What was your motivation? What was Whitey's?

Photographer: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Gang Economics at the Movies

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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In politics, it’s the silly season: sound bites and scandals, gotchas and gaffes. Policy is hardly being discussed at any level more complex than name-calling. No better time, then, to take oneself off to the multiplex and seek distraction. I saw both of last weekend’s top-grossing films, “Black Mass” and “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.” The two turn out to have a commonality that is not entirely unrelated to our political moment: Both leave unclear the economics behind the worlds they’re seeking to create for us.

Let’s start with “Black Mass,” the weightier of the pair. Johnny Depp is scary and effective as Whitey Bulger, boss of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang from the late 1970s  to the mid-1990s, and Joel Edgerton nearly steals the film as John Connolly, a strutting, corrupt and only borderline bright FBI agent. Yes, the storyline itself is thin (no rise, just an interrupted fall; every murder, without exception, entirely predictable). Yes, the film does indulge “the aura of gangster romance that always seems to surround white ethnic practitioners of organized crime.” It’s still good fun.

But I’d like to have seen more about a topic that seems to have largely bored filmmakers since, say, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”: the economics and internal structure of the gang.

The dominant economic theory long held that those who join are likely “present-oriented”: They’re stuck in the now, and evaluate the future poorly. (Think Tommy DeVito in “Goodfellas” or Richie Aprile in “The Sopranos.”) There have lately been important challenges to this view. Studies tell us that entry-level gang wages are low, and that the wage structure overall is highly skewed toward the top. If gang members don’t think about the future, it seems unlikely that they take low-wage street-level positions now in the hope of rising in the organization later.

In “Black Mass,” we watch the rise of at least one member of the Winter Hill Gang -- Kevin Weeks, played by Jesse Plemons -- from the street level (bouncer at a bar) to the inner circle (accomplice to several murders committed by Bulger). Alas, there is nothing in the character’s rather pale development to tell us whether Weeks spends any time calculating the risks and benefits of working for Bulger.

Then there’s Bulger himself. The film never shows his strategic side. He must have had one. We should expect those who hold onto leadership positions for an extended period to be not merely tough and violent but cautious and future-oriented. (This is why Al Pacino was more believable as Michael Corleone than as Tony Montana.) Gangs, we are told, play a local governance role, and are often modeled as feudal states, where powerful lords remain loyal because of the benefits they receive from the overlord. No benefits, no loyalty. The more of your own people you kill, the less loyalty you’re likely to command.

Which brings us to “The Scorch Trials.” The film is a bit of fluff, yes, but the economics of gangland raise interesting questions about the organization of the post-apocalypse world. From what we can tell, the survivors engage in barter. There seems to be no medium of exchange. And from the shape in which we find San Francisco, it’s hard to believe that there’s any remaining industrial capacity of any size or significance anywhere in the world.

Yet the villainous organization known as WCKD (pronounced “wicked” ) occupies a vast, clean, well-provisioned and well-guarded facility, complete with doctors in white coats or blue scrubs, fully functional technology, and, of course, the usual unlocked ventilation shafts big enough to crawl through. Where does WCKD get all this cool stuff? Maybe it’s all been preserved since humanity was struck by the Flare virus, but that would make the equipment a decade or more old, and it looks shiny and new.

More interesting is the problem of the henchmen. The facility is outfitted with heavily armed guards -- lots of armed guards. What are they paid with? There isn’t any money. Okay, maybe they’re given protection from what’s outside and the hope of a cure, perhaps for their families. But why don’t they mutiny and take over? Why do they keep following orders? Maybe they’re future-oriented, and believe that things will work out best with the clearly psychopathic scientists on top.

But wait. It seems unlikely that all the guards would reason that way. At some point, surely a substantial subset of the guards will realize that they are the ones who (a) keep on getting ordered out to risk their lives fighting the various horrors of the Scorch, and (b) have all the weapons. One would think they’d figure out that they could run things themselves, stay relatively safe and force the experts to keep doing research.

It seems to me that in a world without government, we should model our giant corporation or walled city or band of plucky survivors as we would a gang. The literature theorizes that gangs emerge where authority is weak. Historians tell us that the principal service criminal gangs provide has always been protection. (True, sometimes from the gang itself, but, for those who pay it fealty, protection from outside threats.) The structure, however, is inherently unstable. Although members follow the gang’s rules because it is rational to do so, the leaders, lacking an outside governing structure, often face mutinies.

But “The Scorch Trials,” like other post-apocalyptic films, gives us soldiers who continue following orders, often at enormous personal risk. We aren’t speaking here of a professional military, motivated by patriotism or a code or honor. We’re speaking of hired mercenaries, apparently endless in number, who sacrifice themselves for no obvious reason.

Of course, we go to the movies for escapist fun, not lessons in economics. But if Hollywood pays a little more attention to these details, maybe our political gangs will too.

  1. Thus the gang operates like a tournament -- a model frequently used for large corporate law firms.

  2. I haven’t read the underlying books, but I am reliably informed that the unlikely full name of the organization is World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net