Jude Wanniski
May 4, 1999


Memo To: Matthew, Jennifer & Andrew
From: Dad
Re: Oklahoma in Letterbox

When our Pennsylvania house was burglarized at the end of February, I had to go shopping for electronic stuff for the first time in many years, to replace what the burglars took. In the process, I discovered new products I did not know existed. I now have a Sony tv set with a flat screen. I bought a gizmo that will enable me to copy my vast library of opera tapes to compact discs -- so you guys can each get a copy of the library at some point. I haven't figured out how to work it, but Patricia will get it working this weekend.

The big news, kids, is yet another gizmo called a DVD player. I saw one demonstrated at the WIZ and bought a bottom-of-the-line Toshiba, with a minimum of bells and whistles. It works like a charm. Patricia hooked it up last weekend, and I bought several DVD movies from Amazon, which arrived yesterday. I bought mostly musicals, including my favorite, "An American in Paris." But what really knocked my socks off was a copy of "Oklahoma!" Remember when you were growing up how you loved to watch it, and we would play it on those early video machines? In watching the DVD last night, I realized I had been watching only PART of one of my favorite musicals. The DVD provided what I now realize was the full picture I saw originally in a theater in Los Angeles, when I was a student at UCLA in the 1950s. What an enormous difference! Of course the picture itself is brilliant, but when you see the letterbox version you also see a third more of the movie than we had been watching all those years. When we all get together again soon, I'll play it and you will see for yourself what glorious vistas we have been missing.

Amazon says the Oklahoma!! video was just made available in the last few days. It is reasonably priced, at $17.95, but when you get DVDs, we can have a circulating library of these movies. I also bought "Carousel," "Gigi," and "State Fair." But I think we'll probably watch "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" tonight, in color, and see what turns up in letterbox that we've been missing all these years.

There is a larger point to be made about Oklahoma and the DVD. At the same time that the 1955 movie version of the 1944 Rogers & Hammerstein musical was being made, the Keynesian economists of the era were theorizing about the slow growth of the U.S. economy. Just as they had theorized that the economic boom which followed the end of WWII had been caused by "a pent-up demand" for consumer goods, the economic slowdown was occurring because the American people had satisfied that demand. Everyone had a home, a car, a tv set, etc.

What NEW PRODUCT would be invented that would spur consumer demand? It sounds silly now, but that is what the Ph.D. economists were prattling about in the mid 1950s. As the song went in Oklahoma! "Everything's up to date in Kansas City. They've gone about as far as they can go." The formal economic theory was given expression at the London School of Economics, and was used in the United States to justify government spending programs. If the middle-class had everything it could possibly want, then tax the economy and have the government buy things. In part, the financing of the space program was justified on these grounds. And the Soviet Union decided it would buy our system be being so much more efficient. All it had to do is build one auto plant, one toothpaste plant, one giant complex to make tv sets. And it would save all the wastefulness that went into capitalism. It would be able to distribute wealth evenly.

The DVD, of course, is no solution to a dearth of consumer demand. It is one of thousands upon thousands of innovative ideas that increase the pleasure of life, one that could not have occurred under a system that assumed we had gone about as far as we could go, and should make no attempt to go any further.

    ...Where the wind comes sweeping down the plains...
    ...Where the waving wheat can sure smell sweet...
    ...When the wind comes right behind the rain.