Thanos: The Super-Villain Economist : Planet Money The Avengers super-villain Thanos saw the universe as a place of too many people and too few resources: a classic economic dilemma. His solution: Kill half the population.
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The Super-Villain Economist

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The Super-Villain Economist

The Super-Villain Economist

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Listeners, summer is almost here.

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

GARCIA: Time to relax, go to the beach, maybe catch one of those big summer blockbuster films.

VANEK SMITH: And, you know, it's funny, Cardiff, because, you know, I've been reporting on economics for all these years. And now, when I go to the movies, even if I'm watching some random movie that has nothing to do with economics at all, I always, like, see the economics in it.

GARCIA: I'm not surprised.

VANEK SMITH: Like when I saw "Black Panther," I kept obsessing about Vibranium, which is this powerful metal that is only found in this country of Wakanda. And I had all these questions about it. I was like, wait, what can it do? How do they mine it?

GARCIA: I know. It's like we're programmed not to be able to enjoy a movie just from what's in the movie.

VANEK SMITH: No one wants to go to the movies with me because who wants to leave "Black Panther" and be like, wait - and, like, talk about Vibranium for an hour.

GARCIA: But this is also why we were so excited to hear from economist Tim Harford and have him back on the show. Tim is a columnist for the Financial Times. And he recently wrote a column about the huge mega superhero blockbuster movie "The Avengers." And he had this whole economic theory about it.

VANEK SMITH: So the Avengers are a gang of superheroes, including Spider-Man and Thor and the Incredible Hulk. And they all, you know, band together to fight crime. In this case, they band together to fight this supervillain named Thanos who's this big, blue muscly guy with a very dastardly plan.

GARCIA: A terrifying plan.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

GARCIA: It was based on this really controversial belief system that was laid out by a famous economist in the late 1700s.

VANEK SMITH: Today on the show, THE INDICATOR goes to the movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: Tim Harford, economist, columnist for the Financial Times, we are going to start very basically - will you explain who Thanos is?

TIM HARFORD: Thanos is the world's sexiest economist, but that may not mean anything to anybody. So...

VANEK SMITH: Just depends on how you feel about blue skin, right? Doesn't he have blue skin?

HARFORD: Well - I know, he's ripped. The guy is ripped.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

HARFORD: And yes, Thanos thinks there are too many people in the universe. And he wants to do something about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR")

JOSH BROLIN: (As Thanos) I'm the one who stopped that.

ZOE SALDANA: (As Gamora) Because you murdered half the planet.

BROLIN: (As Thanos) A small price to pay for salvation.

SALDANA: (As Gamora) You're insane.

BROLIN: (As Thanos) Little one, it's a simple calculus. This universe is finite, its resources - finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.

VANEK SMITH: His initial worry as an economist is the fair allocation of resources.

HARFORD: Yeah, too many mouths to feed, not enough resources to go around, allocation of scarce resources. It's a classic economic problem. And so Thanos decides that he's going to get hold of some magical bling that, once he gets it all, all he needs to do is snap his fingers and half of all the living things in the universe will just disappear.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, there are economists who have proposed this kind of thing. I'm thinking specifically of Robert Malthus, who sort of had this kind of population control idea.

HARFORD: Well, Thomas Robert Malthus is very similar to Thanos in a lot of ways. He published an essay on the principle of population. So Malthus' point was, in the end, the population will bump up against the resource limit. And every time you make some progress in what your fields will produce or the material standard of living, people will just have a few more babies and they'll eat up all the extra resources. And so you'll always be at subsistence level. No matter what progress you make, population growth will always consume that progress.

Now, Thanos has a different vision. It's the same basic maths, but he's basically saying, well, things are going to look completely fine. And you're all going to be prosperous. And life will be peaceful. And everything will be great. And then one day, suddenly you'll hit the limit, and it'll be a catastrophe.

Now, to be honest, Malthus has been clearly proved wrong, but Thanos maybe is right. Maybe - there is certainly the possibility of this huge crash - climate change using up water, denuding the soil, whatever it is. So maybe Thanos' more catastrophic view of the same basic maths is going to come true.

