MOVIE CLIPS: AVENGERS INFINITY WAR Open with a wide "hero shot" that reveals THANOS. SEAN Welcome to Out of Frame. Today, we're going to talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most powerful villain and why his plan is not only evil... but also... super dumb. Sorry Thanos, I'm looking at you. For those of you who haven't seen Avengers: Infinity War, this video is going to spoil a lot of that movie. You've been warned. For those who have seen the film or don't care, let's recap a bit. Thanos, otherwise known as The Mad Titan, is a massively powerful and iron-willed character whose main goal is to destroy half of all life in the Universe. Thanos has been collecting Infinity Stones and amassing power in the background of every Marvel movie for the last 10 years. Without going down a ridiculous comic book rabbit hole, all you really need to know about the Infinity Stones is that they're basically magical space-gems that each control an aspect of the universe -- time, space, reality, power, mind and living souls. Thanos wants them because when combined and harnessed, they will make him an all-powerful god... And finally, in Avengers Infinity War, he succeeds and can now execute his horrifying plan with a literal snap of his fingers. CLIP: Thanos SNAPS FINGERS. SEAN Here's the thing... Murdering trillions of people in an instant is clearly evil. I don't really think I need to explain that to anybody. The film does a pretty good job rejecting Thanos' plan on those grounds. CLIP: Iron Man One of our hero Avengers quips about the apocalypse. IRON MAN (Rejoinder to Thanos or one of his minions) IMAGE: Reddit group "Thanos was Right" SEAN Where people seem to run into more trouble and get confused is that Thanos' stated motivation in the film is actually a somewhat popular but exceptionally dangerous idea that many people believe in real life. In a key scene, the Mad Titan lays out his reasoning: CLIP: Thanos describes his motivation to Gamora. THANOS The universe is finite... Resources are finite... Overpopulation... Will to power... Blah blah. Continue with CLIPS over VO. SEAN Thanos believes that the universe is overpopulated. There are too many people and not enough resources to go around. Now... Real quick. For the sake of this video, we're just going to ignore the question of why Thanos wouldn't just make double the resources if he was all-powerful. He's an evil comic book villain, so I guess that doesn't occur to him. Instead he believes that if he eliminates half of the population, then everyone remaining will be better off. And... If you don't think about it very much, the idea that the universe would be overpopulated sounds like it might be true... And as scary as this is, there are many people who agree with Thanos that there are too many people on Earth. As far back as 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus published a paper called "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in which he (like Thanos) argued that the future of an unchecked population was bleak. To quote Malthus: "The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race." Sound familiar? CLIP: Thanos monologues. THANOS (Another line about population control) SEAN Malthus believed that human vices, murder, disease, and even warfare were all holding back an even greater catastrophe. In the same essay, he predicted that if population increased at a consistent rate, the world would add one billion people every 25 years. If he had been right, there would be about 10 billion people in the world by now, though there are only 7.6 billion, and more and more of us would be dying of starvation every single day. Malthus wasn't right. But his ideas caught on. Flash forward to 1968, Stanford University biology professor Paul Erlich and his wife Anne wrote another extremely influential book called "The Population Bomb". Like Malthus -- and Thanos -- they argued that without a dramatic reduction in the global population, there would be mass starvation. Erlich writes: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." But his prediction... Didn't happen. Yet, in spite of being completely wrong, Paul Erlich clung to his beliefs. He was so certain that in 1980 he accepted a wager with University of Maryland business professor Julian Simon. IMAGE: Julian Simon SEAN Simon challenged Erlich to pick any basket of raw materials he wished and a time period of over a year and bet that those resources would be cheaper in inflation-adjusted terms over that time period. Erlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten and a period of 10 years. When the bet expired in October 1990, Erlich was wrong on all counts. IMAGE: Chart showing Erlich loss. SEAN Every commodity he chose was more available and cheaper than it was when he'd made the bet. And that was in spite of the largest growth in population of any decade in history. So... What happened? Well... CLIP: More clips of Avengers. SEAN Like Thanos, Malthus and Erlich misunderstood both the nature of natural resources and the origin of material prosperity. Contrary to what they believe, economies are not zero-sum. Wealth is not something that just exists in the world inherently and then has to be divided up between people competing for whatever's available. Instead, wealth is a creation of human ingenuity and expands with every new valuable innovation. The more we are able to specialize and trade freely with other people, the faster those innovations build off of each another to raise people's standards of living. Likewise, what we call "natural resources" - while finite in a technical sense - are mainly limited by our imagination and understanding of how to use them. A hundred and fifty years ago, crude oil was found all over the world but nobody knew what to do with it, so we just thought of it as useless black goo. We burned cow-dung and killed whales to heat and light our homes. New technology will eventually replace oil and could easily be based on new resources no one dreamed of a generation ago. Always remember that more people doesn't just mean more mouths to feed... It also means more minds to create and more hands to build. As long as people are free to be entrepreneurial and explore new ideas - in a context where other people are also free to decide for themselves which innovations are valuable to them - then wealth will increase. And that's exactly what's happened in the real world wherever there are private property rights, low barriers to entrepreneurship, and free trade. IMAGES: Charts/graphics showing the dramatic decline in global poverty. SEAN The global population is now over 7 times what it was when Malthus wrote his essay and yet in the last 30 years alone we have cut extreme poverty in half. Fewer people are dying of starvation today than ever. Per capita incomes are higher. Child labor is down. It turns out that the main problem was never that the world was overpopulated... But that its people were never free enough to create wealth and when they did create something new and valuable, they weren't allowed to keep it. Most of history is a story of authoritarian top-down control, power struggles, and war. Rulers like Thanos use violence to amass power and impose their own vision on society by force. In Avengers Infinity War, Thanos claims that his own world was ravaged by poverty, and that committing genocide against half the population would have solved the problem. Now that he has all the power in the universe, he is ready to do the same on an epic scale. Tragically, the movie itself doesn't actually offer much of a counterargument to Thanos' mistaken ideas, only a rejection of his evil methods. This is a shame. Both are wrong, but while everybody already recognizes that genocide is bad, there are still tons of people out there who believe he's right about everything else. He's not. What the world - and the universe - needs is more wealth and more freedom, not fewer people. SEAN Hey everybody. Thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. If you want to know more about the stuff I talked about, check out some of the links in the description or leave a comment and I'll try to get back to you. In the meantime, check out FEE.org/shows for all the other content we're producing at FEE, and don't forget to like and subscribe to all our social networks on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time!

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About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

August 9, 2018

Not only is Thanos the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most powerful villain evil, he’s also super dumb.

The story of Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich’s bet

PODCAST: Why the population bomb will never go boom

How capitalism defuses the population bomb

Population controls are ill-advised and inhumane

Can food supply keep up with population growth


Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone, Edited by Arash Ayrom & Sean W. Malone