Two economics reporters at Associated Press have joined the ranks of people unpicking at the politics of Westeros, the relationships of Westeros, and just about everything else in Westeros episode-by-episode, week-by-week. This time it’s economics, and it’s actually kind of interesting.
Hardcore Game of Thrones and economics Fans Chris Rugaber and Josh Boak released the first episode of their new weekly podcast the Wealth of Westeros this week.
It turns out that George RR Martin’s weird world of wars, sex, dragons, giant-snow-monsters-that-take-over-dead-bodies-and-use-them-as-weapons, and more wars has quite a lot in common with (and a lot very very not in common with) some things about our world.
Does anybody in Westeros have a job? Does anyone need food? Why does Cersei have all the Dornish wine she wants, when the Dornes hate the Lannisters, so surely they’d have to stoptrading with King’s Landing? These are the kind of questions economics reporters ask themselves when they watch GoT, apparently.
Here are the most interesting bits:
Westeros has a big inequality problem
They’ve got a giant magic wall, castles coming out their ears and loads and loads of really rich noble families. But, as Chris and Josh point out, if you actually lived in Westeros, the chances are you’d be a dirt poor farmer, rather than say, King Joffrey.
But if you think about it, the most-of-us-are-starving-farmers thing is how most human beings lived throughout history. In medieval times, which we can take a guess and say that Westeros is kind of based on, aristocrats owned the land, and peasant farmers grew food and gave it back to the aristocrats (for free). Those aristocrats didn’t buy or sell much land, so nothing much ever changed.
According to the podcast, that system wouldn’t have created any more wealth – or ‘economic ’ for anyone (trust economics journalists to be thinking about that).
An economic historian calculated that growth between 1000-1300 AD (let’s say that’s GoT time) averaged around 0.3 per cent a year (basically trying to apply the rules of to a period of time when GDP absolutely didn’t even exist yet, so it’s an even shakier measure than usual, but oh well).
In modern US terms that amount of growth would be considered a serious problem, even a crisis. If you believe that economic growth is the only way to improve the lives of poor people, then there isn’t much hope for those poor farmers.
In medieval societies, economists argue, violence basically killed off any attempts to get richer – if your crops were particularly successful, say, someone would just come along and steal them and probably try kill you in the process – which is exactly what happens in Westeros.
And then there’s just bad economic management coupled with a whole load of prejudice. The heads of the Lannister family, Tywen and his son Jaime, have basically run their family's wealth into the ground. In other words, (and spoiler alert right here) those mines that are the foundation for all of the Lannister’s riches? They’re dry.
But the Lannisters have still got loads and loads of assets – castles, gold, Cersei’s Dornish wine – and they would never consider selling any of that off.
So if you were the Lannisters, trying to save the fortunes of your noble family, who would you really want running the show? Tyrion! The younger, wiser Lannister brother – who happens to have dwarfism.
The problem is, everyone is so bowled over by their own prejudices they cast him out and never give him a chance – only for him to go and use his skills to help their enemies. Hmm, overlooking people’s skills because of what they look like, who they are and where they come from... sound familiar?
A big migration problem...
A lot of this podcast is Chris and Josh telling us the things about the economics of Westeros that just don’t make sense to economics journalists. Their first ‘pet peeve’ is the Westeros migration crisis. Westeros had a big war, which caused a huge increase in refugees looking for somewhere safe to go. So far, so recognisable.
The refugees headed straight for King’s Landing, which imposed a pretty brutal tax on migrants, making it really expensive for them to live there. What Chris and Josh don’t understand is why the refugees would choose to stay there, when logic would say they’d just move on to the free cities of Braavos and Essos, where there’s no tax.
In recent US history, they argue, there have been loads of examples of surges of people migrating from high-tax inner cities to lower-tax suburbs. So why aren’t they doing it in Westeros?
(What Chris and Josh don’t talk about, which seems pretty important, is the fact that actually if you’re fleeing war, you don’t always have a choice where you end up.)
The migrants in Westeros need an Angela Merkel figure, they say. The chancellor of Germany publicly opened Germany up to refugees from around the world during the recent migrant crisis. But actually the small insular cities of Essos and Braavos are nothing like Germany – which is a major global economic power. It’s unlikely they’d have anyone like Angela Merkel speaking out on a global (or Westeros-al) stage.
...And a very weird banking system
Braavos is the home of the Iron Bank, a huge great institution that makes any big real-world finance company look like a “senior citizen investment club” (so pretty tiny and unpowerful).
The Iron Bank operates in a pretty weird way. Most bank lenders would ask for some form of collateral if you took out a massive loan – so, for example, they’d give the Lannisters a loan, but would take a part of their mines – which is pretty much how mortgages work.
The Iron Bank hands out loans to noble families, but if the noble family can’t repay the loan, the bank then gives a loan to its rivals. The losers of whatever battle’s going on at the time have to repay not only their loan, but the loan of the rival family too. It’s an “impossible debt cycle”, Chris and Josh say, and it doesn’t seem to really benefit anybody.
And if winter really is coming, why aren’t they more prepared?
More pet peeves here... Why is there no food storage? If an entire Kingdom (do they have kingdoms any more?) was really constantly under threat from years and years of winter and no one could grow any food, which means there’d be a pretty imminent chance of everybody dying of starvation, surely they’d have developed huge systems of storing grain, which would then become a big target for enemies. There’s none of that.
If it were the real world, Chris and Josh say, the most valuable people in the Westerosian economy would be people with the skills to preserve food – so where are the picklers, Chris and Josh ask. Where are the canning experts?
Economics is going to play a big role in season 7
Season 7 holds two big economic issues to watch out for (if you’re that way inclined).
First up, 'scarcity': We now know that Valaryan steel is one of the biggest tools in the fight against white walkers. But everyone seems to have forgotten how to make it, and Valaryan steel is in really really short supply.
The less of something there is, the more valuable the little we have becomes – that’s called the ‘principle of scarcity’ in economics.
Then there's the freerider problem: The next big thing we need to find out is how effectively everyone in Westeros works together to fight a bigger issue – those white walkers. So far, they’ve all been too busy fighting each other to work together. But the trailers for this season show we might have a bit of collaboration between Jon Snow and Daenarys – which is kinda exciting.
That lack of collaboration is a common problem we see with pollution and other environmental challenges around the world, Chris and Josh argue. Everyone would like someone else to do something about it, but no one really wants to weaken themselves by spending their own resources. In other words, we're all 'freeriders'.
Westeros’s biggest free-riders? Anyone in the South, they say. And Little Finger.