‘The Hunger Games’ is on pace to have the third-largest opening weekend of all time, according to Fandango. I’m not surprised. This is the right story at the right time. It speaks to us, deeply, about our relationships to wealth, work, entertainment and the generations to come.
I haven’t seen the movie yet. But I have read the books. And as I read them I was struck by the parallels between “The Hunger Games” and the world I write about — banking.
I should note, for those who plan on seeing the movie, there are spoilers in this column.
Every world has a Wall Street
In “The Hunger Games,” the greed-filled monstrosity that rules the world is called the Capitol. It’s the only wealthy area left in the post-apocalyptic landscape. Everyone else lives in horrific poverty in “the Districts.” The Capitol rules over the Districts — forcing residents to produce food and goods for the Capitol.
The Capitol conducts the Hunger Games, where children from the Districts must fight to death, as a source of televised amusement. The Games are also a way to punish the Districts for a rebellion decades earlier — presumably when the Districts tried to pass their version of the Dodd-Frank Act.
Even among the poor, there are poor
The hero of the movie is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl from District 12. Everyone in District 12 is poor. But Katniss is a resident of “the Seam,” a small slum within the larger slum that makes up the District.
Nor is the poverty and servitude among the Districts equal. Some Districts are extraordinarily difficult places to live — food is scarce and the work is dangerous. Other districts are rewarded for their loyalty to the Capitol. The residents are slaves, like District residents everywhere, but their lives are easier.
It’s all reminiscent of how banks view consumers.
Some consumers are like the ultra-poor residents of “the Seam.” They are the unbanked — the people with so little money that banks want nothing to do with them.
Then there people who are run-of-the-mill poor like the rest of District 12. They are the underbanked — people with just enough money to make it worth a bank’s time to exploit them.
There are also the teeming masses of the middle class. They are like the residents of the less-horrible districts. They do work that the Capitol values. And in exchange they get minor conveniences. It’s comparable to the guy with a regular paycheck who is “rewarded” with moderate fees and rewards checking. Sometimes he even gets a toaster.
Then there are the preferred customers. If the Capitol is the 1 percent, and the Districts are the 99%, then the residents of the loyal districts are like the “mass affluent” customers that banks like.
In the Hunger Games, the children of the “mass affluent” districts are also sent to kill and die to amuse the Capitol. But people from those districts view the whole process as “honorable.” They cherish their status as favored slaves. They’re like the oblivious, white-haired retired guy who takes great pride in his 15-minute interaction each month with his “private” banker at the brick-and-mortar branch, and then heads home to nod his head to the hate-filled rants of talk radio.
The numbers lie
In “The Hunger Games,” the children of the Districts are selected to fight in the arena by lottery.
There’s a sort of slogan that goes along with the process: “May the Odds be Ever in Your Favor.” Sometimes it’s used seriously. Often it’s used cynically.
But Katniss learns that odds are never in anyone’s favor. From the moment when her younger sister is selected for the arena, Katniss finds that the numbers just don’t add up.
As the Games progress, she learns that as successful as she may be in stacking the odds (by winning the support of “sponsors” who send her food and weapons, for example), it is the Capitol that controls the numbers.
The lesson Katniss learns is comparable to what much of America learned in 2008: it’s the folks in charge who determine the odds.
When banks pushed the world to the brink of economic disaster, the powers that be took action to ensure that banks survived. Regular people who had played by the rules — saving their money, buying their homes — woke up one morning to find that their savings had disappeared and that their homes weren’t worth what they owed. Furthermore, the regular folks were told, they were on the hook for millions of dollars worth of loans to the very banks that had nearly crushed us all.
Sacrifice is survival
The Hunger Games is the tale of a teenaged girl, enduring a sort hyper version of teen angst, and finding her way to adulthood. There’s also a love triangle in The Hunger Games. There are two young men who love Katniss — Peeta and Gale. One of them, Peeta, accompanies Katniss into the arena.
Both Katniss and Peeta are fighting for others. Katniss is in the Games because she volunteered to take the place of her younger sister. Peeta is in the Games by chance. But he sees his destiny as protecting Katniss.
Throughout ‘The Hunger Games,” and particularly in the second and third books (and upcoming movies) in the series, Katniss learns just how much others are willing to sacrifice so that she might carry on. She becomes the reason that Districts are able to endure new horrors. She is the promise of something better for the generation that will come next. And there seems to be no end to the number of people who will surrender everything to protect that promise. They sacrifice themselves so that she might survive.
Complicating things further, Katniss will learn that the sacrifice required of her is that she, herself, survive while others die.
As the fallout from the banking crisis continues, Americans, like the people of Panem in “The Hunger Games,” seem to sense that there will be no easy end to our pain. Rather, we will be called upon to suffer more. And we will be asked to sacrifice for each other.
If you read the comments on almost any article about the financial crisis, you’ll see just how difficult this is for Americans. There are people — 10s of thousands of them — who want nothing more than to hold on to what they have. They are angry and afraid and self-righteous.
But there are others. At MyBankTracker we see them all the time — activists and entrepreneurs and sophisticated consumers. These people see the possibility of a new way. Whether they are from Occupy Wall Street or the financial-tech startups, they know there are things more important than keeping what we have. They will pay the price, because they know that sacrifice is survival.
They know — and if you haven’t read the last book, don’t read this last line — there will come a time when the children of today’s children will play, unknowingly, on our graveyards.