I should be working. I need to get The Temporary Hero out to my Beta readers. I have new covers for my first two novels, and I need to get them republished. I’m still working on the manuscript for Terms of Engagement and it’s not gonna finish itself. My writing group meets on Saturday and I have no idea what I’m gonna bring to share.
I should be working, but right now I’ve got something on my mind. Black Panther.
Like good little Marvelphiles, my family went out to see it on opening weekend, and it’s high time I wrote about it. This won’t be a review, per se. Rather, I’m going to talk about something I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else.
Let’s talk economics.
At first glance, Wakanda is a paradise. In every scene, we see a happy, peaceful and productive populace engaged in traditional pursuits like herding, farming, and mining a super-metal capable of untold wonders. We’re introduced to a gleaming city, unspoiled by racism, poverty or strife. Its teeming marketplace is filled with content shoppers and prosperous vendors conducting commerce in the shade of towering masterpieces of Wakandan architecture. Within those structures, we can only imagine the heights of super-science being achieved by smart, good-looking scientists. And, all the while, this marvelous society is overseen by a wise and just ruler, the Black Panther.
Sadly, none of it makes sense.
For starters, the city itself has no reason to exist. They don’t have trade to conduct with other nations. They aren’t selling their vibranium. I don’t see any smokestacks, so they don’t appear to be smelting or manufacturing there. So, other than super-science, what the hell is going on in those buildings? Are they apartments? Do they have a hell of a lot of lawyers?
One thing is for sure, they have a lot of people living there. Setting aside the sanitization needs of that many people, perhaps vibranium turns waste into gold or something, they need to be doing something. City-dwellers specialize, and they can’t all be doing super-science. What tasks do they perform to contribute to the economic life of the nation? How do they earn money to buy things in that marketplace downstairs?
I have no idea.
But, I’ll tell you this: they can’t eat vibranium. It appears all the food comes from the rural tribes. We see the Rhino tribe out on the savanna, and in other scenes, we see signs of agriculture and animal husbandry, so that must be where the food comes from. There must be a lot more of those folks than appear on the screen to keep that city fed.
That begs the question, what do they get in return? Well, vibranium tools and weapons seems to be a good answer. Only, that stuff’s made of of vibranium. They don’t break. I mean, how many assagis and screwdrivers do you really need? Farming and herding is hard work. Seems like a guy who lives that sort of life will want a little bit more for his efforts than free health care.
We know from economics that self-sufficiency is the path to poverty. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a couple of articles by Matt Ridley and John D. Cook that explain it better than I can.
The core of the argument is that, if you produce everything you need yourself, you’ll wind up spending all your working time doing that and you’ll never produce any excess that you can trade to others. In other words, you will never generate wealth. You’ll exist at the subsistence level. You’ll be crushingly poor, eking out a hand-to-mouth existence for yourself and your family.
So, we’ve learned, as a species, to specialize. I program computers, you fix cars, the guy across the street is a plumber, etc. We can trade goods and services and everybody’s life gets better. But, it’s not perfect. If the guy who raises chickens has a good year, the rest of us don’t necessarily want more chickens, and his surplus goes to waste. In fact, the need to feed those extra beaks might inflict a hardship upon him. But, if he can trade them to people outside our community, he can at least get something for his trouble.
So, here’s where Wakanda starts to run into trouble. Their economy is closed. They don’t have contact with the outside world other than spies, the crusading Nakia, and the occasional visit to the UN. This means that feeding that city is a burden borne entirely by the tribes in the countryside. People that have a hard enough life just to keep themselves afloat and they don’t get much in return. They surely don’t have enough food to trade outside the country, even if this were allowed. In fact, the only thing they have that they can sell is vibranium, which they won’t do.
So, if I’m reading this right, the hidden truth of Wakanda is that it might not be the paradise we’re led to believe it is. The city is filled with a wealthy elite caste who do little and consumes much, while the rest of the country is populated by overworked rural people who are getting the short end of the stick.
If you ask me, this goes a long way toward explaining why so many people from the rural tribes were willing to support Killmonger’s dream of conquest.