I read Burt Prelutsky's article today, and it was quite informative. In it he describes how Hollywood has tried to exclude old screenwriters and how those screenwriters are filing a class action suit against the studios.
Now, many would see this as a perfect example of why we need antidiscrimination suits, yet another example of the free market failing. I would beg to differ, as Hollywood is anything but a free market, and in a true free market these older writers would not need a suit.
Let me start with a disclaimer, or several. I love most of Mr. Prelutsky's writing, he is usually right. Though his writing in favor of the Writer's Guild strike seemed out of place, and, as I will show, may have helped fuel the very problem he is now experiencing. I also understand how bad it can be when you are seen as outdated. Technology ages faster than pop culture, and as an older programmer who learned C and assembly and Forth instead of Java and Ajax and Ruby, I have found many jobs closed to me as I am not up on all the latest buzz words and "bleeding edge" technology. (Though when they have a really troublesome problem, the guy who can disassemble code, or knows how many clock ticks a command takes is the one to whom they eventually turn.) Beyond that, my physical problems make it hard for me to drive, and make me unable to type from time to time (I know my blog says otherwise, but it is written frantically between bouts of hand pain), so I have sympathy for those who find themselves being shut out of jobs.
Despite all that, I disagree with the lawsuit. In this case, it may be the only solution as Hollywood is effectively a closed market (more on that later), but I disagree with such antidiscrimination suits on principle. An employer has the right to hire as he sees fit. Though Republicans seem to have lost the nerve to say so, both the right of assembly and property rights are violated by such suits, and so they simply are not proper functions of the government or court systems. If I have the right to choose firends based on whatever criteria I see fit, I also have the right to hrie on those same arbitrary criteria. As with speech, the Constitution doesn't just protect the "proper" use of your righs, but unpopular and "wrong" uses as well. My refusal to hire someone does nto violate their rights, so it is not a crime, and if it is not criminal, there is no excuse for violating my rights.
And the free market, when not hampered by government interference, will remedy such discrimination by imposing costs on thsoe who arbitrarily discriminate. In other words, in a free market if you want to discriminate against women or blacks or the elderly, you are free to do so, but it will cost you, and, in the long run, those costs will allow other companies to eventually take your place. As in any imprecise human venture, this is not consistent, some companies may be able to discriminate for longer times, or perhaps in a given field (eg. truck driving) there may not be enough women or minorities or elderly that the discrimination is a substantial disadvantage, or maybe what some see as discrimination is in fact rational economically speaking, and the company does not suffer (eg. discriminating against women in jobs requiring upper body strength), but in general, in most cases, choosing to discriminate will be costly, and unless the owner is happy to make up such costs out of pocket to continue discriminating, he will either have to change his policies or leave the market.
So, many are probably asking, then why aren't the studios suffering? And my response is, perhaps they are, just not enough yet to notice. They definitely are losing whatever output those writers could have provided. On the other hand, there are two possible reasons they are not feeling the loss as much as a free market would.
First, perhaps the studio claims are true. Though they never came out and said as much, it seems obvious the studios believe older writers may not be able to write scritps which appeal to the desired demographic groups. If this is true, then discrimination against them is proper, as they are simply unable to perform the job adequately. ON the other hand, as most of pop culture on television was created by "old guy" Aaron Spelling, it seems a dubious assertion that old writers can't write pop fluff as well as the young.
Second, and more likely, it is the insulated nature of the entertainment industry which keeps them from hurting. Even many so-called independent studios will not deal with non-SAG actors and non-union writers, not to mention all the support staff. Syndicated television is a bit better, many having fled to Vancouver to cut union costs, but they still tend to remain unionized in many non-acting areas. And even with the growth of internet media, it seems that most large scale movies and television productions are still firmly unionized.
And a unionized marketplace is not free. There are barriers to entry which keep out replacement workers, and rules which prevent the use of cheaper non-union labor. In addition the threat of strike keeps employers from engaging in the sort of ruthless pruning of nonperforming workers that a free market demands. Also, the demands of dealing with overpriced union employees tends to keep newcomers to a minimum, as the entry costs are too high and the profit margins too slim to attract a lot of new investment. This is why the same big studios have been in business for decades. Even the "new comer" studios date tot he 80's at the latest. Not even the larger "independent" firms have much turnover. They may change names, but they tend to be staffed by the same crews and owned by the same producers. (eg. Charles Band's many production firms, or the many incarnations of Roger Corman's production firms.) Entertainment, thanks to unionization, is a largely closed shop, preventing both new competitors and most price or cost competition among existing firms.
Despite that, I still do not endorse this suit. The suit is the wrong way to go about things. Rather than piling one improper fix on another, why not attack the underlying problem? The problem is the closed shop status of the studios and entertainment in general. Were Mr. Prelutsky truly trying to find employment for older writers, rather than a class action suit, the best course would be to break up the SAG, WGA, and all those other closed shop unions which keep Hollywood so stagnant.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/02/09.
NOTE: Reading this essay, I realized I never linked to the article I was discussing. Thus, I have decided to track down the essay in question, and discovered it was Mr. Prelutsky's essay "Regarding Blacklists".