VANEK SMITH: Right because Malthus, in fact, was wrong. It was 1798, and our food production, well, increased exponentially. Like the amount of food that we can produce just has exploded.

HARFORD: Yeah. I mean, the food production has done that and also the production of just everything else - the material resources. We have only - what? - 7 1/2 half billion people on the planet now. It's probably not going to get much past 10. Population growth is approaching zero. We are stabilizing.

VANEK SMITH: Right. We're hitting peak human.

HARFORD: Yeah. Now, of course, if we keep consuming more resources, more natural resources, more energy and so on, we could still get ourselves into trouble. And some people would say, actually, we're already consuming more than we can afford to consume. We're actually running down the capital. We're drinking the groundwater that's not being replaced and so on. So there may still be trouble. But the fundamental point that, oh, there's going to be this exponential growth in population - well, that is no longer true.

VANEK SMITH: So do you think Thanos is just, like, sort of an old-fashioned economist? Is he just like, I don't know, behind in his thinking, maybe a little less time at the gym, a little more time reading white papers?

HARFORD: Even economists need to spend a bit of time at the gym. The truth is Thanos made one really big mistake. Let's say there is exponential growth in resource use. Maybe it's coming from population growth. Maybe it's coming from technological change. But whatever it is, we're just consuming more and more and more resources exponentially. If he's right about that, it is absolutely true that that is unsustainable. No finite universe can contain exponential growth forever.

But if he's right about that, why on earth would you solve the problem by just killing half of everybody? Because if you just kill half of everybody, you'd have the same problem again eventually because that's what exponential growth is like. I mean, that's the whole thing. He's just not thought it through. He hasn't thought it through at all.

So even if his logic is completely sound about the problem, he's just not figured out the solution, has he? If he's got the infinity stones and he can do pretty much anything he wants, you would think maybe develop technologies to aid the spread of contraception, to use resources more efficiently, for example. So you stabilize the population voluntarily rather than forcing people to not have children or just killing people, which he seems very keen on. Killing people - he's big into that.

VANEK SMITH: So, you know, Thanos gets his way. Half of all people in the universe die. What happens?

HARFORD: This is a super-interesting question. We do have a historical parallel, a near parallel which is the Black Death in the 1300s, I think.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, right.

HARFORD: A lot of people were killed. It turns out that one of the things you see is people's living standards, as far as we can tell, improved - exactly as Thanos would have predicted.

VANEK SMITH: I was not expecting that because there are, like, fewer people to buy things - smaller population, fewer people producing food and things like that. It seems like it would shrink an economy and be bad - but no.

HARFORD: Well, it would shrink the economy, but does it shrink the economy per person, which is what matters for living standards? You would think, in the long run, people will figure all this out and they will enjoy the benefits of the increased resources at the same time as mourning the dead. But yeah, a complex economy - there's going to be a lot of laws and insurance contracts and so on are just going to have to be torn up and just have to start again.

VANEK SMITH: Wow. That's so interesting. So Thanos maybe has some some grounds, but it sounds like it probably wouldn't work now.

HARFORD: It might indeed not work out the same way. I would hesitate to suggest that we could adjust after losing 3 1/2 - three-and-three-quarter billion people. But you never know.

VANEK SMITH: And, Cardiff, you watched the Avengers movie too. And you had an economic thought go through your mind as well, but it was a little bit different.

GARCIA: Yeah. Well, I just wanted to know why Thanos didn't just use the infinity stones to raise taxes because...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: ...The way in economics you get people to use less of something like resources is you tax the use of those resources. And then you encourage people to find, like, technological ways of using them more efficiently.

VANEK SMITH: Sure.

GARCIA: And so if he's got these infinity stones that he can use to kill half the universe, why not just raise taxes and all that stuff?

VANEK SMITH: Use them to raise taxes?

GARCIA: Yeah. It's way more ethical, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Constanza Gallardo, edited by Paddy Hirsch. Our intern is Willa Rubin. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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