The Hunger Games books and movies have become a cultural force in recent times. (See also: The Market Is Loving The Hunger Games.)
The Capitol and its thirteen districts that comprise Panem have become subjects of intense debate and discussion. Certain characteristics of Panem's economy are clear. We know that it is a command economy, where all economic activities are directed and controlled by the State (in this case, the Capitol). But, author Suzanne Collins does not provide us with much specific detail.
Here are five unanswered questions about Panem's economy.
What Is The History Of Panem?
The book and the movie do not provide much detail about Panem's history. We do not know how the country came into being and the economic rationale for dividing the districts into specific production sectors. Was each district a separate country in itself before it integrated with Panem? If yes, did the districts trade with each other? This is important because it adds detail to Panem's current economic narrative and helps us understand reasons for economic and political subjugation of districts by the Capitol. For example, consider the following situation.
We know that Katniss is from District 12, a district that specializes in coal production and is similar to the Appalachia region in the United States. On the other hand, District 13, which led the First Rebellion, was a center for nuclear energy. That, then, leads to a separate set of questions about Panem. What was the energy mix for Panem historically? Was District 13's rebellion against the Capitol motivated by energy economics?
How Does Panem Innovate?
Conventional wisdom holds that free market competition fosters innovation. In their attempts to garner a bigger share of the market, businesses and startups enhance their products and services which, in turn, leads to greater good of society. Typically, monopoly economy, which are dominated by single trade entities, have less innovation as compared to free markets. Panem seems to be an example of a monopolist society, where all major corporations are owned by the Capitol.
Yet, the Capitol displays characteristics of free market economies. It has super fast trains, genetically-engineered wasps, and advances in technology that enable remote operators to control the flora, fauna, and weather systems in the dome inside which the Hunger Games are held.
There is also evidence of cutting-edge fashion in Katniss' dress, which changes color and lights up when she swirls on stage. Then, there are the Hunger Games competitors, who, in addition to using weapons and instruments of their choice, are also technology whizzes.
It is difficult to believe that the profusion of technological innovation and imagination in the country was purely directed by the State. If it is indeed the product of the State, then it would be interesting to know the process and source of such innovation.
How Does The Hob Work?
The Hob is District 12's black market. Precious little is known about how it functions, however. For example, Katniss brings squirrels and deer meat to the market and exchanges them for other products. But, we don't know the equivalency system in place for exchange of products. This is important because it adds detail to the story about products (or food items) that are especially valued in District 12. It would also be interesting to know economic actors involved in the black market. This is important because it seems to have been a source of regular income for them; did they profit off the market? If yes, how? (See also: The Mechanics Of A Black Market.)
Katniss also finds a mockingjay pin there. The pin is a piece of jewelry; hence, there is a high probability that it was imported by District 1, the district responsible for making luxury items and jewelry. How did it finds its way to The Hob? Is economic mobility (such as movement of labor) between districts possible? This is important because labor moves from low wage areas to high wages.
What Is Panem's Currency?
Both the book and the movie do not show use of money. In the franchise's first movie, after she volunteers to compete in the Hunger Games, Katniss counsels Prim, her younger sister: “Don't take extra food from them. It isn't worth your effort. You can get extra cheese from your goat.” Thus, there is no indication or suggestion of laborers being paid by the Capitol for their services at the coal mines.
And, yet, in the second movie, she tells Finnick Odair, a fellow competitor: “I have more money than I'll ever need” and asks him how people pay for the pleasure of his company. Clearly, some form of currency or arbitrage mechanism is used to value services and goods. It would be interesting to know more about this mechanism and how it is controlled by the Capitol. For example, does the Capitol increase or decrease production of money to punish or starve individual districts for transgressions?
Does Panem Have Social Mobility?
Peeta Mellark is a baker and a painter in a district that has an overwhelming majority of coal miners. How did he end up with a different profession as compared to the rest of the population? It would be interesting to know more about his customers and earnings and about his position in society's hierarchy.
Katniss starts off belonging to the coal miner class at the beginning of the first movie. However, she is has moved into the Victor's Village by the end of that year. Clearly, even within District 12, there is a subset of population that has more money as compared to the rest of the population.
The situation becomes even more interesting, when you include District 1 and District 2 into the mix. These districts are relatively wealthy as compared to District 12 and are strong supporters of the Capitol. Is the population from these districts allowed to moved across boundaries or engage in commerce (such as buying goods made in other districts)? This is important because it enlarges the size of the economy and consumers and sets the ground for an emerging middle class in a society that is, otherwise, marked by inequality.
The Bottom Line
Most discussion around Hunger Games has focused on inequality. However, Panem's economy presents an interesting case study for a state-directed economy that still shows signs of progress and innovation.