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Economics for the Kiddies

The past two weekends, we watched films of the New York International Children’s Film Festival. We may not have kids, but I loves me my animated shorts, and the NYICFF is home to some of the best. Some of the titles aren’t really for children, but are adult films with elements that kids can appreciate. Not surprisingly, these are generally my favorites. Two, particularly, were comments on the culture of greed that’s been setting the agenda for the past generation, and both were terrific.

The live-action Cannes winner “Next Floor” depicts an obscene banquet, the diners gorging themselves as quickly as the wait staff can serve it up, until, foreshadowed by an ominous creaking, the party—diners, table, and all—plunges through the floor with a crash. The head waiter presses an intercom button and announces, “Next floor down.” The staff rushes downstairs, brushes the plaster from the diners, and the banquet continues, albeit in less luxurious accommodations. The process repeats, with the dishes growing increasingly grotesque, the setting increasingly squalid, and the waiters increasingly nervous, until it begins hanging back from the table entirely. Even the diners begin to realize something is truly wrong, but, after a long, uncomfortable pause…begin feasting again, turning to steal food from one another’s plates as greedily as they once accepted food from the serving platters, until finally the table enters freefall, a diminishing series of crashes announcing each floor they pass.

The animated “Runaway” comes from Oscar-winning Richard Condie (“The Cat Came Back”) and depicts a train that runs out of control when the engineer leaves his post, distracted by a young lady, leaving the hapless coalman alone in the engine. Unsure what else to do, the coalman simply dumps coal faster into the furnace, hoping simply to power past the obstacles. (Conservative tax policy, anyone?). At last his supply is exhausted just as the train reaches a slope that threatens to dump it back into a gorge, the trestle bridge smashed as the train roared past. Even the passengers begin to sense something is wrong: the top-hat and tails party in the forward car and the banjo-playing yokels in the rear. With great ceremony, one of the aristocrats strides to the rear car, snatches one of the yokels’ hat, and tosses it into the furnace, eliciting a singlepuff from the engine. Enormously proud of himself, he returns to the rear car for more fuel to find the commoners now nervous—until a few bills persuade them to pass their hats, instruments, clothes, and even chunks torn from the car itself forward as fuel. The train makes it, just barely, to the peak, at which point one of the aristocrats tips his hat, removes the locking pin, and leaves the naked, carless yokels to slide back downhill, taking care to lift the bag of cash before they go. The engine and first class car race forward again, but not very far.

Both films are direct depictions of the madness of supply-side “Reaganomics,” and especially of the basic truth that such voodoo (or doo-doo) economics work on the same principle of pyramid schemes: the party only lasts as long as new sources of wealth can be fed into the machine, until the wealthy begin cannibalizing first the lower tiers of the pyramid, and then one another, until everything—the whole, glorious money-making machine—is gone, taking with it not only the wealth but the means for fixing the situation. And it’s just as well kids learn the lesson early. We grown-ups are learning it far too late.

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