In a few days’ time, Avengers: Endgame will hit the cinemas, and the universe’s mightiest heroes will resume their battle against the supervillain Thanos. Thanos fascinates me not only because he’s the best bad guy since Darth Vader — but because the muscular utilitarian is an economist on steroids.
Thanos’s claim to the economists’ hall of fame lies in his interest in scarce resources, his faith in the power of logical analysis, and a strong commitment to policy action — specifically, to eliminate half of all life in the universe, chosen at random. He collects some magical bling enabling him to do this with a snap of his fingers.
“It’s a simple calculus,” he explains. “This universe is finite, its resources, finite . . . if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.”
I think it’s fair to say that since Thanos first took centre stage in Avengers: Infinity War, he has become the most popular economist around. People love his logic and his utilitarian commitment to maximising happiness. Many were delighted that Thanos succeeded. They accepted his argument that the alternative to the swift, dispassionate and fair-minded elimination of half the universe was the slow and choking death-by-overpopulation of everybody. A discussion board on Reddit, “Thanos Did Nothing Wrong”, acquired hundreds of thousands of members before beginning a mass purge of half of them — randomly chosen, of course.
It seems unlikely that Thanos has ever heard of Robert Malthus, but one suspects his scriptwriters have. Malthus was an English clergyman and economist who published, in 1798, an argument observing that exponential population growth could far outstrip any linear improvement in food production.
Malthus’s “simple calculus” works the same way as that of Thanos, but Malthus was not a believer in catastrophe. While Thanos claims the universe is out of balance, Malthus thought that population was tragically self-balancing, thanks to “a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence”. Whenever living standards looked like improving, he argued, population would increase to consume the spare resources, and everyone would be back at subsistence levels once again. Thanos predicts that overpopulation would lead to catastrophe, while Malthus saw population growth as a reliable source of everyday misery.
The two men also differ in their policy recommendations. While Thanos kills trillions, Malthus baulked at the sin of birth control. Yet I feel that Thanos offers us a cautionary tale. His tragedy is that he hasn’t fully thought through the likely consequences of his favoured policy.
Thanos, observing that there were too many people, decided to kill half of them. But this is curiously short-sighted for a man regarded by many as a policy prophet. Any exponential population growth process will soon replace the lost people: that is why exponential growth is such a headache in the first place. For example, if an economy’s resource footprint grows exponentially at a rate of 7 per cent, it doubles in just ten years — meaning that in less time than has elapsed since the first Iron Man movie, we could be back where we started.
The only lasting solution is an economy that uses resources at a sustainable rate. Malthus’s qualms notwithstanding, contraception has been a very good start. The world population growth rate is steadily approaching a very sustainable-sounding zero.
Thanos has convinced himself that’s he’s seen something nobody else can quite understand. The truth is that he sorely needs peer review. Like many powerful people, he regards himself as above his critics, not to mention every sapient being in the universe. He views humans less as free-willed agents capable of solving their own problems, and more like overbreeding rabbits, needing a cull for their own good.
We puny economists lack the snapocalyptic power of Thanos, but some of us share his lack of humility. A friend of mine once invented a Thanos-esque supervillain called “Socio-economist Man” (definitely a man) who would deliberately cause traffic jams, provoke accidents or even plant deadly bombs, because he calculated that the indirect consequences of these actions would promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Not every social scientist has such ruthless confidence in their models. At best, we’ve learned that the economy is a complicated system and unintended consequences abound. But once the data are gathered and the graphs plotted, it can be all too easy to convince ourselves that we understand the system well enough to improve it with drastic changes. We don’t.
The best economist, then, recognises the importance of scarcity and of painful trade-offs, like Thanos. But unlike Thanos, she doesn’t treat everyone as pawns on a chessboard and instead seeks out constructive criticism and advocates gradual action, avoiding irreversible moves. The snapocalypse, by contrast, is not gradual. Neither is it reversible — unless the Avengers have anything to do with it.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 19 April 2019.