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Monday, July 14, 2008

The Law and Economics of "Thomas the Tank Engine"

One of the nice things (one of the only nice things) about recovering from surgery is that my two-year-old daughter has been very sweet and patient about my "boo-boo," and is happy to spend time on the bed with me watching TV -- provided she gets to control the program. We've been watching a fair amount of Thomas the Tank Engine lately, thanks to On Demand. And I've gotta say, it's fascinating, from a historical/law-and-economics perspective.

What is the lesson of Thomas the Tank Engine? It strikes me as being a pro-market show, but a genuine, Hayekian coordination-of-information free-market type of capitalism, with maybe a dose of TR-ish trustbusting spirit. Simultaneously, surely it is also a critique of the kinds of market imperfections that arise in a more oligarchical, monopoly-permitting market. Think about Sir Topham Hatt for a bit. He is a caricature of a robber baron, but he's not simply an unrestrained successful capitalist in an open and competitive market, a Gates or Carnegie. Rather, he runs everything on the island of Sodor: the railroads, the towns, all other means of transportation, etc. He's not villainous, exactly; but his tentacles extend over the entire economy of the show. On Sodor, Hatt truly controls all the means of production.

Now, it would be easy to think of the show as having some kind of socialist subtext. After all, the heroes here are the engines, and usually not the good ones, but the slightly clunky old ones -- the kinds that would be on the losing end of the from-each-according-to-their-abilities equation. At the same time, no sound system of socialist central planning would permit the kinds of inefficiencies that the show seems almost to champion. I mean, the engines don't even obey the brakemen!

No, I think the real lesson is ultimately that Hatt, however endearing he may be, is the misbegotten result of a society in which aristocracy and capital are too closely linked, such that these kinds of inefficiencies are allowed to flourish. Surely, in any sensible free-market economy, we wouldn't see the kinds of outrageous behavior we see here: competent but mediocre trains like Thomas allowed to keep their jobs indefinitely, all sorts of accidents occurring without apparent market consequences, and good, efficient, modern engines generally only kept on if they are willing to regress to the mean and quit achieving their potential. Surely, in any sensible economy, Hatt would be exposed to meaningful competition, and Thomas would be destined for a children's park somewhere, or directly to the scrap-heap. In that sense, I think the show champions neither socialism nor oligarchy, but serves by (bad) example to champion a sound, open, properly functioning market. I'm not sure whether the show is strongly anti-monopoly as such, or whether it merely opposes the kinds of social environments in which even lousy business people can rise to a position of market dominance by virtue of nothing more than an accident of birth.

In any event, it's good for hours of thoughtful contemplation. Surely it's the kind of lesson I'd be happy to have my daughter learn and reflect on, even if she may ultimately disagrees. Currently, she has not shared any of her economic conclusions about the show, and is more focused on the music and pretty pictures; but I'm sure that day will come. When she learns how to read and write, she is of course welcome to use the comments section if she sees things differently; we don't play favorites around here.

Doubtless someone out there can point me to better and deeper Thomas-related economic analysis. In the meantime, this blog post not only offers some of its own views, but also takes on the troubling questions raised by Bob the Builder. Food for thought, folks.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 14, 2008 at 08:52 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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Comments

Feel better.

Easy on the meds.

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jul 14, 2008 11:06:26 PM

I've watched a lot of Thomas with my son over the past couple of years, and I have a slightly different take. The whole show is sympathetic to a romanticized view of a capitalism that is not quite modern. The boss/employer, Hatt, is a paternalistic figure: he has complete control and can be gruff and demanding (not infrequently, he threatens to "scrap" the "less useful" engines); but deep down, he is kind and treats his engines, well, like family. It's the businessman-as-father-figure idea.

Also, there is the consistent sympathy with the more "old fashioned" steam engines vs. the more modern but usually bad-guy diesel engines (I know there are some exceptions, don't make me list them and show how much I've retained about this show). Efficiency is good to a point, but the good old days were, somehow, more noble. There's something noticeably English about this, I think.

As to the "competition," it's the diesels, "horrid lorries" and other forms of transportation that threaten the protaganist steam engines -- but those rivals always turn out to be even more accident-prone and otherwise unreliable.

The creepiest part, at least for someone who studies the history of labor and work relations, is the constant emphasis on "time discipline" -- yeah, I know the trains should run on time in any sort of society, but the pocket watch is redolent of Taylorism.

But, bottom line, my son has loved building elaborate train tracks and playing with the Thomas toys (yes, we did take away the ones with lead paint), and the Thomas books helped him learn to read.

Oh, and my wife is certain that James (the "vain" red engine) is gay.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jul 15, 2008 9:18:02 AM

Like Paul, I'm a little troubled by the extent of Sir Topham Hatt's reach. There seems to be the potential for some problems in that regard. But, despite his occasional flirtation with diesels, Hatt hasn't really shown any inclination to use cheap labor in an attempt to drive down wages, thereby harming the Sodor economy. He seems genuinely committed to being a good corporate citizen. And, like Joe, I'm a little bothered by Hatt's management style. My memory may be faulty (and I wasn't even on meds when I used to watch the show), but I seem to remember Hatt sometimes making ageist statements about some of the older engines and other vehicles that might run afoul of whatever anti-discrimination statutes are in effect on the island of Sodor. On the other hand, he does tolerate the bad attitude of chronic malcontent Cranky the Crane (although, to be honest, I'm not completely sure what the employment relationship between Cranky and Hatt really is. He might just be an independent contractor.) and has given some of the poor-performing diesels second chances when, in my opinion, they clearly haven't deserved it. All in all, this seems to be an example of a situation in which a monopoly hasn't really produced any substantial adverse effects that the state needs to regulate.

