[UPDATED] Yglesias asks if “any real country could have an economy like Panem’s?” His answer comes via a synopsis of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail:

The places that are rich today were poor then, while those that are poor today were generally rich in the past. This, they argue, is no coincidence. When Spanish conquistadors showed up in the prosperous areas of Latin America, they stole all the gold they could get their hands on and then set about putting the native populations to work. They set up “extractive institutions” whose purpose was to wring as many natural resources (silver, gold, food) from the land as possible while keeping power in the hands of a narrow elite. These institutions discourage savings and investment, since everyone knows any wealth can and will be arbitrarily expropriated. And while the injustice of it all led to periodic revolutions, the typical pattern was for the new boss to simply seize control of the extractive institutions and run them for his own benefit.

In short, Yglesias thinks that Panem makes sense when it comes to raw-materials extraction and agriculture, but less well when it comes to the production of complicated manufactured goods.

Collins wisely avoids going into detail about what life is supposed to be like in Districts specializing in luxury goods or electronics. It’s difficult to have a thriving economy in electronics production without a competitive market featuring multiple buyers and multiple sellers. 

Absent market competition, personal computers never would have disrupted the mainframe market and the iPhone and Android never would have revolutionized telecommunications. Entrenched monopolists have no interest in developing new technologies that shake things up. It’s difficult to get real innovation-oriented competitive markets without secure property rights, and exceedingly difficult to have secure property rights without some diffusion of political power. That needn’t mean real democratic equality—a standard the United States and Europe didn’t meet until relatively recently—but it does mean fairly broad power-sharing, as the U.S. has had from the beginning.

Yglesias’ line of analysis is pretty unobjectionable, but it does run into a few issues.

First, in relative terms, Panem’s core and inner-periphery appear to have developed consumer markets.  Capitol itself is given to conspicuous consumption and its elite enjoy a particularly high standard of living, even by contemporary US standards. The low-numbered Districts, particularly Districts 1 and 2, are far more prosperous than District 12. Just because a polity engages in significant economic extraction does not mean that its metropole and more prosperous peripheries cannot produce market forces that drive at least some innovation, as was the case with European colonial empires and any number of city-state empires.

Second, the more interesting interaction is, as Yglesias touches on but doesn’t give adequate attention to, whether Panem’s totalitarian impulses discourage innovation. This is a much broader topic, but my sense is that we shouldn’t confuse the “innovation gap” between, say, the United States and the USSR with a claim about lack of innovation in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was, for much of its life-cycle, reasonably innovative on a number of scientific fronts. Given Panem’s apparent lack of full-fledged international competitors–and hence fears about a technology gap with other states or empires–I don’t see a major problem for Collins on this front.

Indeed, as one of Yglesias’ commentators points out, Panem exists at least a few centuries in our future in a post-collapse environment.

My reading of the technology of Panem is that it is largely stagnant itself, much of it the remnants of a more enlightened time before what seems to have been an somewhat apocalyptic event. What advancement their is is indulgent and trivial. It is implied, for instance, that life in District 12 has not changed much for a long time – no new ways of mining, neither more nor less oppressive than it had been, no indication of technological progression. You can imagine an electronics district that is like Foxconn etc; capable of competently creating electronics with all the necessary precision, but not particularly invested or interested in *what* they are making.

Third, Yglesias misses one of the more important consideration regarding Panem’s plausibility: the size of its population. District 12’s population is around eight thousand. One impressively obsessive estimate places Panem’s entire population at no more than four million–a number that strike me as extremely high from the scattering of information found in the novels. This high estimate would make Panem’s population roughly that of late medieval/early modern England, less than half that of New York City. This is an exceedingly small population, and one dispersed over a territory the stretches from at least modern-day Colorado to to eastern Kentucky. I am not convinced that Panem’s population, which may very well number in the low hundreds of thousands, could sustain its economy.

All of these speculations run into a fundamental problem. We are discussing a society with extraordinarily advanced genetic engineering, let alone other futuristic technologies. Moreover, Panem resides in a world with a much diminished carrying capacity. We should not assume that the economic logic of the present, let alone the premodern past, provides us with clear guidance for assessing Panem’s plausibility.

[UPDATE]: I hope that PM has more to say about this later, but one implication of Panem’s low population should be very expensive labor–which raises questions about the Capitol’s choice of labor-intensive production techniques, most notably in the Districts devoted to raw-material production and basic manufacturing. But this isn’t really much of a mystery once we recognize that Panem’s economic system is subservient to its political structure. The Capitol’s segmentation of the Districts by position in the chain of production, its creation of artificial energy scarcity, and its monopolization of the flow of resources among the Districts… these are classic, if rather extreme, forms of divide and rule. So if we want to assess Panem economics, we need to do so through the lens of political economy. Or as Aristotle might say, politics really is the master science.

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