42: Becker's Economics of Discrimination in a Movie
By David Henderson
Last week, my wife and I saw the movie, “42.” It’s about Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hiring Jackie Robinson to play baseball for him in the mid to late 1940s. I recommend the movie.
Besides being a good movie, it’s a beautiful illustration of what Gary Becker writes about in his seminal book, The Economics of Discrimination. My wife is not an economist, but she has lived with one for 31 years. About half an hour in to the movie, she said, “Wow. You would really have to be paying no attention to miss the message about how the profit motive undercuts [racial] discrimination.”
She’s right. SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD.
I say “slight” because I’m guessing that even people who have never seen the movie would not be surprised that Branch Rickey saw that a way to have his team do better was to use undervalued players that other teams were ignoring. A clearcut pool of undervalued players was black players.
A few times in the first half hour, Rickey explains one of his main motives. He wants to win and to make money doing so. If black players can help him do that, then great. At one point, it does come out that he feels an ethical obligation to tear down racial barriers and this is probably what gave him the courage to do so. So it was really a combination of ethics and profit-making.
It worked, by the way. During his time as general manager of the Dodgers while Robinson was there, the Dodgers won the National League pennant 2 out of 5 seasons.
Here’s a segment from the Wikipedia entry on Robinson that illustrates Becker’s point:
Some Dodger players insinuated they would sit out rather than play alongside Robinson. The brewing mutiny [among many of the players] ended when Dodgers management took a stand for Robinson. Manager Leo Durocher informed the team, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a f**kin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”
Incidentally, there’s a very similar scene in the movie.
One other aspect of the movie I liked, and it rang true, is how fellow players warmed up to Robinson and supported him when they came to see past his color. In a small way, this aspect of the movie reminded me of how Oskar Schindler, in Schindler’s List, warmed up to his Jewish employees after he came to see them as normal humans.
One thing I was left wondering about: how did Robinson’s pay compare to that of white players of similar caliber? I would expect it to have been somewhat lower. Why? Because it’s that differential in pay that motivates employers to hire members of the discriminated-against group in the first place.
A friend on Facebook writes, “Little known fact: Becker was an economic consultant for the movie. It’s right there in the credits, but you have to look closely.” He adds, “More and more, producers are going with economics consultants to make sure the movie plots are economically accurate.” To which I replied, “Interesting. Imagine what a different movie ‘The Fugitive’ would have been had they done that.”