We the Economy: Adam McKay on Income Inequality & Marvel Plans

We the Economy The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas Adam McKay Marvel Studios

We The Economy is a project to offer a series of short films about the economy for free on October 21, across cable, mobile and VOD services. Each short is directed by an A-list filmmaker, including Adam McKay (Anchorman). 

McKay made an animated short called The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas, which uses adorable talking animals to illustrate the income inequality problem in the U.S. One alpaca represents the privileged 1% who get the most lucrative jobs. Another represents the educated who can still make good money, if not super rich. The third is rejected for her station in life and relegated to minimum wage or even overseas sweat shop rates. It’s also full of irreverence and profanity. 

You can see McKay’s short on online now, and we got to speak in depth about the economy and his upcoming comedy film projects. 


CraveOnline: You put some information about financial crises perpetrators in the end credits for The Other Guys. Have you been interested in this subject for a while?

Adam McKay: Yeah, I’m, like all people, interested in lots of things. I was saying any time you track government and the political system, you always find yourself quickly turning away and going towards economics. So I’ve been adapting the Michael Lewis book, The Big Short, for the past four or five months. Through that, I met Adam Davidson as an advisor on that movie. He told me about this project and we talked about what shorts were available. When I heard income inequality was available, I thought well, there you go. That’s one of the big ones, so these are always subjects I’ve just been interested in as we live in America during these strange times. 

That’s to say you’re not just a comedian, you really care about society too.

To some degree. Don’t get me wrong, I still occasionally go to Taco Bell and curl up on the couch and watch junk TV, but I definitely do [care]. It’s hard not to with this bizarre world we live in. 

It seems like the people at the top always talk about the free market, but when the banks get bailed out and the Wall Street people have cushions after making bad investment, it’s not really a free market if there are no consequences, right?

That is correct. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about what the free market even means. You go back to the quote about the invisible hand of the free market and what no one talks about is Adam Smith in the chapters preceding that talked about a regulated market and mercantilism. There was a whole long windup about how you have to regulate the market in order to have the invisible hand of the free market operate. 

It’s an idea I think that’s been abused and twisted by some very powerful forces to shut up the masses whenever they get pissed off. But you are correct. It’s funny how [they say] free market, free market, yet we’re subsidizing oil companies to the tune of five billion a year, the most profitable corporations in the world. It’s funny how it’s free market, free market except the loads of tax loopholes for Fortune 500 companies, yet smaller companies don’t have those same tax loopholes. It’s definitely a tilted playing field. 


“What we’re starting to see is that it’s bad business to be terrible employers.”


I also thought if the top 1% has the most of the money, isn’t that how a pyramid scheme works where they just funnel all the money from below up to the top?

That’s basically it, yeah. While researching this short, there were some pretty shocking numbers I found. We actually had to go triple check because we couldn’t believe that 50% of the wealth was going to the top .1%. When we turned in the film, they said, “Oh, there’s a mistake” and we said no, that’s actually not a mistake. Our country right now fits the classic definition of an oligarchy even more so than any country in the world right now. 

So what’s the solution?

The funny thing is the solution isn’t even really that tricky. I think we all know the answers which is an equitable tax structure, closing offshore loopholes, balancing our trade policy so we’re not just shipping all our jobs away and then obviously having a living wage that’s a minimum wage would help a lot. We need to improve our education system so everyone has a fairer shot at the beginning. These are all pretty basic things we’ve heard over and over again. 

I think the more immediate solution is that we have to somehow cut through all the misinformation and the us vs. them language that has really distracted America away from basic problem solving. I think projects like “We The Economy” are smart for that, the idea of just getting facts and basic ideas to people who need these facts so they’re not so easily misled into buying into misinformation like “the free market” and “it’s good to be selfish.” And you are seeing change start to happen. 

I think there are some exciting things with Costco and Quik Mart and these companies that are paying living wages and succeeding wildly in the market while Walmart, McDonald’s and Burger King all have flat growth with their low wages, treating employees poorly. What we’re starting to see is that it’s bad business to be terrible employers. 

One of the books I read for this was a book called The Good Job Strategy that Adam Davidson recommended. It outlines why it’s actually really bad business to treat your employees horribly and to pay lousy wages. It shrinks your economy, it creates high turnover, it creates poor public customer relations. So there are some positive things starting to happen. You are starting to see some people link up, especially CEOs which I think that’s going to be the first wave. If we in any way can help  there to be a populist wave of economic awareness like what we saw after the Great Depression, now is the time to do it. We certainly need it.