And, Joe, with all respect, your wife is wrong. James isn't gay. He's just cheeky. Now Percy, however ...

Posted by: Alex Long | Jul 15, 2008 10:06:41 AM

I can't let this thread go by without quoting this arguably unsettling lyric from the chorus of the catchy Thomas song, "Accidents Happen":

"Accidents happen now and again
Just when you least expect
Just when you think that life is OK
Fate comes to collect."

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jul 15, 2008 11:33:58 AM

Have you considered the possibility that the engines might be unionized? The show makes so much more sense that way. . . . Harvey the Breakdown Train gets accepted by his peers, not because he improves profitability, but because he rescues one of the existing engines. . . . Engines strongly insist on performing particular tasks and resist reassignments even in cases of dire need -- Percy carries the mail, Gordon is the express, Thomas insists on working only with Annie and Clarabell.

To me, the frustrating thing about the show is the omnipresent "Luckily, no one was hurt" dialogue after each crash. I get that the show is for toddlers, but just once I want to see an engine die. To me, the show's message seems to be "be cautious," but the whole message is undermined because no one ever gets into any serious trouble for engaging in reckless behavior.

Posted by: Useful Engine | Jul 15, 2008 12:14:17 PM

Alex:

With all due respect, you are in deep denial about James's sexuality. Along those lines, my sister (who is not in denial about hers) was happy to buy my son "Butch" the tow truck.

Useful:

I have an episode on a DVD in which the engines briefly discuss forming a union (or at least striking), but then the episode ends somewhat abruptly, and I'm not aware of any more mention of that issue.

Also, I was always struck by the "luckily, no one was hurt" phrase, although I can't say I ever wanted to see an engine die.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jul 15, 2008 1:47:31 PM

I should clarify that "Butch" is the name of the tow truck, not the name of my son.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jul 15, 2008 1:48:43 PM

I am so glad I found this on link via the NPR story. I have actually goggled "Thomas The Tank Engine British Servant Class" to no avail. I am thrilled that others have pondered the social and economic structures of Sodor. Perhaps it is because I was watching Downton Abbey when my son became interested in Thomas, but the shows seems to me a celebration of traditional British social classes. The trains live to work, and the greatest possible honor is to be "very, very useful," not unlike a butler of a large estate whose entire identity and self worth is tied to the successful running of the manor. Sir Topham Hatt is a paternalistic lord overseeing is help, who reinforces the employment based identity. He appreciates that he is dependent on the help, but fully recognizes that this system only works if he maintains his status. One could also argue that Sir Topham Hatt is actually the head butler, ruling over his socially and economically inferior staff, while the Lord, Duke, and Dutchess simply enjoy the spoils of everyone's labor.

Posted by: Erin M | May 13, 2015 9:41:43 AM

I am so glad I found this on link via the NPR story. I have actually goggled "Thomas The Tank Engine British Servant Class" to no avail. I am thrilled that others have pondered the social and economic structures of Sodor. Perhaps it is because I was watching Downton Abbey when my son became interested in Thomas, but the shows seems to me a celebration of traditional British social classes. The trains live to work, and the greatest possible honor is to be "very, very useful," not unlike a butler of a large estate whose entire identity and self worth is tied to the successful running of the manor. Sir Topham Hatt is a paternalistic lord overseeing is help, who reinforces the employment based identity. He appreciates that he is dependent on the help, but fully recognizes that this system only works if he maintains his status. One could also argue that Sir Topham Hatt is actually the head butler, ruling over his socially and economically inferior staff, while the Lord, Duke, and Dutchess simply enjoy the spoils of everyone's labor.

Posted by: Erin M | May 13, 2015 9:41:49 AM

If you think the engines have it bad, then what about the people of Sodor (non-Hatts). Even presumably trained workers like the engineers lack free will, since the engine's own decisions operate the train. And as for the dock and quarry workers, they are less valued than out-of-date technology. Its as if the monopolistic system requires the workers only as units of production, and has no concern about them in any other way. At least the engines can have fun.

I agree with Alex: the show is designed not to romanticize capitalism in general, but to show a monopoly without adverse effects.

Posted by: ANon | May 13, 2015 1:30:40 PM

Don't forget to think about how Hatt interacts with the locals. He throws parties for the kids and families (enlisting his trains to move everything about, of course). Everyone is so very appreciative of the cakes and treats he puts on while never mentioning the fact that the profits he derives from his monopoly of transport on the island allows him to dole out these scraps to the workers!

I really, really want some Soviet-style propaganda posters about liberating Sodor and the workers.

Posted by: TinyPirate | Sep 15, 2015 10:19:49 PM

The Thomas and Friends new era (CGI 2006-present) has spur onto a new main line with new ideas about how the Island of Sodor economics operate. I agree that Topham Hat has a Monopoly on the entire network with exceptions of the Duke and Dutchess, the Narrow-gauge system, and city government affairs. The cost of operating steam trains of older equipment anywhere on Sodor is not cost effective. The show needs to show progress (Topham's car especially)and show some imports of modern time (1980's to present. To see some form of technology (communications, entertainment, clothing, farming equipment, etc) would help today's audience relate to the show. Seeing some early cell phones and computers would be a great start.
Most of the steam engines where built before WWI and if age is a factor i should be shown (thomas really should sound like he is 100 years old. Can't stay young forever!)
It would be since to see some America counterpart engines and rolling stock. Imagine an EMD SW1500 switcher or SD40-2 or GP38-2. The SW-series would out pull every engine on the island with its good traction effect and 1500 horsepower. I don't think Gordon or any diesel has close to 1500.

Posted by: Tony James | Aug 15, 2016 6:34:51 PM

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