By the time you read this, there’s a fair chance you’ll have seen the long-awaited first episode of Game of Thrones’ sixth season, either because you watched straight away or because you severed all contact with the outside world until you had time to see it. But if you’ve yet to get there, fear not: it won’t be spoiled here (though everything before it might be).
In fact, even if I’d wanted to spoil it for you, I couldn’t; what you see below are the Sunday night musings of a pre-Season-6 Tom, a Jon-Snow-better-not-be-bloody-well-dead-I-swear Tom. As I write this, I inhabit a world where I’m still trying to figure out what’s happened to Arya’s eyes; where I’m pretending to be pleased that Bran is back; and where I’m still waiting for something even vaguely interesting to happen to Daenerys.
But, it seems, I can’t just get excited like a normal person. I’m an economics student, after all. So, drearily predictable and thoroughly unsolicited, I’ve taken it upon myself to dish up some clickbait. That’s right, folks. It’s time for the Game of Thrones edition of our favourite series here at ESSA: ‘The economics of that thing you like that didn’t really need to be linked to economics but someone went and did it so you might as well read it anyway’!
I should first point out that this is by no means uncharted territory. The Economist this week panned Cersei’s calamitous fiscal management of Westeros. The Guardian asked military experts for their advice on how to take the Iron Throne. Even one of our own former writers, Christine Li, heralded the arrival of Season 3 with some rational advice for Westeros’ warring families.
But, rather than rehash someone else’s material (cough cough David Benioff and DB Weiss), I’ve come up with a slightly different approach. One thing Game of Thrones is famous for, of course, is its unexpected twists and turns. Though sometimes these are the result of unforeseen circumstances, quite often they’re the result of deliberate and, on the surface, surprising decisions of main characters. But, I found myself wondering, just how surprising are these decisions? Could economics, the social science of decision making, shed some light on the seemingly inexplicable?
I set about trying to think through some key (and less key) plot points. Here’s what I came up with.
Ok, so maybe I picked a tough one to start with. Of all the moments GoT has dished out at us, Stannis’ immolation of Shireen late last season is surely the hardest to explain. How on earth could a father put his own daughter through such a difficult death?
Economics, unsurprisingly (I hope), doesn’t have some magic theory up its sleeve that could justify child burning. But one insight might shed some light on Stannis’ morbid calculus.
First, let’s get a little clearer about the situation Stannis has in front of him. He’s heading off to a battle tomorrow, a crucial one (sort of) if he’s to fulfill his ambition to claim the Iron Throne. The mystical (read maniacal) prophecies of Melisandre have convinced him that, unless he kills his daughter (who has royal blood by his lineage), he’ll lose that battle. Assuming that Melisandre is right (or that Stannis thinks she is), the choice he faces is: keep Shireen and lose or burn Shireen and win. How would he make this choice? Based on his relative preferences for the retention of his daughter and his victory in battle.
What might prompt Stannis to value tomorrow’s battle over his daughter’s life? Short-termism, a behavioural economist might answer. The tendency of humans to place significantly greater stock in an immediate benefit over a remote benefit is well-documented and universally recognised. It’s the reason we smoke, eat bad foods and fail to exercise. It’s the reason we procrastinate (in other words, the reason I wrote this article). And it may just be the reason Stannis was able to stomach burning Shireen. The benefits of seeing her grow to adulthood and live a happy(ish, it’s Westeros) life were diminished by the heavily-weighted perceived present value of kicking some Bolton backsides.
It’s brutal logic, I grant you. But in a world where ‘we don’t hurt little girls’ is a surprising enough sentiment to be the quasi-motto for an entire city, it may not be that surprising after all. Here’s hoping Shireen was content with the explanation when Stannis tried it out on her in the Westerosi afterlife, where he swiftly joined her.
At the end of the last season, Daenerys let her former travelling companion and the world’s biggest creeper, Jorah ‘Khaleesi Please!’ Mormont, back into her entourage, grabbing his hand in the midst of an ambush.
Now, first thing’s first: why this crotchety old bloke refuses to take a hint even when he sees he’s competing against Daario Nahearthrob is beyond my powers to explain. Child burning? Sure. But that? Totally irrational.
But another economic concept might well explain why Daenerys made what most would agree is an unwise decision to welcome him back into the fold: information asymmetry.
Economics has typically assumed that rational decision makers will tend to choose what is best for them. But, in 2001, George Akerlof, Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz won a Nobel prize for identifying a situation in which this would not happen: when one party to a transaction lacked sufficient information about the product being exchanged. Examples abound in the world: think EBay purchases or misleading dating profiles.
There is, of course, one vital piece of information Meereen’s newest Queen was missing when she seized Jorah’s hand: that the hand was infected with the highly contagious and highly unpleasant Greyscale. Knowing this might have made all the difference, or at least warranted the donning of a glove.
