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This edition: Season 2, Episode 5: "The Hunger Games"

Episode Details

Original tape date: January 15, 2016.

First aired: April 15, 2016.

In episode #205 of Science Goes to the Movies, series co-hosts Dr. Heather Berlin and Faith Salie are joined by Jared Bernstein, Senior Fellow at The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former economic adviser to Vice President Biden, to talk about economics in “The Hunger Games.”

First, the economy in the world of “The Hunger Games” – called Panem – is compared to our current economic model, and Bernstein considers how the movie franchise might function as a cautionary tale for America. Bernstein explains Panem as an “extractive economy,” and America’s as an “inclusive economy” with growing exceptions. The way in which the hunger games themselves pit poor people against one another is compared to what happens to poor people in America’s economy – one in which people are sometimes denied the right to unionize and therefore can’t participate in collective bargaining. Bernstein then explains how immigrant groups are often blamed by American politicians for a shortage of jobs or opportunities, creating tensions between low-income groups.

The way the balkanization of sectors within Panem enables the continuation of the oppressive system, and how working together threatens that system, forms the basis of the next part of the discussion. Parallels to the American labor movement are carefully considered, as is the way in which a growing underclass can lead to economic instability. Trends in the wages and living standards of the median household are discussed next.

Bernstein then shares his view of why such dystopian stories are so popular among young people right now, and explains what a pyramid economy is, as well as its inherent problems. This type of economy is related to Iraq, and how the American war there presumed removal of the top of the pyramid would lead to democracy and a fix for economic problems. Bernstein then lays out the troubling reality of how America’s pyramid economy systemically perpetuates itself. As a point of comparison, Panem is considered for the way in which those born into one class can never move into another – that if you’re born a coal miner, you die a coal miner – meaning that the Panem economy can never benefit from what Bernstein calls “labor mobility,” which allows individuals to transcend the life into which they were born.

The Solow Residual is then carefully explained, and how it’s used to assess changes in output for an economy without adjusting the inputs. How an authoritarian exploitive leader like Snow in The Hunger Games typically gets replaced by another such leader is analyzed, as is how far Panem is from being a democracy. The way in which a concentration of wealth, such as what exists today in America, can threaten democracy and the inclusiveness of the economy is laid out next.

The Broken Window Fallacy, and how it relates to The Hunger Games, makes for the final topic of the show – in particular how the hunger games, rather than boosting the economy of Panem, function to diminish its economic potential. Military Keynesianism, Opportunity Costs, and Command Economies are the final economic concepts to be discussed.

Written and Produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz.

Science Goes to the Movies is made possible by generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Guest List

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

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