Commentary

The (Non-Existent) Economics of Game of Thrones

The teaching of history is dangerously lopsided. It focuses on dynasties, bloodlines, battles, territories, kings and knights and priests – the dealings of the rulers. But there is nothing about the economy – people’s dealings with each other and how successful that was. As a result, even our definition of success is ruler-focused and wrong. 

It also teaches us a dumb and anti-human narrative about history. Leaving out money and finance from history teaching leaves out the life blood of the economy, even though the essence of politics is the distribution of resources. Talking about wars and dynasties is just throwing dust in your eyes while rulers take your stuff.

Any random monarch since the dawn of time had been educated about history the same way: History meant the story of his own family, how they grabbed power, and the families before them. Little Zebulon the 17th would grow up learning how granddaddy conquered other lands and salivated on great conquests of his own. He had never learned about how it was to live in his country while he was playing his little wars. That wasn’t even a thing to consider.

No one cared about how it was to be a person living at the time, and nor does our teaching of history. Individuals or even the powerless masses didn’t exist as actors in politics, so neither do they exist in our history books. And that leaves us shortchanged.

From what he was taught about history, Zebulon the 17th would naturally conclude that conquering was good. And that he should do it himself because no one gets to call himself “the Great” without launching a campaign of murder and destruction upon his own and other lands. And Zebulon had every reason to believe that only his little greatness mattered. But there is no reason today’s history students should end up with the same, jilted view of history that excludes the interests and lives of the likes of them.

For you and me, dear reader, conquering means war, death, destruction, rape, the taking of our stuff and the death of our liberties (if any). What is good for the ruler (to gain and keep his power) – is not good for the plebs. And when we leave out the economy from the story, when we only focus of family wealth of dynasties, we forgot to tell the story of the powerless masses.

The distinction between the ruler and the ruled matters. And their interests diverge. But you will not be encouraged to glean that from history books. You will be made to admire kings, believe the importance of bloodlines and remember the dates of battles. You will learn the name of the battle horses before you hear about the people who financed those wars – let alone those who ran the peace. The incentives for little Zebulon have been brutally perverted.

The only character who paid lip service to the importance of economic history was Tyrion, who – in the third season – get hold of the massive ledgers of the Seven Kingdom’s bookkeeping and declares that “the secret history of empires is written in those pages.”

Then he figures out that they are in debt – but nothing happens.

Game of Thrones reads like such a lopsided history book

Peace as well as the economy is pretty much left out of history teaching.

And that kind of partial and lopsided history teaching is what the “realism” of Game of Thrones was based on. Intrigues, battles, royal bloodlines – and some shabby commoners acting as extras and occasionally burning for dramatic effect. No word are spoken about things we don’t discuss in history classes. Game of Thrones reads like my history book. Heavy, but ultimately uninformative. It leaves me clueless as to what really happened. If I were put down at any point in history with only that book to rely on, I would have no clue as to what is going on around me and why.

The economy of Game of Thrones is not where the show* excels in its much-awed realism. Weird seasons and multi-year winters aside, no one in Westeros could grow a carrot and live to harvest it himself. The economy (if any) is blatantly based on the taxation of the powerless masses (that’s you and me IRL) and gold mines and slavery – but that’s about that.

But where do those carrots come from?

What to do after abolishing slavery?

The show came closest to touching upon the economic blind spot of dynastic fights and idealism when the young Daenerys arrived in Slaver’s Bay and liberated the slaves of three cities overnight. But she couldn’t come up with a substitute economic model – and didn’t even feel that she would need to. An absolutist despot, who tries to be enlightened and abolishes slavery but doesn’t use her power to replace it with anything – is not much of a ruler. They spell it out a few times: she was a conqueror, not a ruler.

Slavery is wrong and bad. But the people who practiced it know nothing else. They have no concept of running an economy without forced labor. Nor do their slaves. The difficulty facing a society after the abolishing of forced labor (either slavery or feudalism) is enormous. Finding a livelihood without slavery requires the power of imagination as well as the willingness to accept the end of their world (and in the masters’ case their privileges) as they knew it. For slaves, building up economic independence is an almost insurmountable challenge, having spent their entire existence being strongly discouraged from thinking in those terms.

