First, let me warn you, this thing has more spoilers than the bottom drawer of my refrigerator.
I saw Avengers: Infinity War this weekend. I thought it was fantastic, but that’s not a big surprise if you’ve read my reviews. I love all these superhero movies. Aside from the fact that I’m easy to please, I thought it was pretty damned good. I loved the fights, the settings, the characters, heck, even the music.
But, I did have one problem.
Economically speaking, Thanos was a moron.
Thanos’ plan goes something like this: He believes the universe is overpopulated and running out of resources. His fix for this is to kill half of, well, everyone in the freakin’ universe. In doing so, he believes those that remain will have plenty of food and other resources and nobody will go hungry again.
He started out doing this manually, using an army and his inner circle, the Black Order, and butchered his way across the galaxy. At some point, he learned of the Infinity Stones, which would grant him unfathomable power and allow him to achieve his goal with the snap of his finger. What a time-saver! Knowing a good deal when he saw it, he set out to “catch ’em all”. This is pretty much where the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes in. Loki promised Thanos the Tesseract containing the Space Stone, which led to the events in the first Avengers movie.
(A quick side note: This isn’t how it shook out in the comics. There, Thanos’ plan was to murder half the universe to get the attention of Lady Death–whom Thanos was crushing on, big time. It was supposed to be some sort of love offering; a declaration of his devotion. I’ll note that Thanos’ motivation in this version is equally as idiotic. As anyone who ever tried to woo a woman by piling more work on her desk can attest, it doesn’t work.)
At first glance, perhaps Thano’s plan sounds like it will work. After all, if you only have half the mouths to feed, the food you got will go twice as far, right? If it sounds reasonable, don’t feel too bad. Hollywood’s been pumping out this sort of bad thinking for most of my life and I’m old as dirt.
Come, let me show you why the “Mad Titan” is full of crap.
Let’s keep this simple and look at something called the “Gross Domestic Product.” The GDP is the value of all goods produced by a population over the course of a given year. It’s calculated with the following formula:
GDP = private consumption + gross investment + government investment
+ government spending + (exports – imports).
If Thanos (and the writers of this movie) was even aware of this formula, it’s clear that he’s only looking at the first parameter, private consumption. So, cut that in half, and everybody’s piece of the pie shoots way up, right?
Uh, no. You see, all the other numbers drop by 50%, too. Assuming the Infinity Gauntlet is spreading the deaths fairly, which is one of Thanos’ stated principles, we only have half of the investors left. That cuts investment in half. There are now half as many taxpayers, so the government parameters are halved as well. We’re only importing and exporting half the stuff because half our customers just crumbled into dust. Those numbers go down, too.
We’re left with half the GDP we had before Thanos snapped his fingers.
In case I’ve left you in the dust, let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say a farmer can feed x people. Now, if Thanos cuts x by two, do you have twice as much food? Of course not, because the number of farmers has been cut by half, too. The same goes for doctors, energy suppliers, plumbers, teachers, and anything else you can think of. We wind up with half the people, but we also wind up with half the stuff.
You can’t fix a demand problem by eliminating half of the supply. That’s why murdering half the universe doesn’t solve the problem.
What if Thanos used the Gauntlet to double the supply? I just read an interesting article by Ben Kuchera on Polygon proposing just that. That’d fix everything, right?
Sadly, no. Twice as much ore in the ground doesn’t solve a steel shortage if you still have the same number of miners, steelworkers, smelting plants and railyards to transport it. A huge pile of food is going to just rot in the field if there aren’t enough hands to harvest it and ship it out. Here on Earth, we produce more food than we can use. And yet, we have people starving. Why? Because we can’t get the food to them.
I’ll leave it to you to choose who to blame. Personally, I think it’s because the costs imposed by governments make it economically prohibitive for food producers to move their products freely, but if you want to lay the blame at the feet of capitalism or “fat cats”, go right ahead. It’s a big problem and there’s plenty of blame to go around.
What Thanos might have done, had the film’s writers understood basic economics, is use the Infinity Gauntlet to create another stone. I call it the “Efficient Distribution” stone. Actually, there already was one. The Space Stone, the one that lets him teleport all over the universe. With that, he could get the food to markets that aren’t being served. I’m not surprised that Thanos doesn’t think of this, but Tony Stark was right freakin’ there and I know he’s had an economics class at some point. He could have explained it to the Titan, and he probably could have done it a lot better than I have.
With a snap of his fingers, Thanos could have solved the problem that perplexed him so. Instead, he didn’t solve the problem at all, and killed have the universe in the process.
Here’s how I would like to see Infinity War 2 go: Thanos, having enjoyed his “sun rising on a grateful universe” moment, decides to go out and take a victory lap. Everywhere he goes, however, he finds the same problems. People are still starving. Nations and even worlds are still fighting with each other. A starfaring civilization is on the verge of extinction because half the guys who know how to keep their ships running are gone. All the suffering he hoped to fix is still there. Perplexed, he teleports to Earth to get a decent cup of coffee (Earth ain’t much, but we have the best java in the universe). After waiting in a line he hadn’t expected–half the baristas are dead, after all–he finally gets a cup of joe (he doesn’t strike me as a latte guy) and easily finds a seat. Well, that’s nice, he thinks. Plenty of tables available at Starbucks. While he’s sitting there, sipping his beverage–better enjoy it, the girl behind the counter tells him. With half the coffee producers turned to dust, they don’t know how long it’ll be before they get another shipment–he spots a book left behind by what is now a pile of former human.
It’s Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. The mad Titan starts to read.
Yeah, I can dream.
Either that, or maybe he gets his dream date with Lady Death.