The Economics of The Walking Dead

 

250px-PhilipBlakeTFGAs has been pointed out in nearly every commentary on AMC’s The Walking Dead, the series is best when it focuses less on the horrors of shambling zombies than on those committed by survivors against each other.

Through the first two seasons, most of these came from hot-blooded emotions such as fear and desperation; ordinary people making bad — even evil — decisions under duress, rather than out of malice. That changed in the third episode of the third season with introduction of Philip Blake, aka the Governor.

A former nobody, Blake rose to be the leader of the biggest and most successful survivor camp in the region. Under his leadership, the town of Woodbury remains safe, open, and well-fortified; if you looked past the barricades and the piles of undead that are stacked around them, the place almost looks cute.

The key to Blake’s success is variously teased to be his personal leadership and the town’s willingness to take in strangers. By the end of the episode, however, his true nature is revealed: unlike other survivors — who are generally happy to stay away from each other — the Governor actively seeks out, attacks, and massacres other bands to take their supplies to bring back to Woodbury. In the most literal sense, he’s the region’s apex predator.

It’s easy to see why his methods were initially successful, as well as how they might — and eventually did — lead to his downfall (remarkably, not once, but twice). More interesting to me, however, was Blake’s failure to see how the people he attacked might have been better used to serve his own purposes if he’d allowed them to keep their camps and live in peace.

Though there are other interpretations, capitalism is the realization that strangers are more useful to you alive and free than they are dead or enslaved. Let me explain.

Capitalism — and through it, civilization — is possible only with a proliferation of specialized skills. These skills not only give people something to trade with each other, but also allow them to direct their talents towards activities they are particularly good at. One man might be a good hunter, while another is better at making tools, while another is better at making clothes, etc.

This happens naturally among humans in small groups: among the main characters on The Walking Dead, Rick is the leader, Glenn the rover, Daryl the hunter, Hershel the healer, etc. But the specialization is restricted within the group, while all outsiders are seen as too untrustworthy to be anything but potential rivals, slaves, or enemies.

The catch with intra-group trading is that it limits the number and quality of skills that can be useful. Even if one had the knowledge and materials necessary to do something very useful (like smelt metal ore), it’d probably be a terrible idea to do so if you’re only going to trade with your family and immediate neighbors. The costs to the group of feeding and protecting you while you dig your ore, build your furnace, hone your technique, and fashion your metal — all without actually producing anything useful — would likely be prohibitively high if you only have a handful of people among whom to spread the extra work.

As Matt Ridley explains in The Rational Optimist:

Imagine if you had to be completely self-sufficient (not just pretending, like Thoreau). Every day you must get up in the morning and supply yourself entirely from your own resources. How would you spend your day? The top four priorities would be food, fuel, clothing and shelter… By definition, you are at subsistence level and frankly, though at first you mutter, Thoreau-like, ‘how marvelous to get away from all the appalling hustle and bustle,’ after a few days the routine is pretty grim. If you wish to have even the most minimal improvement in your life – say metal tools, toothpaste or lighting – you are going to have to get some of your chores done by somebody else, because there just is not time to do them yourself.

Even if you succeeded, it probably wouldn’t have been worth it on such a small scale. A metal ax might be 10 times better than a stone one, but it likely wouldn’t be worth the effort if it takes 120 times as much time and energy (especially if there were only a handful of potential customers who could use your product at a given time). You’d probably have been much better off making due with an inferior but more accessible stone ax.

That changes when you have more people: it’s easier to spread the costs of protecting and feeding you, you’re likely to become more efficient with economies of scale, and you’ve got enough of a client base to actually make your efforts worthwhile. You might even be able to have an assistant, which could further increase your efficiency. If someone else figured out how to run a smithy, the two of you would end up competing with each other. Before long, you might have a rudimentary economy and the beginnings of a civilization.

If any of the characters on The Walking Dead are aware of this, they haven’t shown it. Even at their best and most thoughtful, the show’s characters aspire to make a safer and better home for their own band. And while individuals are permitted and even encouraged to join their group, they are not welcome to form their own tribes in the neighboring areas; joining or going far away are the only options. Even Terminus — the mysterious camp that posts signs around the region promising safe haven to all who arrive — presents itself as following that rubric.

Given how dangerous the world has shown itself to be — and how precarious everyone’s survival is — that’s probably the most anyone can hope for (and, as almost everyone suspected, Terminus turned out to be less than advertised). But if the survivors are ever going to find peace or semblance of prosperity, they’re going to have to figure it out.

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  1. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    “Capitalism — and through it, civilization — is possible only with a proliferation of specialized skills.”

    This basically diagnoses the problem we face in the nation today: too many people without useful skills. Asking “want fries with that” does not qualify. Mike Rowe is doing great work in this area. Even with global trade and our service/information economy there are are still plenty of things people can learn and do to be makers rather than takers.

    • #1
  2. TeamAmerica Member
    TeamAmerica
    @TeamAmerica

    Hmmm… I thought this post would be about whether the show meant him to represent a Republican or a Democrat. And I thought you’d be arguing tat he behaves more like a Dem, even though HBO intended to smear Republicans. (I’ve never seen the show, so I can’t comment on it)

    • #2
  3. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    a) As much as I love The Walking Dead, trying to divine real-world lessons from it is usually a mug’s game, as they are far more focused on exciting story-telling and character development than they are in maintaining any semblance of a coherent continuity, plugging plot holes, or exploring in any semi-realistic way what’s actually going on in the wider world.

    If that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for, then you’d be way better off reading (the awesome) World War Z than watching The Walking Dead.

    For example, so far we’ve only been exposed to three genuine, semi-stable communities on the show (The Prison, Woodbury, and Terminus), and they’re all apparently within walking distance of each other.

    At the same time, the group was shown driving around for three seasons and finding nothing but small groups of nomads.

    So, what the heck makes this immediate geographical area in Georgia so dang special?!?!

    There’s also the problem that, in the real world, gasoline goes bad after a couple of years, so none of their vehicles should be working at this point in the show.

    There’s also the problem that…   And the problem that…   Etc, etc…

    Seriously, it’s not worth thinking too hard about it.  Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

    b) That being said, if we want to hypothesize about the economics of a zombie apocalypse in general, then:

    • Let’s pretend that the writers were better at ensuring things make more sense, and that there are many stable and semi-stable communities distributed around Georgia, within driving distance of each other rather than walking distance.
    • Let’s also pretend that gasoline is somehow magic in this fictional universe.
    • Let’s also pretend that the level of danger presented by the zombies is relatively constant, rather than fluctuating according to the dramatic requirements of any particular episode.
    • Let’s also pretend that marauding gangs of non-zombie bandits is not a factor, because we assume that they would either be incorporated into the communities or forcefully eliminated (with extreme prejudice) by the communities.

    .

    As such, here’s my question: Considering the increased danger (and therefore the increased cost) of travel between the communities due to the zombie hordes, would the benefits of inter-community trade outweigh the costs?

    • #3
  4. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Misthiocracy: Let’s also pretend that the level of danger presented by the zombies is relatively constant, rather than fluctuating according to the dramatic requirements of any particular episode.

    That’s probably the single weakest aspect of the show.

    • #4
  5. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Misthiocracy: As such, here’s my question: Considering the increased danger (and therefore the increased cost) of travel between the communities due to the zombie hordes, would the benefits of inter-community trade outweigh the costs?

    Well, given how often they all go foraging, I’m not so sure.

    At some point, though, one presumes enough walkers will have rotted away to make travel relatively safe. How this hasn’t happened yet is beyond me (and, I imagine, the showrunners).

    I’ve been told for years that I should read World War Z and will see that I do.

    • #5
  6. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Misthiocracy: Let’s also pretend that the level of danger presented by the zombies is relatively constant, rather than fluctuating according to the dramatic requirements of any particular episode.

    That’s probably the single weakest aspect of the show.

    I don’t personally think it’s a “weakness”, as much as it’s essentially irrelevant to the storytelling.

    Arbitrary variation in the antagonists’ threat level to suit story requirements is a perennial trope of sci-fi/fantasy.

    (For example, look at how the quality of Stormtroopers’ aim varies depending on whether they’re shooting at a main character or an extra.)

    • #6
  7. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Misthiocracy: (For example, look at how the quality of Stormtroopers’ aim varies depending on whether they’re shooting at a main character or an extra.)

    I always liked the MST3K gag of “Quick! Set your phasers on ‘miss’!”

