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June 8th, 1984. Billy Gardner’s Twins lost 6-1 at Comiskey Park. ABC was putting repeats of Benson and Webster up against a repeat of the Dukes of Hazzard on CBS. The Celtics beat the Lakers 121-103. Merie Earle, Maude Gormley in The Waltons, was on Johnny Carson. Let’s Hear It for the Boy by Deniece Williams was enjoying its final day at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Ronald Reagan was in the White House. The economy was starting to boom. The Soviet Union was down to its last superannuated apparatchik.
That day, the Ghostbusters first appeared on movie screens across the United States.
It told the story of three government employees who spend their days trying to seduce their students with phony experiments, searching for ghosts, and running away when they find them. When this dismal level of productivity proves too low even for the public sector they are sacked and go private, though not without misgivings. As Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd) warns Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.”
Venkman: For whatever reasons, Ray, call it fate. Call it luck. Call it karma. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that we were destined to get thrown out of this dump.
Stanz: For what purpose?
Venkman: To go into business for ourselves.
As good entrepreneurs, they spot a gap in the market: “We are on the threshold of establishing the indispensable defense science of the next decade. Professional paranormal investigations and eliminations. The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams”. Using the house Ray’s parents left him as collateral, though with a 19% mortgage, the three borrow some money and set up business as the Ghostbusters. Soon they are raking in $5,000 a night, getting coverage from Larry King and Time magazine, and taking on a black member of staff, Winston Zeddemore, no affirmative action needed.
Then up pops Walter Peck of the Environmental Protection Agency. “I want to know more about what you do here” he demands. “Frankly, there have been a lot of wild stories in the media and we want to assess for any possible environmental impact from your operation, for instance, the presence of noxious, possibly hazardous waste chemicals in your basement. Now you either show me what’s down there or I come back with a court order!” The government steps in, shuts down the thriving private sector enterprise, and the town is flooded with ghosts.
Hollywood is an odd town. Its inhabitants are rich, their bodyguards well armed, and they zoom around on jet planes. Then they tell you about greed, the second amendment, and why you should use mass transit. In some ways, Hollywood is the most conservative town in the United States pretending to be the most ‘liberal’.
Occasionally, though, the mask slips and you get a movie like Ghostbusters. It is funny, it is warm, it is thrilling, and it is the greatest hymn to the free market Hollywood has ever produced.
John Phelan is an economist and child of the 80s at the Center of the American Experiment.