A crucial selling point in the film Downsizing is that if a person of middle class status shrinks themselves down, they can extend their purchasing power. In fact, a mere $100,000 converts into $12 million according to the film's trailer, which is something so tantalizing, a lot of people would likely consider shrinking themselves. But would going through the Downsizing process really save you that much money if it were a possibility in real life? Well, economist Ethan Pollack seems to think the truth is a bit more complicated than the movie makes it, as he posits the following dilemma the procedure would bring to bear:
For some goods, that [effort] would be minor. With food, for example, you could just take existing products and chop them up into smaller pieces. Clothes, for example, will require an entirely different production process, and would initially be a niche market. Eventually if the market for small clothes grew, the cost would fall as the production process would achieve economies of scale -- but in the near-term, tiny clothes would probably be quite expensive.
Now, Pollack makes a good point with the example of clothing being a need that could be more easily scaled, in production as well as in terms of the item's economics. Think of it this way: we buy two basic groups of items when we shop -- goods and services. Goods, like clothing, are physically tangible, and require quite a bit of effort to cultivate the materials that make them up, as well as the processes that fabricate them.
In fact, the very economic advantage to discussing goods over services is that if you can leverage the cost of components and labor that go into such an item, you can very well effect the cost of the end product. Though, as Ethan Pollack points out, it would take quite a bit of time for clothing's pricing curve to adjust, as the other two-headed hydra of economics would rear its head at that time: supply and demand. So until the demand for Downsizing approved wardrobe gets to a certain point, you're going to be paying quite a bit for those Old Navy duds that were so affordable at full scale.
However, when going into further detail with Vulture on just how clothing would have to change for the downsized human, Pollack stumbled upon some further pitfalls, as seen below:
Textile producers might actually need to use different materials to get the clothes to move on a miniature body the same way cotton does for full-sized humans. This may be more difficult than just switching to a new material, because cotton has been specifically bred to be a good clothing material for full-sized humans, so we might actually need to breed a new plant for small clothes.
This makes the previous statement of leveraging processes and materials costs to produce a smaller cost item almost totally obsolete. With the choice being to create a new plant, or worse, a new and undoubtedly more expensive synthetic fabric for what we'll hypothetically call the "Downsizing Collection", the idea to shrink down to Matt Damon-sized proportions is looking less and less rosy. Not to mention, we haven't even talked about the other half of the economic equation: services.
While goods are tangible, our modern world's economy has shifted from a balance of goods and services to a more services-oriented slant. Unfortunately, services don't scale in size like goods, which means things like health care, education, and in some cases, entertainment expenses, won't be changing their prices as much if at all in a downsized world. Think spending $11 a month for Netflix is torture? Try spending that much in the Downsizing economy? Need to visit a doctor, or want to go to college? Those costs would be even more crushing in a miniaturized market. Ultimately, if you want to make the most of getting small, you still have to be a pretty big deal in the normal-sized world. When you consider how much the prospect of rich people inflating the economy with massive wealth would screw up the system even more, you really have to wonder how many millionaires would have to shrink in order to put the miniaturized economy back to the same scale our modern, full-scale economy is at right now.
Economics isn't an easy, or pretty, subject to handle. But Ethan Pollack's points as to how Downsizing's central conceit would raise more problems than it would solve are a pure product of that very study. Still, the premise of the Alexander Payne's film is more interesting than the pitfalls it presents, and you can still see the film in theaters now to consider the matter yourself.