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Ask an Economist: Which Bond Villain Plan Would Have Worked (and Which Not)?

A VIEW TO A KILL US / BR 1985 CHRISTOPHER WALKEN rear center. Date 1985.
A VIEW TO A KILL US / BR 1985 CHRISTOPHER WALKEN rear center. Date 1985. Photo: Mary Evans/Eon Productions/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

While the bad guy in Skyfall is obsessed primarily with revenge and humiliation, many of James Bond’s chief adversaries over the years have wanted something more simple and tangible: cash money. The Bond villain is often deranged and grandiose, sure, but he (or she) is also capable of hatching elaborate plans to increase their bottom line, often by secretly manipulating the world’s economic systems (sometimes with the aid of a clandestine nuclear weapon or two). So, could they have succeeded? If James Bond hadn’t foiled these plots, could these Bond villains have fulfilled their dreams of financial glory? We looked through their schemes, and asked Jean-Jacques Dethier, a development economist at the World Bank (and a lifelong Bond fan), what he thought.

Plot: Gold tycoon Auric Goldfinger’s (Gert Frobe) plan is quite simple: He wants to attack the U.S. Bullion Depository in Fort Knox and detonate an atomic bomb, thus irradiating the gold stored there, rendering it worthless for decades. This will in turn increase the value of Goldfinger’s own gold and cause economic chaos in the Western world.

Plausibility: “This looks plausible to me,” says Dethier. “If you irradiate the gold, you can’t touch it — which will effectively reduce the gold supply, at a time when the United States currency was still on the gold standard.” However, there is one potential problem — the vast majority of the gold in the U.S. wasn’t in Fort Knox — it was (and remains) in the basement of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in downtown Manhattan. (But most of the gold in New York belongs to other nations, so Goldfinger’s evil plan is still fairly solid.)

Live and Let Die
Plot: Caribbean dictator/drug lord Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) is practically enslaving the poppy farmers of his nation, and plans to distribute heroin for free through his chain of U.S. restaurants, which he expects will simultaneously put his competitors (such as the Mafia) out of business and also create an America full of addicts. Then, faced with huge demand and no competitors, he will start charging high prices for his heroin.

Plausibility: “This is a bit harebrained,” says Dethier. “First of all, I think you can’t just grow opium poppies anywhere, which is why Afghanistan is considered such a high value location.” Additionally, he notes, it’d be almost impossible to eliminate competitors by monopolizing one drug, since they can still produce and distribute other drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana.

A View to a Kill
Plot: Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) wants to secretly trigger a massive earthquake that will destroy Silicon Valley. This will then allow him and his investor allies to monopolize the microchip manufacturing market.

Plausibility: “As far as I know, microchips aren’t actually manufactured in Silicon Valley,” says Dethier. “They’re made all over the world, in China and other places, though the guys who commission the work may be in Silicon Valley.” Therefore, while taking out Silicon Valley would obviously be cataclysmic for the tech industry, he notes, it also wouldn’t entirely remove your competitors, and wouldn’t ultimately affect manufacturing that much.

Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) wants to use an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear weapon to bring London to its knees and destroy the Bank of England, but not before electronically stealing millions of pounds from the Bank’s systems.

Plausibility: First of all, wouldn’t destroying London and the Bank of England render the pounds you’ve stolen largely worthless? “Not exactly worthless, but close,” says Dethier. Would you be able to convert it? “It’s actually very hard to convert huge amounts of something, which is a problem the Chinese now know well with all their American dollar holdings,” he says. So Trevelyan would have to spend all those pounds in the one country that’d take them: Britain. Whose economy he’s just destroyed.

Tomorrow Never Dies
Ruthless Rupert Murdochlike media tycoon Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) wants to provoke a war between the United Kingdom and China by misleading a British warship into Chinese territorial waters (by skewing his own GPS satellite to feed the British ship incorrect location data) and sinking it. Then, he and a Chinese general will stage a coup d’état in China by shooting a nuclear missile at Beijing. The result? The new leadership in China will make sure Carver has control over all the media in China.

Plausibility: It’s mentioned at one point in the film that there’s a rumor going around that it was one of Carver’s GPS satellites which malfunctioned. So if the world learned that the war he benefited from was the result of a malfunction in one of his own satellites, this would presumably affect his stock price — if Carver’s company was publicly traded. “True, it’s elaborate and full of non-sequiturs,” Dethier says, “but remember, this is in some senses what happened in 1859 at the beginning of the opium war. The Chinese, believe me, have not forgotten; they still consider this the beginning of Western imperialism descending on China. So it’s actually quite smart that the filmmakers use a plot with echoes of real history.”

The World is Not Enough
The daughter of a deceased oil tycoon, Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) wants to blow up a nuclear submarine in the Bosphorus, thus destroying Istanbul. Her aim in doing that is to effectively cripple Russian oil pipelines that take the oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe via the north. Elektra’s own pipeline in the Caspian takes the oil through the south and therefore bypasses Turkey. The effect? Dramatically increase the value of her own oil.

Plausibility: Yes and no. Since oil is a fungible commodity, Dethier points out, the destruction of pipelines wouldn’t just increase the value of Elektra’s oil specifically, but of oil all around the world. “I also don’t know how long a lasting impact it would have. It would definitely disrupt the market for a little while.” More specifically, Elektra doesn’t really need to destroy other pipelines to make her pipeline valuable. There’s so much oil coming out of the Caspian that any pipeline would immediately be put to very good use. “They’re actually planning to create a dozen more pipelines right now,” he notes.

Casino Royale
Before Bond foils him (and forces him into a high-stakes underground poker game), Le Schiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is shorting airline stocks, while simultaneously planning to destroy a prototype luxury jetliner on its maiden voyage. That will then drive airline stocks down, allowing him to make millions.

Plausibility: “This one’s pretty nice and simple,” says Dethier. In part because it’s short term; successfully shorting a stock can produce a very quick return, making it irrelevant if the stocks eventually recover their value.

Quantum of Solace
Scheming environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) wants to dam Bolivia’s fresh water supply to create a monopoly. Then, he’s going to help a Bolivian general stage a coup d’état, but not before he forces the general to sign a contract making Greene’s company the sole water supplier of Bolivia, at much higher prices.

Plausibility: “This is another plot based on history,” Dethier says. “There were a lot of privatizations of the water supply systems in Latin America some years ago. Many of them were bought by a French multinational. It didn’t work. They realized it was impossible to manage. They had huge problems with poorer communities, and eventually had to withdraw. There was so much opposition, and people were constantly disrupting the infrastructure these companies were trying to control. There’s actually a very good film about this, set in Bolivia, called Even the Rain, starring Gael Garcia Bernal.”

Which Bond Villain Plan Would Have Worked?