What Thanos Got Wrong

Note from Charles: I worked with Bill Washinski for years when I was living in Florida, and we collaborated on several research projects. In the spirit of the upcoming Avengers movie. I enjoyed his piece here on “the economics of Thanos,” and I hope you do too. –Charles

Tomorrow, April 24, Avengers: Endgame, the sequel to the $2 billion hit movie Avengers: Infinity War will be released in China, with releases in the rest of the world to quickly follow. This brings to a climax a story line that has been more than a decade in the making, starting with 2008’s Iron Man

In all of the anticipation, there has been a lot of discussion around social media and other outlets about Thanos and the merits his plan to eliminate half of the population of every planet in the universe with “The Snap”.  

To some, Thanos isn’t a villain at all. He’s a misunderstood hero doing what needs to be done to save humanity from the consequences of overpopulation and the exhaustion of resources. Indeed, throughout history many (if not most) conflicts have been fought over limited resources. And in an era in which global warming is one of the biggest and thorniest political issues, there are plenty of people out there who believe a smaller population is ideal.

It stands to reason that the Earth probably has a finite carrying capacity. There may be some upper population limit at which we’ve officially outgrown our planet.

It was 18th century demographer Thomas Malthus who first popularized the idea of the Earth reaching its carrying capacity. Mathusianism stated that “the power of population is indefinitely greater that the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” 

Thanos made the same point in Infinity War:  “It’s simple calculus, the universe has finite resources and if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.”

However, despite his omnipotent power, Thanos is lousy statistician. Had he bothered to check, he would have seen that the birth rate has been in a state of free fall since the U.N. began keeping track of it in the 1950s.  This is a product of industrialization, as children in the modern era are no longer a source of cheap labor but rather a major expense.

The birthrate was 37.2 Births per 1,000 from 1950-1955, dropping nearly in half to 19.4 Births per 1000 from 2010-2015.  This has nothing to do with declining resources as much as it does economic factors – it can cost $200,000 – $300,000 to raise a child in the United States (not including the costs of college education).  Massive improvements in infant mortality also played a role, as parents felt less needs to have “spare” children.

But not only is population growing at a slower rate; some countries are actually shrinking. Japan’s population started to decline in 2011, and the country had a record low 15 million births in 2018.  Western European nations average only 1.6 children per woman, which is not enough to replace the existing generation. So, it is only a matter of time before Europe as a whole begins to shrink.

Thanos tried to “fix” a problem that nature and economics seems to already be fixing on its own. We’ve already moved past a point of maximum growth.

Let’s look at other aspects of Mad Titan’s madness. His cutting out half the population could have drastic negative effects.  In the movie he references how another character’s home world was a paradise after he culled the population. This is a short-sighted view, that a smaller population with more resources to sustain them made it a better world, is incredibly naïve.

Imagine if Thanos came and did his snap before Henry Ford developed the assembly line for cars or before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin? What if Bill Gates was turned to dust before he created Microsoft or Steve Jobs before he created Apple?  What kind of brilliant minds that could have made our lives more efficient and productive would have been suddenly ripped from existence before they could implement their products?

Imagine your world today before the smart phone or software that could increase your productivity and income or you were still behind a carriage on the way to work?  Thanos may have made for an interesting villain and a great movie; but his solution of eliminating population also eliminates productivity and innovation – and this writer hopes the foolish and simple-minded snap is undone this weekend by a series of heroes that have earned a lot of respect over the years by some great minds leading the way like Kevin Fiege. 

Oh no, what if Fiege was not head of Marvel Studios because he turned to dust?  Perhaps there would be no need for this article then!

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