Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Magic Town and its Lessons

This is one of my favorite movies of all time. Magic Town isn't a great movie, but it is an astounding one. The plot of the movie is this: a canny pollster gets one up on all his business competition by locating a town that is so perfectly identical to "average" America that simply by asking its inhabitants what they think and want on any given topic gives the hero/pollster accurate information that he can sell on to his customers. He moves to the town to exploit this average but accurate quality and starts life there. Eventually, however, his secret gets out and America finds out that its "perfect" self is reflected in this ideal little town--how the perfect, the average, and the ideal are conflated is itself quite interesting. The town finds fame as the perfect mirror image of America, but it also finds disaster. Hundreds of new families move in to share in the fame as well as to share in the idealized average lifestyle that produces such a perfectly anodyne American identity that it can *serve as a model* to advertisers. The new equilibrium is a disaster. On the one hand, now that the townspeople discover they are being used as sources of "information" by the elite hucksters in the big cities and big corporations they become worried that they aren't giving the "right" answers because of ignorance. The town sets up information kiosks everywhere so that people can be better informed and thus give the "right" answer if asked by pollsters what they think. On the other hand, the mass influx of new families bids up house prices, destroys the intimacy of the community, and creates problems as new schools and new services need to be funded. As the town shifts from being a perfectly unconscious reflection of a perfectly unselfconscious American set of "tastes" to an overwrought, hectic, and overlythought out population of would be know it alls it loses its attraction both for pollsters and for new families. When the town's "opinions," once published widely, turn out to be "incorrect" they also become a source of major public humiliation for the town. Not to represent America in all its untutored glory means the town has become a laughing stock and an embarrassment. The Pollsters and reporters pull up stakes and the new found tax base of new families flee and leave the town with expenses that can't be met--like the cost of a new and better school. The heartwarming solution to the town's new doldrums is for the town to suck it up, raise taxes on the remaining people, and build the school anyway. That the lead is Jimmy Stewart makes this tax'n'spend solution all the more delicious.

This is what I always think of when I see the words "tax and spend."