Follow Friday – Reel History

Anything combining history and films is going to be a hit with me. Even given that I think that the Guardian’s reel history column is wonderful.

The historian Alex von Tunzelmann reviews films both for quality and historical accuracy, covering everything from biblical history to the origins of facebook. So if you want to know how realistic the chariot races in Ben Hur, what that elephant in Les Mis was about or quite how much tosh JFK is then this for you.

Tunzelmann even undertakes the unlikely task of assessing the accuracy of Iron Sky and X-Men: First Class

Joss Whedon co-wrote Toy Story

As Joss Whedon‘s latest TV series – Agents of Shield – is premiering in the UK this evening, it felt like time for fact about the God of the Nerds’ early career.

Long before the Avengers and shortly after writing the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon was a writer with Disney. He was seconded to a small studio named Pixar that was producing its first feature film. If they could pull it off it would be a ground breaking project: the first computer-animated feature film. However, Pixar was struggling to turn the concept into a script and had gone through numerous writers already. Whedon recalls his role thus:

they sent me the script and it was a shambles, but the story that Lasseter had come up with was, you know, the toys are alive and they conflict. The concept was gold. It was just right there. And that’s the dream job for a script doctor: a great structure with a script that doesn’t work. A script that’s pretty good? Where you can’t really figure out what’s wrong, because there’s something structural that’s hard to put your finger on? Death. But a good structure that just needs a new body on it is the best. So I was thrilled.

I went up to Pixar…and stayed there for weeks and wrote for, I think, four months before it got greenlit, and completely overhauled the script. There was some very basic things in there that stayed in there. The characters were pretty much in place except for the dinosaur, which was mine. I took out a lot of extraneous stuff, including the neighbor giving the kid a bad haircut before he leaves. There was a whole lot of extraneous stuff.

While by dint of his role as script doctor Whedon seems mostly to have been refining what was already there, he did bring in some innovations of his own. Notably, he devised my favourite character: Rex the ‘diffident dinosaur.’

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Some of his ideas might have lead to an even bigger changes had they been implemented. According David A. Price’s history of Pixar, Whedon:

…sought a pivotal role for Barbie. As Whedon pictured it, Woody and Buzz, seemingly doomed at Sid’s house, would be rescued by Barbie in a commando style raid. Her character was to be patterned after Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. (The concept of a two-fisted, derriere-kicking heroine, still a novelty at the time, had also featured in Whedon’s script for the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Whedon’s vision came to naught, however, when Mattel refused to license Barbie.

It is nonetheless striking how little interviews with and profiles of Whedon mention his work on Toy Story. This is in part because much of the rest of his work is so impressive. But Toy Story is a seminal film that had a huge cultural and commercial impact, and it is doubtful that without Whedon it would have worked. It would certainly have lacked much of its sparkling dialogue and of course Rex. It should still merit a mention when his career is discussed. That it doesn’t is I would suggest a product of our attraction to the idea of creative works as the product of a single great mind. Whedon said of his role “I definitely feel I played a part in “Toy Story,” a substantial one, but it is John Lasseter’s movie.” Because we struggle with the idea that films are team efforts, we tend to lionise a single creator for each work. So Lasseter is given sole credit for Toy Story, and indeed all the people other than Whedon who made the Avengers or Buffy a success are overlooked. I can’t be alone in finding that a shame.

Note on sources: The Quotes from Whedon are taken from this interview. Otherwise where I’ve not provided a link the source is David Price’s book.

Is a Large Finance Sector a “Curse”?

Over at Open Democracy, Nicholas Shaxson from the Tax Justice Network argues provocatively that:

Countries rich in minerals are often poverty-stricken, corrupt and violent. A relatively small rent-seeking elite captures vast wealth while the dominant sector crowds out the rest of the economy. The parallels with countries ‘blessed’ with large and powerful financial sectors are becoming too obvious to ignore.

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How do we explain this ‘curse?’ The explanations fall into three main categories. First is the so-called “Dutch Disease.” Large export revenues from oil, say, cause the real exchange rate to appreciate: that is, either the local currency gets stronger against other currencies, or local price levels rise, or both. Either way, this makes local manufactures or agriculture more expensive in foreign-currency terms, and so they lose competitiveness and wither. Much higher salaries in the dominant sector also suck the best skills and talent out of other sectors, out of government, and out of civil society, to the detriment of all. Overall, the booming natural resource sector ‘crowds out’ these other sectors, as happened when many oil producers saw devastating falls in agricultural output during the 1970s oil price booms.

Finance-dependent economies, it turns out, suffer a rather similar Dutch Disease-like phenomenon, as large financial services export revenues in places like the United Kingdom or the tax haven of Jersey raise the cost of housing, of hiring educated professionals, and the general cost of living. A Bank for International Settlements (BIS) study last year found that finance-dependent economies tend to grow more slowly over time than more balanced ones, and noted that, by way of partial explanation, ’finance literally bids rocket scientists away from the satellite industry’. My short Finance Curse e-book, co-authored with John Christensen, provides plenty of detail on this.

A second standard explanation for the Resource Curse is revenue volatility. Booms and busts in world commodity prices and revenues can destabilise the economies of countries that depend on them, further worsening the crowding-out of alternative sectors…Again, there are close parallels with the financial sector, a source of great volatility, as the latest global financial crisis shows. Britain’s industrial base, decimated by (among many other things) over-dependence on the financial sector, is proving slow to recover, post-boom.

The third category for explaining the Resource Curse – the biggest, most problematic, and the most complex – falls under the headline ‘governance’.

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When easy rents are available, rulers lose interest in the difficult challenges of state-building, or the need for a skilled, educated workforce, and instead spend their energies competing with each other for access to a slice of the mineral ‘cake’…[this]…can also lead to great corruption as each player or faction in a government knows that if it does not act fast to snaffle a particular mineral-sourced financial flow, another faction will. This is the recipe for an unseemly, corrupting scramble.

The financial sector…contains a multitude of potential sources of easy ‘rents’. A secrecy law, for instance, has long been a source of rents for Swiss bankers, who haven’t needed to do much else apart from watch the money roll in. More grandly, the network of British-linked secrecy jurisdictions scattered around the world, serving as ‘feeders’ for all kinds of questionable and dirty money into the City of London, is another big source of rents for the financial sector

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Another source of the trouble in resource-rich states is that when rulers have easy rents available, they don’t need their citizens so much to raise tax revenues. This top-down flow of money undermines the ‘no taxation without representation’ bargain that has underpinned the rise of modern, accountable states through the rise of a social contract based on bargaining around tax, and through the role that tax-gathering plays in stimulating the construction of effective state institutions. If the citizens complain, those resource rents pay for the armed force necessary to keep a lid on protests…we…see some surprisingly repressive responses to criticisms of the financial sector and the finance-dominated establishment, particularly in small tax havens like Jersey, as Mike Dun’s article in this edition – along with the main Finance Curse e-book and my book Treasure Islands – repeatedly illustrate.

All these processes – the economic crowding-out of alternative economic sectors such as agriculture or tourism, plus the ‘capture’ of rulers and government by the dominant mineral sector, who become apathetic to the challenges posed by trying to stimulate other sectors – add up to a mortal threat not just to democracy, but also to the long-term prospects for a vibrant economy.