The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Informant! (2009)

Steven Soderberg's new Matt Damon film is just brilliant, and frightening, and frighteningly funny. The story of a shlub (Matt Damon, channeling William H Macy) who becomes an FBI whistle-blower over price fixing in the corn industry. It is far, far funnier than it sounds, but also a direct education on the methods of collusion between supposedly competing businesses. The "Free Market" idea only achieves positive results for consumers if the different gas companies (for instance) are all trying to cut each other's throats. This drives competition and produces better products and savings for consumers.

But...what if the leaders of businesses actually act like human beings, and not mindless warring automatons? In other words...what if they want peace? What if their children go to the same schools, and they play on the same golf courses, and are on the boards of the same charities? They might begin to refrain from a volatile, dog-eat-dog zero-sum game...and begin to realize that they can ALL prosper, if they control the amounts of gas produced, and the prices demanded at the pump. Then, of course, the consumer is screwed. Unless the only power capable of pushing back against such giants is allowed to play, too...the government. So it should be fairly obvious whose interests it might protect to keep government away from regulation: sure as hell not the consumer.

"The Informant", applied to the Insurance industry's rates and practices, is frightening if you ask yourself what calculations about human frailty would have to be made to increase profit. The exact same game ends up costing lives, not just increasing the price of orange juice a nickle or so. As corporations grow more powerful, they will get even better at manipulating people into believing that they are more on the "side" of individuals than the government of a representative democracy. Oh, yeah, I laughed, but it is really disturbing to me that so many people buy their reasoning. An "A", and a shot across the bow of Oscar season for best Actor, Screenplay, and maybe Direction.


"Both Poverty and Riches are the Offspring of Thought"--Napoleon Hill.

I'm about 1/4 of the way back through "Think And Grow Rich" and again, Hill has restated his basic proposition in another way. He never directly states the "secret" in the book, and most reviewers agree that that "secret" is something to the effect of "We become what we think about."

Yeah, well, assuming that you also make detailed plans, align your unconscious mind, find the right role models, create an accurate reality map, and so forth. But the core remains. In Hawaiian Huna magic the same principle is phrased: "Where attention flows, energy goes, and results show." In general, I believe this to be true, and have lived my life this way.

I've certainly known people who claimed to have goals, and said that despite years of effort, they hadn't achieved much. Here's what I'm saying: if you have a definite chief end, it is easier to move in that direction, much like if you know where you are going on vacation, you are more likely to get there. That doesn't mean that cars don't break down along the way, people don't run out of gas or money, or don't get lost. It means that if you start with the end in mind, you can have greater confidence in reaching a destination pleasing to you.

Of course, there is another type of person (or life) which is basically drifting on the tide. And I know some folks who have arranged stellar lives this way. But frankly, most of the people I've known who have lived lives pleasing to them without particular focus have been BRILLIANT. In other words, they could afford to lack focus because of utterly superior problem-solving and improvisation capacity. Most who have drifted do NOT end up in safe harbor. Frankly, I would never suggest such a path to a child of mine unless I had one hell of a safety net to offer, and those who choose that path...well, they are exceptional, and I wish them well, but Wow, are they ever taking chances.

Of course, most of those who "drifted" or "zenned" their way through didn't really do that. They didn't drift their way through school. They were focused enough to get in, attended their classes, took their tests after studying for them. In other words, they were focussed to a point...and after that point had earned their right to chill out. I guess I've done that to a degree. No year of my life has ever really predicted what the next year would look like. But God help me if I hadn't been focused enough to continue refining my skills, making contacts, trying to learn by previous mistakes. Most of the writers I've known without comparable focus drop out of the field after an initial blaze of glory. I guess I kind of believed the attitude that one should "burn one's bridges" and charge forward in life. There are definitely other, and perhaps saner approaches. But that's been mine.

What would I suggest to my kids? Have an educational safety net, and then move craftily toward your goal, stalking it with every arrow in an ever-growing quiver. Not the most courageous path...but I guess I've seen too many broken bodies along the way, and love my kids too much to want to see their sprawled at the side of life's road like shattered marionettes.


Anonymous said...

The real-life instance of industry collusion that I'm most familiar with is the airline industry. Until Jimmy Carter deregulated airlines in the late 1970s, airline fares were pretty much the way you describe: the airlines all charged the same (high) rates, they all lived comfortably in unison with no real competition on price, and that was that.

What ended that and made competition possible was deregulation: ending the Civilian Air Board rules that had made it against the law for some airline like Southwest or JetBlue to offer drastically lower fares on the same route as the main carriers. Until that happened, government wasn't the protector of the consumer -- it was the legal enforcer that made the airline companies' cartel possible.

As a general rule, if you want to make sure that those big corporations run everything forever, you should by all means favor endless top-down regulation of private industry by the government. A big, established corporation can afford the vast staffs of Manhattan attorneys required to conform with such regulations. Startup companies being founded in their owners' garages just can't. That's why, while Sarbanes-Oxley hasn't totally destroyed start-ups in Silicon Valley, it has destroyed the IPO market for them, and thus made it far harder for startups to remain as growing independent companies rather than cash in by selling themselves to a larger existing corporation.

--Erich Schwarz

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

They were focused enough to get in, attended their classes, took their tests after studying for them. In other words, they were focussed to a point

I think that a lot of what you do to succeed, for whatever you're successful at, feels like just drifting, in a certain way. For instance, I got into Stanford, sure, in part because I attended my classes, did all my reading and homework and studied for all my tests (not that everyone who does that gets to exactly the same place), but my parents had convinced me to see those things as pretty much the taken for granted default. Similarly, a lot of what I do at work is pretty much second nature to me at this point. When you're doing those things that are part of your taken for granted set of behaviors, it may feel like just coasting (and maybe it even is, in the sense that, if you tried, you could push beyond that to the next level). I suspect most "Zen" success is like that.

quentin vaughan said...

I accept my life and I move forward owning my regrets, but DANG...I wish you were my big brother when I was younger!:-) It's never to late I suppose, yet I'm just sayin.

Robin James Burchett said...

...they could afford to lack focus because of utterly superior problem-solving and improvisation capacity.

Ha! – You’ve just summed up my entire 20’s!

miyaz said...

Comedy at its best on this movie The Informant! (2009) and wow we did had a nice time over this movie. Such hilarious drama it was for sure and most of the movie fans did like to see the bold jokes of Matt on this movie. Wonderful movie I saw in recent and the true facts behind the multi companies does impressed lot to see this movie.