    • #7
  8. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    anonymous: Zombies have always seemed so implausible that I find it difficult to get engaged in such stories…

    You just gotta remind yourself that the zombies are always a metaphor for something else. They’re not supposed to be “plausible”.

    • #8
  9. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: At some point, though, one presumes enough walkers will have rotted away to make travel relatively safe. How this hasn’t happened yet is beyond me (and, I imagine, the showrunners).

    Again, it’s not worth thinking about if you want to continue enjoying the show.

    If you do think about it for about five minutes or so, you should reach the same conclusion that Cracked.com did, which is that the epidemic really should have burned itself out within one year, at the most (barring any sort of supernatural effect which prevents zombies from decomposing).

    • #9
  10. Gary The Ex-Donk Member
    Gary The Ex-Donk
    @

    Misthiocracy:

    anonymous: Zombies have always seemed so implausible that I find it difficult to get engaged in such stories…

    You just gotta remind yourself that the zombies are always a metaphor for something else. They’re not supposed to be “plausible”.

    I always see the zombies as a metaphor for liberals. :-)

    • #10
  11. gts109 Inactive
    gts109
    @gts109

    You’re certainly right about the importance of the division of labor in a modern economy.

    Human history, however, is mostly the history of tribal peoples murdering each other. Not until a powerful, state-like entity with a monopoly on the use of violence emerges do large and disparate groups of people begin cooperative trade. So, it’s not hard to imagine that roaming bands of marauders would become a huge problem after all central authority collapses. Plus, in a world where so few people know how to survive in the wild and the supply stock from the old world is rapidly diminishing without replacement, it may well be a rational short term survival strategy to kill strangers and steal their stuff. The Walking Dead is hardly alone is setting out that vision for a post-apocalyptic world.

    Also, you seem to be forgetting that, at the prison, before the Governor ruined it, they were taking in other people, and were in the process of forming a larger, more cooperative group. Remember, they had their “three questions” to judge the usefulness and trustworthiness of strangers who wanted to join. That’s at least a nod in the direction of recognizing that the upward surge of humanity is held in the realization that the world is not a zero sum game.

    • #11
  12. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    gts109: Human history, however, is mostly the history of tribal peoples murdering each other. Not until a powerful, state-like entity with a monopoly on the use of violence emerges do large and disparate groups of people begin cooperative trade. So, it’s not hard to imagine that roaming bands of marauders would become a huge problem after all central authority collapses. Plus, in a world where so few people know how to survive in the wild and the supply stock from the old world is rapidly diminishing without replacement, it may well be a rational short term survival strategy to kill strangers and steal their stuff. The Walking Dead is hardly alone is setting out that vision for a post-apocalyptic world.

    The political/philosophical problem, as far as the show is concerned, is that the roaming bands of marauders haven’t been the ones portrayed as the primary threat.

    Instead, the scariest people have been the ones that have banded together to build a pleasant, peaceful, community reminiscent of the one in Pleasantville.

    The writers aren’t interested in showing plausible hypotheses about how social and economic systems would actually function in this fictional environment, but instead were going for a cheap hit about how under the surface of this nice, middle-class town there’s a bunch of homicidal psychopathy.

    Really, most of the terrible things that The Governor does don’t make a lick of strategic or economic sense (like the episode where he kills a small unit of National Guardsmen for no apparent reason, other than he’s paranoid about having his power usurped).  The guy’s simply crazy.

    And, you know, fair enough.  They aren’t trying to make any points about how economics work, but they also aren’t trying to impose blatant progressive politics on the viewer either.  If that had been their purpose, they would have portrayed Woodbury as a socialist utopia rather than using “the guy in charge is just crazy” as a narrative shortcut.

    The goal is to move the plot along in an exciting way, not to teach lessons about politics.  I can live with that.

    • #12
  13. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    gts109: Also, you seem to be forgetting that, at the prison, before the Governor ruined it, they were taking in other people, and were in the process of forming a larger, more cooperative group. Remember, they had their “three questions” to judge the usefulness and trustworthiness of strangers who wanted to join. That’s at least a nod in the direction of recognizing that the upward surge of humanity is held in the realization that the world is not a zero sum game.

    Yup, Waterbury was insular and scary because The Governor was insane and homicidal while The Prison was forward-thinking and inclusive because Rick by contrast is … uh … not having hallucinations about his dead wife anymore, I guess?

