“The Hunger Games” is hardly our future—it’s already here

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The reality of inequality is actually far worse than depicted in the movies and books.
Image: Courtesy of Lionsgate

The Hunger Games paints an eerily apt picture of the world’s reality. The Capitol is the rich nations of the world: the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Israel, New Zealand, some oil kingdoms, most European nations. The Districts are the poor nations of the world—Haiti, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Papua New Guinea, many countries in central Asia and Africa, all of which have per capita incomes less than $10 per day.

The Capitol, with all of its abundance of food, advanced medical care, and gadgets, is surrounded by a giant high-tech, booby-trapped WALL. The point of the Games is to burrow through the WALL to get to the material paradise of the Capitol without getting killed or caught and sent back to the Districts to starve.

The most important difference between Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games and my variant is that the poverty in the real world is unfathomably worse than the poverty depicted in the series. The only way I know to convey this to my students who have never left the United States is to read to them every word of Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times essay, “Where Sweatshops are a Dream.”

The other difference is that, in Suzanne Collins version, the evil the Capitol does with its Games has roots as deep as the nation itself, while in the United States, at least, we build a wall to keep immigrants out in contradiction to our own historical traditions and the example set by the founders of our nation. We do this not only heartlessly, for the sake of what are in all likelihood relatively small gains for a modest slice of our population, but also stupidly. The tight restrictions we impose on immigration come at great cost to our economy, to future government budgets and the future geopolitical power of the United States.

Are immigration restrictions necessary? There may be some limit to the speed at which we can take in newcomers. But there is good reason to think it is much higher than the current rate of immigration. In the decade from 1900 to 1910, immigration was over 1% of the US population per year. There were some strains, but things didn’t fall apart, and America is much stronger now because of those early 20th century immigrants and their descendants. For comparison, the number of permanent legal immigrants into the US now is only 0.33% of the US population per year and the entire stock of undocumented immigrants in the US, from many many years of migration, is only 3.7% of the US population—nothing close to the 1% immigration rate the US had in the first decade of the 20th century. And those immigrants would assimilate much more quickly into our communities if they didn’t have to hide in the shadows because of the laws that brand them as criminals.

The philosopher Michael Huemer gives a good discussion of the ethics of immigration restrictions here.  A key point is that many US citizens would love to host immigrants from other countries. Some Americans are preventing other Americans from welcoming immigrants as they would like to. And many people around the world would be delighted to come to the United States even if they were totally barred from receiving any public assistance whatsoever.

In the real world, exclusion is a form of cruelty that we take for granted. Keeping people out of a material paradise for no good reason turns utopia into dystopia. By keeping immigrants out, the United States—like the other rich nations of the world—plays the role of the Capitol in my twist on The Hunger Games. But all we need to do to change that is to honor once again the words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free …”