The Homer Simpson Economy

In the 1997 Simpsons episode “Homer’s Enemy” viewers meet Frank Grimes, a man who has never caught a break. He has had to work hard, if not outright struggle, for everything he has in life. Grimes is hired to work at the nuclear power plant alongside Homer Simpson, who is very much the opposite of Grimes.

Homer lives a comfortable life with his wife and three children and has a secure job at the plant, despite his nonchalance, laziness and incompetence. Homer’s undeserved success sparks resentment in Grimes who declares Homer to be “what’s wrong with America” noting that anyone who can “coast through life” so carelessly would surely have starved to death in any other part of the world.

The episode appeared at a time when the US economy was in a state of growth and unemployment was reaching a thirty year low. In the world of television the Simpsons had transitioned from a family of ambiguous means during the economic stagnation of the early 1990’s, to a family affluent enough to afford whatever adventures the writers chose to send them on. While this may have been motivated by a need to create wilder story lines, it parallels the contemporaneous transition from the recession of the early 1990‘s to the boom economy of the late 1990s.

While the early nineties recession may not be as fresh in our collective memories as the subsequent boom or the more long lived downturn of 2008, it marked the first time discount stores like Walmart and Target outsold more established firms like Sears. It also contributed to presidential incumbent George H.W. Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton, who’s campaign emphasized promises to restore the economy. “It’s the economy, stupid!” proved to be a popular slogan for Clinton.

The bad economy and related presidential politics spilled into the world of the Simpsons when the above mentioned Bush said, “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” The Simpsons responded on the show’s following episode “Stark Raving Dad” by having Bart saying, “Hey! We’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.”

The economy ultimately rebounded over the course of the 1990s and within a month of the debut of “Homer’s Enemy” unemployment rates in the US fell below 5% for the first time since 1973. As such the frustration expressed by Frank Grimes reflected the frustration many employers were starting to feel with the American work force. As unemployment declines, employees are able to demand for better pay, benefits and working conditions.

Furthermore when workers have a myriad of employment opportunities, employers are forced to settle on less skilled, less educated workers with a weaker work ethic than they would otherwise. A fall in unemployment marks a transition from a Frank Grimes economy (where workers have to struggle) to a Homer Simpson economy (where even the laziest and most incompetent can support themselves).

In a growing economy, even the Homer Simpsons of the world can find work, much to their employer’s chagrin. Of course, Homer’s slacking on the job was nothing new in the series or to animated comedies. “Homer’s Enemy” just happens to be an episode that takes highlighting this aspect of the character to an unexpected level. Like his predecessors Fred Flintstone or George Jetson, Homer Simpson was never depicted as a good worker. However Homer is more stern, angry and less carefree in earlier seasons. His voice sounds gruffer in early episodes as well. It should also be noted that like the increasingly carefree Homer, Jetson and Flintstone graced America’s televisions in times of high economic growth and increased job security — specifically the 1960s. This may even account for Fred Flinstone’s membership in an implied mutual aid society: The Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.

While the Simpsons is better known for its liberal or progressive politics, “Homer’s Enemy” gives left-libertarians, individualist anarchists and anti-work activists much more to bite into. Indeed the Homer Simpson economy bares some resemblance to what these groups want to see on a sustainable and fully realized basis. That is an economy where opportunities are plentiful, barriers to entry are nonexistent and one can support herself without high levels of effort, education or expertise. The libertarian left argues that removing government imposed obstacles to attaining wealth on one’s own terms, is the first step towards creating this economy.

Such obstacles include licensing, zoning and building requirements, which raises the cost of starting one’s own business to prohibitively expensive. Numerous people could start profitable bakeries, hamburger stands, bars, breweries, barber shops, taxi services, day care services and marijuana dispensaries, if only the regulatory state would get out of their way. This also applies to snow-plowing businesses like the one Homer started in the episode “Mr. Plow”. While such opportunities are not for everyone, having alternatives available shrinks the pool of people seeking conventional employment, forcing employers to make more concessions to their employees.

Individualist anarchists not only wish to remove obstacles to independent employment, but also means for funding it by removing restrictions on the supply of credit. They also oppose restrictions on the ability of employees to seek better wages and working conditions. Policies such as the Wagner Act, Taft-Hartley Act and various state Right to Work Laws restrict the ability of organized workers, to engage in such tactics as wildcat strikes, unannounced walkouts, sympathy strikes and boycott strikes as well as the ability to have multiple unions competing at the same work place. Of course, in an episode involving a teacher’s strike Homer advocates doing one’s job in a “half-assed manner” as an alternative to striking. Such an approach has much in common with the “work to rule” strike (organized slowdowns that many anarchist advocate). Homer’s claim that such a tactic is “the American way”, reflects a reality that many American workers know quite well.

In a free society workers would be able to strike for any reason or none. They would also have numerous opportunities for self-employment and employment at smaller firms or cooperatives, thereby creating an economy where good help is increasingly hard to find and increasingly expensive for large companies. Unfortunately the above mentioned regulations and the Federal Reserve’s manipulation of interest rates prevents this and sentence many workers to a Frank Grimes-like existence. That is to say American workers are forced to struggle in an economy that is systematically rigged in favor of big employers.

While “Homer’s Enemy” provides a fictional representation of the frustrations of actual employers during an economic growth, Homer Simpson himself paints a picture of why an economy rigged in favor of large firms is undesirable. The Energy company he works for is a large corporation capriciously run by an executive who is almost completely oblivious to its actual workings. Many episodes even involve him forgetting who Homer is despite regularly dealing with him.

This reflects the reality that large hierarchical organizations tend to be plagued with both calculation problems, due to their internal workings being isolated from price signals, and communications problems due to the tendency to tell one’s superiors what they want to hear.

Despite embodying these problems, Montgomery Burn’s enterprise remains profitable due to a monopoly he has on Springfield’s energy supply. In reality such monopolies tend to be the result of government favoritism, and Burns is happy to use force “Who Shot Mr. Burns Part 1” to defend his. He also passes the costs of his operation on to the general population by dumping waste in the local waterways in the episode “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish“. Holding Burns and others like him fully liable for the damage he does, as market anarchist favor, would likely make his operation unprofitable and make it easier for smaller cleaner competitors to take its place.

At the end of “Homer’s Enemy” audiences inevitably, and perhaps uncomfortably find themselves siding with Homer rather than Frank Grimes, despite acknowledging Grimes’ point. It seems many of us know that the current system has us working way too hard, and that good help should be hard to find. We live in a society in which the state limits choices and promotes inefficiency. The Simpsons ability to satirize this reality makes “Homer’s Enemy” and all the above mentioned episodes a pleasure to revisit.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory