Henry George, Swift, and Piketty go to the movies (premises discussed, but no spoilers)

by on December 31, 2017 at 2:02 am in Economics, Film | Permalink

Yes, I’m talking about Downsizing, starring Matt Damon.  If Henry George is right about exorbitant rents and land scarcity, of course the solution is to shrink the people, thereby creating in real terms more land (plus solving a lot of environmental problems).  In this movie, shrinking people to a few centimeters tall raises the value of a dollar by about 1000x — how’s that for a Georgist result?  The small people live in splendid houses, massive relative to their diminutive size, and can eat all the gourmet food they want because they need only a snippet of foie gras or for that matter a very small piece of diamond.  Yet they still must interact (badly) with the larger world, thus the Swift connection.  How about Piketty?  Well, the small people have trouble mastering nature or producing for the larger outside world, so they are dependent on their preexisting wealth.  The wealth to income ratio is remarkably high, and woe unto anyone who has to rely on labor income in the “small world.”

Then the movie starts!  It’s an uneven film in a number of ways, still for economics “food for thought,” or for that matter social critique, I haven’t seen anything nearly as good for a while.

1 Steve Sailer December 31, 2017 at 2:15 am

There is somebody (unfortunately, I’ve forgotten his name) who has seriously proposed that the human race breed itself to be a foot or two shorter on the grounds that if people only weighed about half as much they’d consume much less and thus humanity’s ecological upon the earth would be more sustainable.


2 Axa December 31, 2017 at 3:55 am

1 foot thinner may work too. No eugenics required.


3 carlospln December 31, 2017 at 5:43 am

Drop and give me twenty pushups!


4 Tom December 31, 2017 at 7:36 am

So mankind must become a bunch of midgets? Is it what things have come to?


5 Boonton December 31, 2017 at 10:56 am

I cut out carbs and over the last 6 months shaved nearly 40 lbs from my weight. If everyone did that alone what would the impact be on environment and budgets?


6 Nick M December 31, 2017 at 11:55 am

Depends on what we ate instead. Beans and other plant-based proteins? Probably neutral environmentally since either way we’re farming the land. Might be a negative if you have to farm a greater area due to less dense calorie creation vs corn. Also certainly more expensive than corn or wheat calories. Meat? Definitely a loss on both counts. The cows and chickens consumed many times the calories they provide, so you have to grow more crops and it costs more.

Now, if we ate insects and plankton instead that might be both cheaper and better for the planet.


7 Mark Thorson December 31, 2017 at 12:24 pm

I did that too and also lost 40 lbs, but also with buying (and, importantly, using) an elliptical machine. (If you want an elliptical
for cheap, look on Craig’s list. There’s lots of machines with nearly no use available. People buy them and don’t use them.)

I’ve since read enough studies which suggest that the war against carbs is misplaced. It’s simple sugars you should avoid. Not just white sugar and HFCS, but also natural raw sugars in things like apple juice, grape juice, and honey. I now eat brown rice every day, and I don’t think it’s a problem. There’s also certain starches which apparently are converted to simple sugars readily (glycemic index) like crackers. I don’t eat those either. I came to believe the glycemic index theory about starches when I noticed whole wheat crackers made me sleepy. I have a strong insulin response to sugar, so sugary stuff or certain starches drive my blood sugar low. Brown rice doesn’t do that.

I’ve worn out two elliptical machines (they last about 6 years with daily use). After hunting around for a new machine, I discovered the best workout is with a half-size cinder block. This is a form of step aerobics. I put one foot on the block and raise myself up and then lower back down. 10 repititions, then switch feet. When I last used an elliptical, I could do 3 hours on it at the highest resistance setting without raising a sweat. I did 1300 repititions this morning on the cinder block, about 23 minutes, and I did raise a sweat but not as much as the same thing would do a few weeks ago which indicates to me it’s time to make the jump to 1500.


8 hoonose December 31, 2017 at 1:06 pm

The gauntlet step machine is what I’ve done most days for over 20 years. Distance wise I crossed the US and now back somewhere past Kansas…


Low impact windsprints. 2 minutes slow, 2 minutes fast.


9 Rick Hyatt December 31, 2017 at 11:28 am

Maybe you are thinking of Robin Hanson’s speculation about ems using tiny robots because they can physically move far faster?


10 Anonymous December 31, 2017 at 12:07 pm

The whole ecological footprint crap is pretty funny. However, there’s another reason to breed ourselves to be smaller: potentially longer lifespans. Taller people live shorter lives(even though height is positively correlated with IQ) and women live longer than men. Dogs which have been bred to be smaller live longer than dogs of “natural” size.


11 Todd K December 31, 2017 at 3:55 pm

It will be interesting to see what 6’4″ Tall Dave looks like when he is compressed to 5’4″.


12 Tom December 31, 2017 at 4:16 pm

“Taller people live shorter lives(even though height is positively correlated with IQ) and women live longer than men.”
Do supermodels live short lives?


13 Alistair December 31, 2017 at 5:51 pm

Don’t larger (massive) animals live longer than smaller ones? Lower basal rate requirement? Height must be a different thing, via blood pressure?

The ecological footprint stuff is total crap though.


14 Steve Sailer January 1, 2018 at 12:21 am

I’ve seen an estimate that each extra standard deviation of height increases your chances of cancer by 13% (warning: I haven’t looked into how valid this study was). Presumably, the bigger you are, the more things that can wrong at the cellular level.

Sample size of one study: I’m 6’4″ and had non-Hodgkins lymphoma 21 years ago.


15 Alex January 4, 2018 at 3:43 am

I’ve seen Marvin Minsky say that more than once. He was an avid consumer of sci-fi and futurism so it’s possible he got it somewhere else. But he seemed to be pretty convinced that was the right way to go if we’re still going to be in our physical bodies for a while.


16 Don Boudreaux December 31, 2017 at 7:25 am

It sounds as though this movie’s producers and writer(s) are unaware of the work of the late Julian Simon.


17 Tom December 31, 2017 at 7:38 am

Quite the opposite. Shrinking people is just another ingenious way to make resources go further.


18 RRT December 31, 2017 at 11:07 am

…miniature people have been a plot staple in TV/Movies/Science-Fiction/literature for a very long time.
Even Jonathon Swift considered it long ago.

This seems a rather dumb MR topic to closeout the year


19 Dick the Butcher December 31, 2017 at 12:50 pm

Jonathan Swift was on this crisis a couple hundreds of years ago. See his, “A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick,”


20 rayward December 31, 2017 at 7:26 am

Of course, humans are the size they are as the result of nature’s adaptation: our size is an adaptation to both our environment and the tasks required to sustain us. So even if some pharmaceutical approved by Tabarrok were to shrink us, in time nature’s self-correction would bring us back to equilibrium. Which brings me to Piketty. Piketty is wrong, not necessarily for his theory about the cause of increasing inequality (r > g), but nature’s (i.e., markets’) self-correction of imbalances including excessive inequality. Piketty believes (he states it in his book) that governments and central banks will always adopt counter-measures to prevent the self-correction of the imbalance (i.e., excessive inequality). Sure, one can attempt to defy the laws of nature (e.g., by Tabarrok’s pharmaceutical to shrink the human race), but nature will win out in the end, bringing us back to the size that fits both our environment and tasks and to a level of inequality that fits both our best qualities (the desire for self-improvement) and worst qualities (greed).


21 uair01 December 31, 2017 at 7:33 am

Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick: Through genetic manipulation, the Chinese have shrunk to thumb-size and smaller to save resources. America has declined, mainly due to over-consumption, and has fragmented into warring states. http://www.librarything.com/work/815648 And right now, in the Rotterdam Boijmans Museum there’s a modern artist presenting her research into this idea. http://www.the-incredible-shrinking-man.net/?page_id=27


22 Asdf@yahoo.com December 31, 2017 at 10:11 am

You have all the wealth in the world provided a big person wants your dollars and won’t just step on you.

Is this whole thing just an allegory for boomers hoping they have enough stored up wealth to wait things out till they die.


23 Benny Lava December 31, 2017 at 10:31 am

Is this a Straussian reading?


24 Arnold Layne December 31, 2017 at 10:41 am

The parts that made no economic sense were:
1) Despots shrinking dissidents (expensive, time-consuming, requires expertise) instead of just shooting them (cheap, fast, and easy).
2) The presence of generationally poor people in the small world. How did they get the money to get shrunk? If they had no money in the big world, then they couldn’t afford to get shrunk. If they had enough money in the big world to pay for shrinkage, then they wouldn’t be poor in the big world and would live it up in the small world.


25 Tom December 31, 2017 at 10:54 am

They spent all their money getting shrunk. Turns out there is not so hot a job market for flea sized people. Maybe it is heighteism.


26 Boonton December 31, 2017 at 11:04 am

“Well, the small people have trouble mastering nature or producing for the larger outside world, so they are dependent on their preexisting wealth.”

1. Depends on the ‘export’ good to the larger world. A tiny lawyer could draft a will or file a divorce for a big client without any problem. A tiny plumber, though, is at a huge disadvantage working on a big person’s house.

2. But how many big people to tiny people are there? A big plumber is also at a disadvantage working on a tiny house. If the population is split 50-50, it’s not clear the big plumber wouldn’t be better off shrinking himself and selling to the tiny population.

3. How exactly does ‘trade’ work here? Tiny people may want money to order from Amazon, in the ‘big world’. But Amazon is going to start incurring costs to take microscopic orders…even if ‘tiny land’ is all in one spot rather than tiny communities scattered around the world. If you’re in tiny land ordering from Amazon, you’re probably going to incur costs because either Amazon will impose a tiny order penalty or you’ll have to coordinate your orders with your neighbors to buy in ‘big lots’. At some point some of those tiny people who shrunk without pre-existing wealth might say a nice way to make money is to create a ‘tiny Amazon’.

4. Do resources likewise scale? If you send some ‘tiny miners’ down a spent gold mine and let them find a few microscopic nuggets can they be expanded back to giant size and sold in the giant economy?


27 Boonton December 31, 2017 at 11:14 am


Those of you who watched The Leftovers to the end, this sets up an interesting sci-fi trade question as well. The massive disappearance of 2% of the population was never explained, but the 2% appeared on an exact copy of earth (or the 98% ‘left behind’ were the ones who really vanished to a copy of earth!). One earth lost 2% of its population, the other earth lost 98% of its population….but a machine that uses a type of intense radiation can let a person transfer back and forth between the two earths (but presumably this does not work on non-humans or objects)…the resources the machine requires is unknown but since the rogue scientists who operate it only demand $20K it presumably can’t be horribly costly. Since it is radiation it probably is not safe to make a lot of back and forth trips, but the one character who did lived to old age so health costs are also somewhat manageable.

So in essence humanity got all the resources, capital, infrastructure doubled on them. 2% Earth has a massive labor shortage while 98% earth has a slight one…. Immigration costs $20K plus some unkown health risk. Would people leave 98% earth for the ‘open frontier’ of 2% earth or would 2% earthers collect lots of things like gold and diamonds and come back to 98% earth to cash in?


28 Alistair December 31, 2017 at 6:01 pm

I’d say the idea of a natural resources bequest is a complete canard. There’s almost no added value to my expected wealth from having a larger natural resources “share”. This isn’t the middle ages; there’s no money in raw land or iron ore or trees. All the value added is downstream, and from trade. As has been covered repeatedly here; the marginal social value of another human being on the planet is >0.

The 2% world will be MUCH poorer than the 98%

I’d be interested in emigrating if there were different political options opening up on the new frontier. But I wouldn’t expect to be any richer; just the converse.


29 Boonton December 31, 2017 at 6:35 pm

The 2% world doesn’t just have natural resources but capital as well. At least initially if you want a new car, bigger house, well just take it. 98% of people vanished so not a problem. You have The Walking Dead world, without the zombies. But things break down and after a few years a lot of the consumer goods you’d want to scavenge will start to rot and fall apart.


30 Alistair December 31, 2017 at 8:04 pm

The capital endowment is a good point, especially the housing stock. But I don’t think it will compensate the 2% world.

A lot of the capital stock in the 2% world will fall to disuse and ruin. I’m not sure they could even keep the power grid on, let alone maintain the larger cities. Think Detroit on a massive scale. The 2% will salvage a lot , but it will be more like 10% of the current capital endowment, not 100%. The 98% on the other hand will be able to adopt 100% of their capital endowment. So yes, in the 2% you can probably get a $500k house and $100k car (but remember, those aren’t the values you put on them NOW, and certainly not the value after the reduction). However, your real income will be massively reduced by the fall in specialisation and trade effects. Your nearest X is now 7 times further away.

It might be a viable move for a low-productivity worker with no capital, but I’m pretty sure its a losing proposition for a white collar professional.

31 Alistair December 31, 2017 at 8:09 pm

So yes, agree that only a minority of the capital in the 2% will survive.

Let’s be realistic about consumer good scavenging too. There’s what? Less than a week of supply in the shops and a month or so in warehouses? So even if we assumed that nothing depreciates, then there’s still only 4 years supply for the 2%. In practise, what? A couple of months?

32 Enrique December 31, 2017 at 12:42 pm

If we were much smaller in size, would our rocket technology be the same? Would we still be able to land tiny rovers on Mars?


33 Alistair December 31, 2017 at 6:12 pm

Ummm. Good point. Two things DON’T scale with rocket size. Air-resistance (bad for small) and material strength (good for small). Which is dominant for this problem? There will also probably be problems with pumps and hydrodynamic effects at small scales.


34 mkt42 January 2, 2018 at 4:19 am

Solution: use a regular sized rocket, or even just a weather balloon, to lift a downsized Mars rocket to the edge of the atmosphere. Then send the mini-astronauts on their way, along with a plentiful set of supplies which will be cheaper thanks to their light weight.

And then the sequel mashup: “The Downsized Martian”, in which the mini-Matt Damon gets stranded on Mars. Instead of Jessica Chastain, they send the Incredible Shrinking Woman Lily Tomlin and Honey I Shrunk the Kids Rick Moranis to rescue him.


35 mkt42 January 2, 2018 at 5:51 pm

Or maybe that’s how the next Martian astronaut gets rescued. Not enough fuel to lift off from Mars and get back to earth, so he downsizes himself so that he can launch his mini-me back to earth.


36 collin December 31, 2017 at 1:19 pm

Agree on the un-evenness of the movie, but I expect like the last great parody of office politics, Office Space, the movie grows in popularity as it ages on video and TV. It does hit a cord for people that work in an office environment.

of course the solution is to shrink the people:

In a way, you can argue this is happening because developed world populations are having less children. The main benefit to having less children is having less expenses!


37 chuck martel December 31, 2017 at 2:39 pm

The main benefit to having less children is having less expenses!

Also good reasoning for not belonging to a country club, attending sporting events, drinking taxed beverages, owning a car, getting haircuts or being married.


38 Todd K December 31, 2017 at 3:59 pm

Doesn’t the entire Em world live in a building where the rooms are the size of a match box?


39 Pearl Y December 31, 2017 at 11:01 pm

When GDP is >80% services, the size of humans is nearly irrelevant to their standard of living. As Don B alluded to above, what is scarce in any case is human time and ingenuity.


40 peri January 1, 2018 at 12:29 pm

Are they too tiny even to pick up the trillion dollar bills lying on the sidewalk? I guess they could use pulleys like the Lilliputians.


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