The death yesterday of Harold Ramis, the co-writer and co-star of Ghostbusters, has prompted encomiums for the iconic 1980s film.
Ghostbusters is a favorite of mine as well. But I just can’t believe how few people recognize the movie—which was released 30 years ago this June—for what it is: a Reaganite carnival of ideological triumph.
Ghostbusters isn’t about ghosts. (Well, it kind of is.) But it’s also about the power of the US private sector and the magic of market discipline to transform anyone—even effete, over-educated academics—into heroes. Just watch.
It’s hard to believe Ghostbusters was intended to be a pro-business, anti-government polemic. Dan Aykroyd co-wrote the film with Ramis, whose previous flicks—such as Animal House, Stripes, Caddyshack—are filled with liberal digs at establishment authority figures.
But the Ivan Reitman masterpiece was made in a certain time and place. And the movie is worth reconsidering now—almost three decades after its release—if only because it so perfectly captured one of the rare moments when the supertanker of American public opinion clearly changes course.
When Ghostbusters was released in June 1984, Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election victory to a second term as president was still a few months away. But the ideological ascent of Reagan-style conservatism—cuts to taxes and social programs, boosts for military spending and heaping helpings of anti-government rhetoric—was nearly complete. And Ghostbusters is stuffed with Reaganomics. This scene has several references.
Shaky lending from banks that were increasingly lightly regulated under Reagan sent US household debt levels soaring after he took office. Economic growth in the 1980s was fueled in part by a burst of consumer debt and bad banking practices—culminating in the savings and loan collapse—that looks pretty familiar. That’s exactly how the Ghostbusters got the financing they need to open. One can’t help but wonder about the underwriting standards at Manhattan City Bank that enabled the Ghostbusters to get a loan.
Dr. Venkman’s elevator pitch on paranormal eliminations as a potential player in the defense industry shouldn’t be glossed over either, as defense spending boomed under Reagan, helping to drive the US deficit to heights previously seen only during wartime.
It would have been hard to imagine this kind of upbeat flick resonating with Americans if it had been released 18 months earlier. In December 1982, unemployment was hanging around 11%, the highest since the Great Depression. While down from the peaks of the 1970s, inflation was still eating deeply into American incomes. When pollsters asked Americans that month if the US was going in the right direction, or was off track, only 36% thought the US was in “drive” rather than “reverse.” Even though president Jimmy Carter had been booted from office in 1980, the country was still mired in the malaise that was associated with his administration.
And yet, by October 1984—on the eve of the presidential vote—America had radically regained its mojo, with 61% of Americans responding that things in the country were moving in the right direction.
Well there’s a few answers: A surge in patriotic sentiment surrounding the 1983 US invasion of Grenada. The pageantry of the 1984 cross-country torch relay, which carried the Olympic flame to Los Angeles, the site of 1984 summer games, might have played a part. (As did the dominance of the US in those Soviet-boycotted games.) And, who knows, perhaps Ghostbusters, the biggest grossing film of the year, just generally put people in a good mood.
But let’s be honest. Only one thing happened that really mattered. The US economic growth improved sharply and unemployment plummeted.
For the record, nobody knows exactly why. (And more to the point, no one ever really knows why any economy does anything.) Republican economists argue that tax cuts and other supply-side policies helped drive growth. Democratic economists—who argue that the success of Reaganomics is largely a myth—point out that the Federal Reserve, which caused the recession intentionally in order to rein-in inflation, basically restarted economic growth by taking its foot off the brake.
For our purposes it really doesn’t matter. The fact is, the US economy staged a huge turnaround on Reagan’s watch. America started really feeling good again for the first time since the early 1960s. And Reagan and his ideas got the credit. As a direct result Democrats lost the advantage they had long held over Republicans on questions of managing the economy, which was part of a much-larger realignment of the American electorate that took shape under Reagan.
But it wasn’t economic policy proposals and Reaganomics that resonated with the American public. It was the anti-government—specifically anti-federal-government—rhetoric.
Even the most obtuse Ghostbusters fanboy has to concede one thing. The real villain in Ghostbusters isn’t Gozer the Gozerian. It’s a bureaucrat from the Environmental Protection Agency. Seriously, it’s the government—specifically the federal government—personified in the odious William Peck of the EPA, that unleashes hell on New York. Dangerously ignorant of what it takes to run a small business, Peck—played by William Atherton, the Laurence Olivier of prickish ’80s movie antagonists (see Die Hard)—cuts the power supply to the containment unit where Aykroyd & Company store their busted specters. The politics of this scene couldn’t be more clear.
Yes, Peck’s over-reach is a necessary plot point setting up the film’s final confrontation. But really, that confrontation isn’t between the Ghostbusters and the Stay Puft Mashmallow Man. It’s a conflict between these two: Venkman—representing the private sector—and Walter Peck as the federal government.
We all know what happens. The private sector saves the day.
So what have we learned from this—perhaps overly long—meditation on a landmark piece of American pop cinema? Well, in one way, we learned that the 1980s were a long time ago, something Ramis’s death drove home this week. But, in a broader sense, we’re still very much living in the Reagan era. The fact that Ghostbusters is almost 30 years old is a reminder that Americans really don’t make big changes in their thinking too often.
Prior to Reagan, the only comparable rethinking of American political values came during president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—when the idea that big government was the only way to pull the country out of its troubles carried the day. During the Reagan years, a small-government, pro-business philosophy became much more prominent in national opinion, as Gallup survey data in the chart below show. Indeed, by some measures the anti-government turn in American public opinion took during the Reagan years has only gotten sharper over the subsequent decades.
Critics might point out that Ghostbusters doesn’t accurately reflect the fact that there’s a large gap between what Americans say they believe and how they act when disasters really strike. (Americans hold an overwhelmingly positive view of federal government disaster relief efforts.)
And that’s true. But, well, lighten up.
It’s just a movie.