay home.