Now, the annoying book-reading people inform me that Targaryens are (conveniently) immune to Greyscale, so maybe Dany’s going to be ok. But Jorah could still present problems for her less-conveniently-immune friends. An information asymmetry has led to adverse selection. Jorah better watch his EBay rating.
This somewhat less significant plot point was, nevertheless, an impressively bold move from the impressively bold Jon Snow. Having captured the rugged and clearly dangerous Tormund, Jon brought him into his office (for want of a better word) and let him free in an admirable, but risky, gesture of goodwill.
But was this bluff as gutsy as it seemed?
Let’s think about the situation more carefully. Jon stands to gain from releasing Tormund; the Wildlings are leaderless, but under Tormund’s command they could become a significant ally in fighting off the impending White Walker threat. Yet, as Tormund rightfully points out, ‘it’s hard to lead when you’re in chains’. So there’s the gain from releasing him; what of the cost? Should Jon be afraid that Tormund will kill him?
Perhaps not. Tormund hasn’t got a great deal to gain if he bashes Jon over the head and makes a break for it. He’s buried deep in Castle Black, and his chances of escaping are essentially none. His best move, then, is to take Jon at his word when he says he wants to work together. Sure, he might be lying, but there was no hope whatsoever of freedom before, and now there’s at least some. So then, Tormund’s best move is to believe Jon and leave him unharmed.
If Jon had thought this through, as well he might have, he’d realise that Tormund was unlikely to try to kill him, such that unchaining him becomes Jon’s best move. Well played, Lord Commander.
The two men are in what economists call a Nash Equilibrium, after its inventor, the mathematician whose story was told in the film A Beautiful Mind. In a Nash Equilibrium, neither ‘player’ in the ‘game’ has any incentive to deviate from their course of action; each is playing her ‘best move’. The moves might seem surprising: Tormund certainly doesn’t seem to anticipate Jon’s action, and we mightn’t have either. But a careful analysis of the situation reveals a sustainable stalemate where we didn’t expect to find one.
Perhaps Jon Snow knows something after all.
So, you might have already answered ‘why wouldn’t you?’, and I take your point. But the brazenness with which Olenna Tyrell and Petyr Baelish dispensed with King Brat on his special day surely merits some analysis.
It’s Olenna’s actions in particular which are intriguing. Murdering the soon-to-be-husband of your descendant seems ill-advised, especially given that the very same descendant is going to have to continue to live with the family of the boy you’ve just killed and that family is… well, the Lannisters. Why dare to cross such a vengeful family, even if it is to dispose of a vile little twit?
The answer: she can afford to. The Tyrells are a wealthy family, on the back of whose financial contributions the continued success of the heavily-indebted Lannisters depends. Should Olenna’s part in the plot be discovered, the shrewd and careful Tywin Lannister should recognise that he is powerless to retaliate, for fear of losing much-needed funds.
As soon as the level-headed Tywin departs the stage, however, Olenna discovers she’s not the only one with a bargaining chip. The incarceration of Loras and Margaery can be seen as Cersei’s insurance policy, guarding against the prospect of losing Tyrell funding by holding the two prisoners for quasi-ransom.
None of this is explicitly economic, financial content notwithstanding, but it is another example of how carefully examining the decisions and payoffs available to each player in the game of thrones can shed light on the decisions made. Yet another stalemate results from the distribution of incentives.
The Red Wedding has been immortalised as one of television’s most brutal moments. It shocked fans the world over, as demonstrated in this slightly-too-funny video.
Surprising though it may have been, this one’s not actually that hard to explain. It’s pretty clear that Walder and Roose were motivated by money and the promise of power; the Lannisters, after all, sent their regards.
But this does demonstrate a point which, although fairly obvious, is one of the things that makes a show like Game of Thrones so compelling: it shows us what humanity might look like when everything else is stripped back. In a world with no robust system of government, with no justice system, property rights or rule of law, chaos prevails, and horrific crimes are inflicted upon exceedingly attractive and beloved heroes for financial or strategic gain, with no consequences (at least, until Arya completes her list. Valar morghulis, you bastards).
How does this relate to economics? Put a different way, GoT shows us how incentives, the bedrock of economics, would play out without anything to curb them. The key insight of economics, of course, is that incentives rule the world (that might sound like overreach, but that’s quite literally how it’s expressed by Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics). It’s easy enough to forget, though, that that only makes sense within careful bounds of legal and social expectation, a reminder which should temper the zeal with which we talk about the power of incentives or the omnipotence of the market mechanism. Life without the law might not look exactly like Westeros, but it mightn’t be far off. Without the social contract, suggests the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, weddings would be “nasty, brutish and short”. Ok, he was talking about life, not weddings, but the same applies.
You wouldn’t. Screw you, Olly.
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