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POLITICS: PennAve

The economics of ‘Elysium’

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Movies,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy

Hollywood is intruding into some of Washington’s hottest debates this weekend with the opening of the sci-fi blockbuster “Elysium.”

Variety reports that the movie, starring Matt Damon and directed by Neill Blomkamp of “District 9″ fame, will feature a number of topics on lawmakers’ minds this August recess, advancing “one of the more openly socialist political agendas of any Hollywood movie in memory, beating the drum loudly not just for universal healthcare, but for open borders, unconditional amnesty and the abolition of class distinctions as well.”

“Elysium” is set in Los Angeles in 2154, but Blomkamp said in an interview with ScreenCrave that it’s “so much more a metaphor for today in my mind” rather than a work of “speculative science-fiction.”

In the story, while the earth has descended into an environmentally degraded, overpopulated slum, members of the 1 percent have retired to a utopian space colony named Elysium. There, the wealthy have access to cutting-edge healthcare technologies that those below lack. When Damon’s character falls ill, he tries to sneak into Elysium for life-saving care, but the colony fiercely guards itself from any outsiders.

The key plot devices of “Elysium” are economic. One that Blomkamp sketched out in an interview with Wired magazine is the fear that “we’re going to go down the road of a Malthusian catastrophe,” as happens in Los Angeles in the movie.

Thomas Malthus, a 1700s British priest and scholar, argued that gains in economic productivity would only lead in the long run to increased populations rather than higher standards of living. A Malthusian catastrophe is when population growth outpaces productivity, making a catastrophe such as famine, war or disease inevitable.

Shortly after Malthus wrote, however, the Industrial Revolution took place and, for the first time in human history, productivity outpaced population growth for multiple centuries.

Just because living standards have skyrocketed over the past 200 years, however, doesn’t mean that they will continue to do so and the world will avoid an “Elysium”-style future.

In fact, in a recent paper titled “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?” Stanford economist Robert Gordon argued that “there was virtually no growth before 1750, and thus there is no guarantee that growth will continue indefinitely.” Gordon suggested that, because of a number of “headwinds” facing the economy and technology, “the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history.”

Gordon’s study includes a chart of per-person economic growth. It clearly shows that for many centuries, there was effectively no growth — and that growth has recently slowed:

Nevertheless, the majority of economists don’t side with Blomkamp and Gordon. According to a 2006 survey of members of the American Economics Association conducted by Wake Forest’s Robert Whaples, “most economists are not worried that we will run out of resources or hopelessly wreck the environment, crippling economic growth in a Malthusian fashion.”

Furthermore, economists expect strong growth for the foreseeable future in America and the rest of the world, although they expect sub-Saharan Africa to remain poor.

Another key plot device in “Elysium” is that the residents of the luxurious space station keep out earth’s poor inhabitants with ruthless tactics and heavily armed police forces, led by a character played by Jodie Foster.

Samuel Bowles, a researcher at the Santa Fe Institute, wrote a 2005 paper connecting inequality with what he calls “guard labor”: workers engaged not in productive activity, but in enforcing the property rights and assets of those who are. Guard labor includes not just security guards, but also work supervisors, police, the military and prisoners.

The problem with high levels of guard labor, the study suggests, is that those workers’ time could be used better. According to Bowles and his co-author Arjun Jayadev, roughly a quarter of the U.S. labor force was dedicated to guard labor in 2002.

That could be a product of rising inequality in America, as Bowles and Jayadev note that higher inequality correlates with higher shares of guard labor, as the wealthy have more to protect.

If Bowles and Jayadev are correct, “Elysium” gets one thing right: if inequality rises so steeply that the richest humans are literally on a different planet from everyone else, there would be an explosion in guard labor – the perfect premise for an action flick.

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