Monday, June 02, 2014
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Godzilla and Public Policy
by Matt McKenna
Much has been made of whether this summer's Godzilla movie is a pro-environmentalist film or an anti-environmentalist film. While both readings are plausible on a surface level, neither addresses the dominant public policy critique embedded within the biggest monster flick since last year's Pacific Rim. While the lack of an environmental focus in Godzilla will surely rankle those who watch the film in the hopes of affirming their respective worldviews (whatever those may be), less politically motivated moviegoers will be pleased to discover that the film grapples with the more interesting problem of establishing a culture of open, data-driven public policy.
Godzilla begins by showing glimpses of the monster within the jittering frames of 1950s archival footage. We soon learn that those atomic bomb tests performed during the Cold War weren't tests at all--they were attempts to kill a mysterious giant creature known as Godzilla. Flash forward to 1999 when Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) notices strange seismic activity while working at a nuclear power plant in Japan. When the seismic activity increases and the power plant collapses, a multinational governmental organization called Monarch quarantines the area and establishes a cover story about the plant being destroyed by an earthquake. Brody, skeptical of the official report, secretly researches the disaster and finds evidence for an enormous spider-like monster lurking about. Flash-forward once more to the present day where Brody finally has the opportunity to present his research to Monarch only to be interrupted a giant spider monster hatching from its giant spider monster egg. This creature subsequently spends its screen time and the film's budget destroying various American cities in search of the nuclear energy it needs to sustain its rampage. Conveniently for humans, however, Godzilla wakes up, rises from the depths of the ocean, and hunts the enormous spider for what appears to be sport.
With a plot like that, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that the Godzilla has aligned itself with environmentalists--mess with the environment and giant spiders will exterminate your species, it seems to say. At the same time, this message is undercut by the fact that a deus ex machina in the form of Godzilla appears and saves the day with no act of contrition required by humans. Why is Godzilla's environment-related message so muddled? Because there isn't one. When the first half of the film is taken into account, it becomes clear that Godzilla's primary message is actually a plea for policy makers to be less reactionary and more data-oriented.
The need for our global policy makers to invest in a culture of transparent and data-driven decision making is demonstrated by their fictional counterparts in Godzilla. Monarch, the organization in charge of handling this giant monster situation, has little interest in data analysis, and their ignorance is the main source of humanity's problems. If only Monarch hadn't secretly lorded over the giant monster egg and instead collected data, published that data online, and consulted with researchers such as Brody, this whole deadly gargantuan monster battle hullabaloo would never have happened. If only Monarch hadn't spent its vast resources on a cover up and instead created GiantMonsterEgg.gov, a site that would have contained links to download monster egg related data, researchers would have discovered how to destroy the egg and the film's fictional San Francisco would never have been destroyed.
Unfortunately for the citizens of Godzilla's Bay Area, there was little motivation for Monarch to incur the upfront costs associated with building the infrastructure required to have an open research system from which to derive public policy. Indeed, announcing the existence of a giant monster egg would almost certainly incite some level of public panic and social instability. However, this panic would be a relatively short term issue compared to the longer term issue of how to effectively deal with skyscraper-sized, hell-raising monsters. And isn't this the problem with our public policy in reality as well? There simply isn't sufficient motivation to alter the trajectory of current policy until the giant monster is already out of the bag, so to speak. Take, for example, the calamity over Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty researched wealth inequality, made his data and processes available to the public, and came to the conclusion that inequality is rising to dangerous levels. But does anyone expect laws or regulations to be altered by his findings? Of course not! Oh, perhaps when the inequality egg hatches into poverty, stagnant economies, and the implosion of civilized society, we will revisit Capital in an attempt to alleviate the problems we could have avoided in the first place. But do we really want to wait for the monster to hatch and wreak such horrific calamities on our society before we start to address it?
The 2014 Godzilla is not about the environment. It's about the difficulty in convincing policy makers to take up a more transparent, data-driven approach to running our country. Even right now, our representatives in government are harboring enormous monster eggs that are ripe to hatch--monster eggs containing a range of big social problems such as wealth inequality, climate change, financial regulation, and so on. Before a horrifying creature emerges from these eggs, we'd be well served to learn the lesson present in Godzilla and develop our public policies in an open, data-driven manner. After all, I don't think we can rely on an ancient, 350-foot-tall lizard to help us out during our next economic catastrophe.
Posted by Matt McKenna at 12:05 AM | Permalink