Michael Corleone and the Economics of ‘The Godfather’

The Mafia family heir had a college education. Did it pay off?

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
The Godfather 50th anniversary screening event in Los Angeles
The Godfather 50th anniversary screening event in Los Angeles
The Godfather 50th anniversary premiere screening event in Los Angeles on Feb. 22. CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images

A portion of this year’s Oscars ceremony on March 27 will be devoted to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of The Godfather—the saga of an Italian American Mafia family that’s widely considered among the best movies of all time. It has been interpreted by critics as a story about the pitfalls of American culture, family loyalty, and ambition.

But it’s also a movie with no shortage of economic themes. What kind of economic function does the Mafia serve, and how does it get its start? Does going to college help you escape a life of crime—or just make you better at it? And why don’t we see more movies like The Godfather in theaters today?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze.

A portion of this year’s Oscars ceremony on March 27 will be devoted to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of The Godfather—the saga of an Italian American Mafia family that’s widely considered among the best movies of all time. It has been interpreted by critics as a story about the pitfalls of American culture, family loyalty, and ambition.

But it’s also a movie with no shortage of economic themes. What kind of economic function does the Mafia serve, and how does it get its start? Does going to college help you escape a life of crime—or just make you better at it? And why don’t we see more movies like The Godfather in theaters today?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.

Cameron Abadi: The director Francis Ford Coppola recently said, in essence, it’s unlikely he could have made The Godfather today because studios are only interested in investing in superhero blockbusters like the Marvel movies. But this was a movie that made nearly $300 million in ticket sales off a budget of just $6.5 million. What are the economics that explain why more studios don’t see these kinds of movies as a market opportunity?

Adam Tooze: I’m kind of wary of the fact that I’m so much in sympathy with Coppola on this because it makes me feel like a grumpy old man. I find the Marvel franchises, which I only really watch over other people’s shoulders on airplanes, just kind of incomprehensibly tedious.

But if you dig into it, it does kind of make sense, right? The logic of filmmaking, economically, appears to basically bifurcate. So imagine two lotteries, and basically the independent filmmaking lottery, where most of the films get made, is at a relatively low cost to get into. Say The Godfather budget would still allow you to make a small indie movie today. But on average, they lose money. So you put a relatively small stake in, and some of them will strike it incredibly rich, like The Godfather. But on average, they lose money. So there’s a long tail of loss-making films that never really earn their money back, even the small amount of money put in.

And then there’s another lottery, where the odds of winning are much higher, where, on average, the films make substantial money. But to be in that business, you need to be able to front the costs of a $60 million, $100 million, $200 million production, right? And even here, there’s a huge asymmetry between the most successful outlets and the others, the also-rans. Even in that group, it’s highly concentrated. So it’s a kind of winner-take-all business, and your ability to generate those winner-take-all returns depends heavily on networks, on brands, on being able to monopolize the screen.

What has totally changed the economics of all of this is streaming and Netflix, which have a variety of different channels. As we know, they can milk the niches much more effectively than the big studio film productions. Which is why I don’t find a lot I can watch in the cinemas, but there’s an enormous amount of great stuff to watch in streaming.

CA: It sounds as if that’s why the next Godfather will probably be a 10-part Netflix series.

AT: It’s The Sopranos. I mean, this is silly, right? Coppola—he’s just denying the fact that it was made, and it’s The Sopranos.

CA: To turn to the movie: One of the plot points of The Godfather is that Michael Corleone, the heir of the family business, is the only one of his siblings to attend college. And this seems to mark his success at strategizing against his rivals and also achieving some legitimacy for his family’s empire. But is there some evidence of a link there in reality—between higher education and success in organized crime?

AT: So this is a fascinating question and a key plotline: Michael Corleone’s efforts to sort of escape his fate as the son of the Godfather. You and I were going back and forth about this earlier, and I put it out on Twitter to ask for help. Because if you Google the question of education and criminality, all you find is overwhelmingly large numbers of studies that show, of course, that education and crime are negatively correlated. The longer you keep young men in education, the less crime there is. The more young men fail at education, the more likely they are to become criminal. That’s the be-all and end-all of the entire story. And so there are literally hundreds of thousands of things that come up.

But there were a set of studies done in the 2010s that pointed to something rather more interesting, which is: Of the group of people who become criminals, especially in organized crime, does education make a difference? And I just want to give a shoutout to the two people on Twitter who, even more quickly than you, were able to point me to the study, which was widely discussed a few years ago. It took a sample of folks convicted for organized crime activities in the United States and tracked their education. And it turns out that, especially in the Italian American immigrant community, the rate of return to an extra year of education in criminal activity is really rather significant. On average, the mobsters have less education than their non-mobster peers—but within the mobster group, the ones who do have more education do better, earn more. And unsurprisingly, they tend to go into the more steady, you know, math-y, wonky areas of crime like embezzlement and what we were talking about the other day, namely, bookmaking.

CA: The movie also offers flashbacks about how the family business got started. And it seems to imply that the Mafia got its start in the United States because of a failure by the government to enforce order in immigrant communities in New York, in Little Italy. Is that an accurate depiction of the Mafia’s origins?

AT: It’s a question that has been, in fact, quite intensively researched by economic historians because what the Mafia does—if you set aside the criminality label, right, the question really is who do you pay for coercion? That’s really what the Mafia story is about, viewed from an economic point of view. Who’s paying whom for coercive services, and what profits do coercive services generate?

And so the basic story about the emergence of the Sicilian Mafia is that it only achieves something like a formal organization from the 1860s onward. And the argument, basically, among the socioeconomic historians of Sicily is that it emerged because of a disturbance in the previously existing balance of property and coercion. So if you think about the feudal system, which prevailed in large parts of Sicily through to the early 1800s: The large lords, the large landowners, keep their own private armies to defend their property and their cattle and their crops. And as that order breaks down in the course of the 19th century, as the large landowners sell off their land and then the Italian state, which takes over Sicily in the 1860s, sells off public land and church land, you have large numbers of small property owners. And they can’t afford their own private armies. And so the Mafia emerges effectively, on this economistic reading, as a contracted-out enforcement agency that you, as a small landowner, end up relying on. Of course, the Mafia also ensures that you do.

And those cultures, then, of protection were transplanted into politics because the Mafia needs to get legal immunity. And you do that by supporting the judges and the politicians. And then this gets exported worldwide because another way of escaping Italian justice is to go to the United States, which is how the Mafiosi first came to America. And there they blend with immigrant mobsters, organized gangs in pressure cookers like New York, where they are by no means the first movers. The first movers are the Irish and then the East European Jews. And so that then kind of widens out. So there’s this sort of melting pot of gangsterism in the United States, which does seem to rely on these immigrant communities of self-protection where you buy protection through connections.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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