Had the writers dwelt upon that particular point a bit longer, Daenerys’ ultimate disappointment with already living generations wouldn’t have been that shocking. But the show decided to focus on the irredeemable animosity between former slaves and masters – in other words, the civil war angle. But it was just the surface of a deep economic challenge. 

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What’s the deal with the Iron Bank?

The role of the Iron Bank perfectly illustrates the complete absence of economics in the story. Characters do pay lip service to the almighty Iron Bank from time to time. They tell us how everyone must pay their debts to the Bank, even the royal court, or else.

Or else what?

Because that is where the whole Iron Bank story line fizzles out. Characters who dismiss threats saying things like “Do they have an army?” suddenly run to pay their debts to the toothless Iron Bank? It doesn’t have an army, not even a handful of assassins, or even a single dragon. And as expected, the Iron Bank eventually remains inconsequential in the story. Kings and queens fret it – and then nothing. The court is deeply indebted to it – but nothing. The Lannisters’ gold mines run out – and it amounts to nothing.

All this token fretting about the Iron Bank sounds more like an appeal to the reader’s fear of his own debt and mortgage. It is an easy sentiment to tap into and sketch up a threat with not too many words. But in the end the entire Iron Bank thread dies. It is a tool to curry a certain sentiment – rather than an actual plot device or a realistic detail of history.

If GoT wanted to be realistic about financiers, the following rule should have been applied:

If you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you should be worried. But if you owe the bank a billion dollars, the bank should be worried. 

And such is the case with sovereign debt.

Sovereign debt is a different kind of animal than your student debt inasmuch as it is based on the state’s ability to take away its subjects’ money (one way or the other – if they print money, that is also taking from you). You can’t do the same to pay back your mortgage. And the difference is crucial.

Let me give an example how the economics-free teaching of history makes you ignorant – and lets your politicians get away with murder

In the middle ages, a financier who was owed big money by a royal should have to be rather worried about the ability to keep his head.

And to give you an idea how little has changed since, just look at the Basel II agreement, where representatives of states actually declared into law that sovereign debt should be regarded as “risk free” for the purposes of the credit rating agencies those very same states established.

But “risk free” debt is a philosophical and economic nonsense. And reality doesn’t allow for it, even if laws on paper declare it.

What Basel II means is that in the year 2004, states have come up with a classy, new way of forcing banks to lend them money to finance their wars and inept politics It takes one more step than just to oblige them directly. They have legally forced their own (state-founded) credit rating agencies to give state debt the highest recommended rating, and thus making banks keep lending.

It is roughly the equivalent of a child being too shy to wish for a candy directly – but wishing for a magic candy tree instead. And if you are a state, it might even work. For a while.

And what happens if countries don’t pay back the banks? Still not much. They print some more money, your housing costs go way up, while politicians and economists theatrically wonder where did inflation disappear… See? They have taken from you, taxpayer. Again.

And with better history teaching, you would at least understand it.

Given all that incomprehensible silence of history books about how things got financed it isn’t surprising that students of history are prone to conspiracy theories about money – and credit the state with the ability to create it. The entire field of economics and finance falls on a gigantic blind spot of history teaching, contributing to boundless ignorance, fearful hatred, and seething conspiracy theories.

And that kind of history writing is what gave us Game of Thrones, a story that is strong on bloodlines and armies and battles, but completely blind to finance and economics.

Martin himself declares that he is not interested in economics or society when he writes his fantasy novels (in a Guardian interview in 2018) and he has every right to it.

It’s old‑fashioned history: he’s not interested in analysing socioeconomic trends or cultural shifts so much as the wars and the assignations and the murders and the plots and the betrayals, all the juicy stuff. Costain did a wonderful job on the Plantagenets so I tried to do that for the Targaryens.”

But history teaching is not entertainment, nor is it a fantasy novel. Ignore the economy – and remain blind to how it was to live in any age.

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* This post is exclusively about the TV show, not the books. 

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