Hunger Games: Is A Capitol-Districts Economy Possible?

Slate is an online magazine founded by a former editor of The New Republic and now owned by The Washington Post. Like its mother and father publications, it is not a surprise that Slate leans hard to the political left. Nonetheless, if one is steeled to partisan comments offered as undeniable ‘givens,’ a commonplace of both left, right, and center (there is a center?) in American discourse today, Slate provides as often as not delightful reading on substantive subjects and another, fresh look at worn topics. To risk a rough analogy, Slate is to reading online what NPR is to radio; shamelessly leftist messaging in a sophisticated, challenging package.

Most of you already knew all that, I’m guessing, but I review it because Slate loves The Hunger Games — and you could spend a big chunk of your day (as I have) digging into and thinking about The Complete Slate ‘Hunger Games’ Collection. Are all of them worth the time to read? No. The ‘Meet Suzanne Collins‘ piece is a two paragraph piece that tells us exactly nothing about her (compare), for example, and ‘The Problem of Tesserae Inflation‘ is just a failed reading of the books (and something like innumerancy).

Most, however, reward the reader with either a new take on the dystopian trilogy or raise a smile (see ‘Hunger Games Premiere Offers New Possible Object of Your Twilight Disdain‘ for a little of the latter). My favorite? The Economics of The Hunger Games: Could any real country have an economy like Panem’s? Actually, yes.

Read the whole thing and you’ll learn quite a bit, if you’re like me, about “extractive colonial economies” and how the relative absence (or compliance) of Native Americans in New England shaped US economic and political history. Not to mention what we pick up about Panem and the end of Mockingjay. And, for Slate, the politics was relatively muted; yes, colonial regimes cursed their captive peoples with extractive regimes, but, no, those peoples once liberated haven’t chosen a better way.

I confess it made credible an aspect of the story I had found unbelievable, namely, that the Districts could be so small and live in such poverty and still support a city with the numbers and decadence of the Capitol. It’s still far-fetched, but after reading this piece I found the transparency requires a lot less fantasy-suspension-of-disbelief to look through.

It even gave me a new perspective on stories like The Washington Post’s Five Years Into the Mexican Drug War and The Christian Science Monitor’s Drugs on the Other Southern Border: Nightmare in Puerto Rico. I assume that dystopian fiction is a lens through which to view our own cultures. I confess, though, to being surprised at how challenging Ms. Collins’ vision is to the “all is right with the world” cocoon we live in.

Your comments and correction are coveted!


  1. This is a fascinating post. There are many examples in recent times of kleptocratic rulers successfully ‘extracting’ billions of dollars to line their own purses (and closets, and wine cellars, etc), while leaving their nation’s citizenry in dire poverty. Here is a list from a Wikipedia entry on kleptocracy:

    Former Indonesian President Suharto ($15 billion – $35 billion)
    Former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos ($5 billion – $10 billion)
    Former Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko ($5 billion)
    Former Nigerian Head of State Sani Abacha ($2 billion – $5 billion)
    Former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan Milošević ($1 billion)
    Former Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier ($300 million – $800 million)
    Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori ($600 million)
    Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko ($114 million – $200 million)
    Former Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán ($100 million)
    Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada ($78 million – $80 million)

    In addition, other sources have listed former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as having stolen $1 billion to $10 billion.

    North Korea is another prime example of a Panem-style country. Brutal oppression, including starvation, torture, mass imprisonment in concentration camps, and nearly universal impoverishment, is the rule for the Districts, while a small elite loyal to the “Dear Leader’ enjoys vast wealth and the right to live in the Capitol (as long as they toe the political line — and don’t you forget it Cinna!).

    According to an Aug 20, 2010 Wall Street Journal report, North Korea’s late ‘Dear Leader’, in contrast to his subjects, “wears only Moreschi shoes….For his timepieces, he prefers Omega, which he also gave out to staff.

    “Even his beverage tastes ran on the pricey side. Apparently, he had a thirst for Perrier bottled water and Martell Cognac. The Dear Leader’s favorite car, at least when he is traveling, is the Mercedes-Benz S600 Guard limousine.

    “According to one defector, Mr. Kim’s luxury appetite was so large that his personal expenses soaked up 20% of the nation’s budget.”

    Just as in Panem, the North Korean media is completely controlled by the government and includes all sorts of packaged propaganda masquerading as entertainment and news.

    Among the things I loved about the HG movie were the scenes in Snow’s magnificent rose garden, which made such a brutal visual contrast to the scenes shot in District 12.

  2. This interview is with Mr. Shin Dong Hyuk, a refugee who was born and raised in a North Korean prison camp for political dissidents. The parallels with Collins’ portrayal of Panem are startling. Hunger is a daily reality. Forced (arranged) marriages were the rule. Torture was commonplace.

    In escaping from the camp, Hyuk left the man who helped him trapped in the barbed wire fencing — all he was concentrating on in the midst of his hunger and hope, was his own escape. The reality of the choices that people are forced into under such brutalizing totalitarian regimes makes N. D. Wilson’s comments on the Hunger Games seem juvenile and ill-informed.

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