Most Economically Literate Movie of the Year
By Bryan Caplan
This is the season for giving movies their just deserts, but as far as I know there isn’t a prize for Most Economically Literate Movie. Until now. The First Annual Prize in this category goes too…
Inspired by the “magic realism” common in Latin American literature, A Day Without a Mexican is a modern fable in which all of the Hispanics in California vanish overnight. (Why not call it A Day Without an Hispanic? One of the film’s recurring jokes is that Californians think that Mexico is the only country south of the border).
Much of the story traces the effects on California’s economy. Agriculture, construction, personal services, restaurants, and more fall to pieces. Families even find their beloved nannies are missing.
The great 19th-century economist Frederic Bastiat taught economics largely through this sort of thought experiment. What would happen to the economy if we blotted out the sun? Candle-makers would hail the higher demand for artificial lights, but Bastiat objects that this makes society poorer by frittering away valuable resources to make what nature gives us for free.
A Day Without a Mexican makes the same point. Without Latin American residents – legal or not – a few special interests benefit, but society loses. Californian agriculture might implode. But even if it attracted replacement workers with higher wages, society would have to give up whatever those replacement workers used to produce. It is far better for everyone to focus on their comparative advantage: for the Ph.D. in computer science to hire a less educated but perfectly competent nanny from Guatemala to watch her kids so she can return to work.
Another theme straight out of Bastiat is the paradox that economically efficient policies are unpopular. For many of the Anglos in this movie, believing is seeing. They are so convinced that foreigners are destroying their economy that they dance in the streets to celebrate their absence – even though they now have to subsist on expired canned goods. Just as one of my favorite papers predicts!
Opponents of immigration will no doubt find this one-sided. But not all of the effects of the sudden Mexican absence are negative: Congestion is way down, for starters. Furthermore, many of the benefits of immigration are hard to dramatize. The movie doesn’t even mention the fact that immigrants are already mitigating the impending fiscal crises of Social Security and Medicare.
Under Academy rules, only “peers” get to vote – actors vote for best actor, directors for best director. I don’t expect the Academy to add an economic literacy category anytime soon. But if it did, I guess only economists would get to vote. And that’s good news – I already know one other economist agrees with my nomination.