A year of trade wars has ended with a dash of delicious irony. The US department of agriculture recently listed Wakanda as a free trade partner. The mistake was soon rectified. Wakanda, for those who came in late, is a fictional country that is ruled by the Black Panther, one of the many superheroes from the Marvel universe of Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor.

The Wakanda story offers some interesting economic insights, as do many other pop culture classics. This African country was hit by a meteor full of vibranium many centuries ago. Vibranium is the source of massive amounts of kinetic energy. Access to this miraculous metal makes Wakanda the most technologically advanced country in the world. One can think of the meteor strike as a positive productivity shock that unleashed economic growth in Wakanda.

The global experience is quite different. Countries that suddenly discover raw material usually struggle to climb the technology ladder. Easy access to revenue from mining usually destroys the incentive for governments to foster a private economy led by innovation. This “resource curse" has been observed across wide swathes of the world. Prosperous countries also need inclusive institutions, state capacity, the latest technology and a trained labour force. How has Wakanda broken through the resource trap?

We will come to that later, but first consider two other examples from the fictional world that deal with similar challenges. The first example is the country of Panem in the dystopian Hunger Games novels, where 13 districts are ruled by a powerful federal district called the Capitol. Each district has a fixed economic task depending on its resource endowments.

Like Wakanda, District 12 of the fictional country is also blessed with ample natural resources, coal in this case. It is a dirt poor community that eventually rebels against the power of the metropolitan centre. Technological power resides in the Capitol rather than areas such as District 12. Trade in Panem seems very similar to colonialism, or more generally, a country with extractive rather than inclusive institutions. Residents of the districts survive through transactions in the black market that offer a way out of tight economic controls.

The second example is from the Game Of Thrones series. There is a stark difference in this medieval world between the feudal Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and nine Free Cities dominated by traders. The former use violence to organize society. The latter use exchange. The Free Cities are definitely not ideal places. Merchants keep slaves. Political power is concentrated in a mercantile oligarchy. However, life in the Free Cities is more stable and prosperous compared to the Seven Kingdoms that are trapped in an endless cycle of violence. “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are," Ser Jorah tells Daenerys Targaryen in one of the original books.

Wakanda resembles neither District 12, nor the Free Cities in terms of its economic structure. It is neither a victim of immiserizing trade, nor is it a beneficiary of trade beyond its borders. The puzzling part of the Wakanda story is that it does not seem to have any significant trade with other countries—a sort of North Korea at the technology frontier. For example, the citizens of Wakanda use kimono beads that contain health data, and create holograms that are used to communicate. These are powered by vibranium, but the actual technology must have been developed through economic activity such as trade. Knowledge is endogenous, after all.

Wakanda has developed a sophisticated economy on its own while keeping its achievements secret from the rest of the world, including poor neighbouring countries. How easy would it be for a small economy under a hereditary monarchy to develop the intricate forward as well as backward linkages needed to produce a range of technology goods? Just think of all the components that would go into an invisible stealth aircraft. An economist is left wondering about the supply chains that have created these goods, the forward and backward linkages in the Wakanda economy, the lack of workers or entrepreneurs in the fictional country, and much more.

Comic books, dystopian novels and other works of fiction that create alternative worlds almost always offer tantalizing glimpses of an underlying economic structure. Think of the powerful Trade Federation in the Star Wars franchise, or the Gringotts Wizarding Bank in the Harry Potter books. In the latter, J.K. Rowling has been careful to mention that wizards cannot create food with a magic spell, and nor presumably can they create money. That alone will explain the fact that there are poor wizards, just as there are poor Muggles.

In the world of Wakanda, Game Of Thrones, Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, behind the razzmatazz of lightsabers and magic wands are tantalizing glimpses of economies where there is production, consumption, trade, technology, money and much more.

These are some random thoughts before this column signs off for the year.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is a member of the academic board of the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics

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