    ;-)

    • #13
  14. captainpower Inactive
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    Misthiocracy: Let’s also pretend that the level of danger presented by the zombies is relatively constant, rather than fluctuating according to the dramatic requirements of any particular episode.

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    That’s probably the single weakest aspect of the show.

    The ninja zombie in the middle of the open field on a moonlit night was the worst.

    Season 2, episode 11.

    http://www.tvrage.com/The_Walking_Dead/episodes/1065147095

    spoilers: http://www.tvrage.com/The_Walking_Dead/episodes/1065147095/recap

    • #14
  15. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    captainpower:

    Misthiocracy: Let’s also pretend that the level of danger presented by the zombies is relatively constant, rather than fluctuating according to the dramatic requirements of any particular episode.

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    That’s probably the single weakest aspect of the show.

    The ninja zombie in the middle of the open field of on a moonlit night was the worst.

    Season 2, episode 11.

    I give them a lot of slack for Season Two.  The production was operating under very difficult circumstances, what with AMC having cut their budget and firing Frank Darabont during pre-production. That’s the main reason Season Two is basically one really long bottle episode.

    That they were able to keep the show from falling apart at all for long enough to come back with some pretty awesome stuff in seasons three and four is pretty miraculous, ackshully.

    • #15
  16. otherdeanplace@yahoo.com Member
    otherdeanplace@yahoo.com
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Members of the NRA can find lots to like about the show.

    • #16
  17. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Eustace C. Scrubb:Members of the NRA can find lots to like about the show.

    Not to mention Hyundai, which apparently can continue to manufacture cars even during the zombie apocalypse.

    ;-)

    • #17
  18. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    There’s a reason that “capitalism” doesn’t exist in any subsistence-level primitive society: it can’t exist.

    Small scale trading and even specialization do occur in many economic systems, and are common even among primitive societies, which The Walking Dead types of groups can be characterized as (more or less hunter-gatherers)…but that’s not “capitalism”.

    The defining characteristic of capitalism is, as the name implies…capital. It’s about a mechanism of transmitting information on the most efficient allocation of resources. I.e., capitalism is the system which allows multiple parties to combine their capital to a greater return.

    Of course, this leads to much higher levels of trading and specialization than in other economic systems. But it’s “capital” that separates capitalism from the rest.

    But, when you are in a situation of hunter-gatherer type of societies, attacking other groups is a more natural, and observed, phenomenon. If other groups are transient, then you get no benefit from them since they aren’t going to stick around. But they are going to take your stuff.

    Of course, that show makes no sense on a number of levels. People would have moved to North Dakota a long time ago, where there’s infinite farmland, easy to defend positions with miles of clear views, and few zombies at all. Problem solved. Show over.

    • #18
  19. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Misthiocracy: Really, most of the terrible things that The Governor does don’t make a lick of strategic or economic sense (like the episode where he kills a small unit of National Guardsmen for no apparent reason, other than he’s paranoid about having his power usurped).  The guy’s simply crazy.

    That makes good sense to me. Here’s a group of heavily armed, disciplined…males…with an established hierarchical system, traveling nearby your town.

    What do you do? Invite them to come over and live in your town? Hide and wait for them to possibly find you?

    Maybe, if you’re a “libertarian” ;) But then you’ll be a dead “libertarian” very soon.

    • #19
  20. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    AIG:

    Misthiocracy: Really, most of the terrible things that The Governor does don’t make a lick of strategic or economic sense (like the episode where he kills a small unit of National Guardsmen for no apparent reason, other than he’s paranoid about having his power usurped). The guy’s simply crazy.

    That makes good sense to me. Here’s a group of heavily armed, disciplined…males…with an established hierarchical system, traveling nearby your town.

    What do you do? Invite them to come over and live in your town? Hide and wait for them to possibly find you?

    Maybe, if you’re a “libertarian” ;) But then you’ll be a dead “libertarian” very soon.

    Why not invite them to live in your town? Wouldn’t a small group of trained and disciplined soldiers be a useful asset?

    The population of Woodbury wasn’t all (or even mostly) native to the town. They were recruited, or allowed to join at some point.

    It seems non-sensical to me to only allow untrained and unequipped people to join the community, and to instantly exterminate on sight everybody else.