That is encouraging, because even in my business there’s a movement towards not even paying for content at all. When big outlets like Entertainment Weekly turn to free labor, it’s hard for any other company to justify paying their workers. If they can be shown that that’s bad business, that’s good news.

The Good Job Strategy talks about it, that it’s hard to do it right. These companies that are not paying for content are actually foolish because they’re not going to get the quality. But at the same time, when you do pay for the content, it requires better management, better curating skills, better editing. You’re sort of saying, “We’re going to do this right.” I think what you see is a lot of these corporations get lazy and they just want these quick quarterly returns, which is why you’re seeing this drop across the board. More and more it’s being proven it doesn’t work and these media outlets who are doing what you’re saying are shriveling and fading away. I think they’re making a mistake approaching it the way they’re doing.


The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas


I’m also trying to wrap my head around the idea of income inequality. Doesn’t earning, in some way, require taking someone else’s money?

There’s a healthy level of inequality that should be built into any economy. If you look at the most equitable economies in the world, which you could say are probably Denmark, Finland and those countries. They have inequality. You don’t want that to go away. If you look at the experiments with Communism in the ‘20s and ‘30s, it doesn’t work. There has to be some incentive. 

When it becomes a huge danger is when it’s runaway inequality like what we have right now in our country, where there essentially is almost no middle class left, massive reserves of poor. Suddenly there’s no consumers, there’s no one to purchase products. Suddenly there’s loads of expenses as these people aren’t able to take care of themselves because there’s no good jobs, there’s no health care. So runaway inequality is extremely dangerous. 

Harvard just released a study a couple weeks ago saying right now the greatest threat to the American quality is the insane imbalance that we’re in. It’s one of the worst in the world. So yes, you are correct. Some inequality is good. We need incentives but runaway inequality is extremely dangerous. It’s like going back to 11th and 12th century models when you start doing that.

Is another part of the problem: If you make a great product, everyone who wants it will buy it. But if you trick people into buying something they don’t want, then you can sell even more?

Correct. Well, hopefully in that case if you’re overselling a product, the market will correct [itself] in that case. I think you see a problem when you have monopolies and duopolies where there’s no real competition going on. You see that with internet speed in the United States. Our speed is so terrible and the reason is there’s no real competition going on. Whereas in Europe, you have eight, nine companies fighting to give you internet speed so the quality is better. 

That’s another problem. The U.S. stopped enforcing the antitrust laws against monopolies and it’s [inflicted] a lot of damage to our competitive markets. So I think that’s probably doing a little bit more of what you’re saying than just marketing and advertising, although I won’t downplay the effects of marketing and advertising too. That’s certainly done its fair share of damage to our company.

Do you think The Big Short is your next feature?

Fingers crossed. I’m really happy with the draft we just turned in so we’re waiting to hear from the higher ups at Paramount. I don’t see why they wouldn’t do it. Michael Lewis has a pretty good track record as far as his books being adapted to film. My track record’s not so bad and if we go land some really top flight talent, I think this could be a really cool movie. It’s doing a lot of things with the subject matter that have never been done as far as the level to which is explains everything, and at the same time, like all Michael Lewis books, it’s wildly entertaining. So fingers crossed.

At the same time, are you developing any comedy projects with your usual comedy gang like Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly?

Always. We have one over at Sony called Border Guards that’s being written by Jesse Armstrong for Ferrell and John C. Reilly, and about five or six other things. I’m starting to get into the early stages with Marvel. There’s plenty of fun stuff and our company always has tons of things so we have a couple movies coming out this year. Welcome to Me with Kristen Wiig and Sleeping with Other People with Jason Sudeikis. Then a big movie, Get Hard with Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart that’s really, really funny. So we’re plenty busy.

What is your deal with Marvel? Do you have a shot at directing one of their big characters?

I just did a big rewrite on Ant-Man with Paul Rudd and had such a great time working with them that we’re kicking around ideas. But yeah, maybe I would take on one of the characters so we haven’t locked in anything, but discussions are definitely going on.

At one time you mentioned possibly doing a Step Brothers 2. Is that still in play and did your experience on Anchorman 2 influence how you might approach another sequel?

I don’t think I’ll do any sequels for a little while. It was certainly interesting trying on but there’s so much good original stuff in front of me. However, I wouldn’t say no to it for all time. Maybe in two or three years, we’ll go, “Okay, let’s do it.” For the short term, there are no plans to do it.


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.