    • #20
  21. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Misthiocracy: Why not invite them to live in your town? Wouldn’t a small group of trained and disciplined soldiers be a useful asset?

    A groups of armed males with big guns and their own group structure, that have been roving the countryside for a couple of years, sounds like a “useful asset”?

    Only if you’re willing to give up everything for protection. Which clearly, they were in no need of. So if you don’t need protection, then they’re just a threat.

    • #21
  22. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    AIG:

    Misthiocracy: Why not invite them to live in your town? Wouldn’t a small group of trained and disciplined soldiers be a useful asset?

    A groups of armed males with big guns and their own group structure, that have been roving the countryside for a couple of years, sounds like a “useful asset”?

    Only if you’re willing to give up everything for protection. Which clearly, they were in no need of. So if you don’t need protection, then they’re just a threat.

    Except that Woodbury already accepted “groups of armed males with big guns and their own group structure” from time to time. Heck, The Governor accepted people like Merle into the community!

    • #22
  23. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Misthiocracy: Except that Woodbury already accepted “groups of armed males with big guns and their own group structure” from time to time.

    I don’t think they ever showed that. We can’t assume they did.

    Misthiocracy: Heck, The Governor accepted people like Merle into the community!

    Merle was 1 guy, willing to follow orders.

    Either way, this is something we see throughout history. Cities would hire mercenaries when in need of protection, but otherwise they would do their best to keep them out of the city. Or even, to get them killed.

    Pretty much the history of Rome.

    • #23
  24. Knotwise the Poet Member
    Knotwise the Poet
    @KnotwisethePoet

    Gary The Ex-Donk:

    Misthiocracy:

    You just gotta remind yourself that the zombies are always a metaphor for something else. They’re not supposed to be “plausible”.

    I always see the zombies as a metaphor for liberals. :-)

    • #24
  25. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    AIG: Merle was 1 guy, willing to follow orders.

    I think that’s the heart of it. The soldiers would likely not have signed on to the Woodbury’s tactics and there’d be enough of them — willing to operate under other leadership — to matter.

    I can’t say it’s smart, but it makes sense.

    • #25
  26. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    knot wise,

    That Bob Hope line must have been delivered during the Eisenhower administration.

    AIG,
    The -40 F winters in NoDak discourages anybody from moving there.

    • #26
  27. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    The Number One Reason It’s A Tragedy There’s Never Been A Big-Budget Canadian Zombie Movie:

    • #27
  28. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: The soldiers would likely not have signed on to the Woodbury’s tactics…

    …and that’s MY point. The reason they wouldn’t have signed on to Woodbury’s tactics is because Woodbury’s tactics were idiotic, so the Governor has to do something idiotic (exterminating a prime asset) in order to protect his idiotic regime. The whole point is that his entire regime is crazy, not just that one act.

    • #28
  29. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Misthiocracy: …and that’s MY point. The reason they wouldn’t have signed on to Woodbury’s tactics is because Woodbury’s tactics were idiotic, so the Governor has to do something idiotic (exterminating a prime asset) in order to protect his idiotic regime. The whole point is that his entire regime is crazy, not just that one act.

    I don’t see anything the “regime” did that was crazy. Quite the opposite, I’d say.

    It’s not an “asset” to have armed gangs of men, when they didn’t actually need protection. Woodbury was well protected already. Hence, they would not only be redundant, but quite dangerous to the town.

    • #29
  30. gts109 Inactive
    gts109
    @gts109

    Misthio, as you may know, in the comics the Governor was immediately introduced  as evil (the comic later gave him an interesting origin story, which the show took from, but changed a lot). The show changed how the Governor was introduced, first portraying him as a less menacing figure (sans eye patch and scars), who eventually went off the deep end. (IMO, that worked.)

    So, when you think his actions are irrational, you should keep in mind that he’s a nutbar who keeps a zombie daughter / niece in the closet and enjoys relaxing in front of his collection of severed heads. I agree with you, though, that Woodbury sometimes veers into tired social commentary, which tries to make the point that suburban tranquility is undergirded by hidden horrors.

    I must disagree that the Woodbury v. Prison situation was unrealistic. Each group viewed the other as an existential threat. And, neither group was wrong in that assessment. Inaction would have been a miscalculation for either side. That’s not a hard scenario to imagine in that world, and it’s consistent with the vast swath of human history.

    • #30
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