Economy Of Thrones : Planet Money We have five economic indicators to help you understand the world of Game of Thrones.
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Economy Of Thrones

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Economy Of Thrones

Economy Of Thrones

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Happy Monday, Cardiff.


Hi, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: So as you know, yesterday was big. It was the finale of a television show that everyone in the country has been watching for years, "Game Of Thrones."

GARCIA: Everyone - yes, everyone but me, apparently, right?

VANEK SMITH: Minus one person, Cardiff Garcia, the only person in America who does not watch "Game Of Thrones." Well, here's the thing, Cardiff. You know, "Game Of Thrones" is this whole world and - this is where I'm hoping to sell you on this - economics all its own.

GARCIA: OK, I'm more interested than I was.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Only you. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: Today on the show, Economy of Thrones. Cardiff, I'm going to give you a basic working knowledge of "Game Of Thrones" so that you can at least function in polite society. And I don't want you to worry because I'm going to give you a little bit of economics to help the entertainment go down.

GARCIA: Oh, I'd have walked out of this room minutes ago...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) If I hadn't said the words economics.

GARCIA: ...If you hadn't sold me on the economics, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: I had you at economics. Excellent.


VANEK SMITH: I wanted a little help with the economics of "Game Of Thrones," so I turned to this man, Lyman Stone. He is a population economist. And he got a little bit obsessed and started writing a lot about the economics inside this world.

LYMAN STONE: What we see is a world that is in sort of a late medieval stage of development.

VANEK SMITH: Late medieval economics. Cardiff, forget everything you know about derivatives and monetary policy. We are getting basic. And I have five indicators for you today about the economics of "Game Of Thrones."

GARCIA: Five economic indicators...


GARCIA: ...About a show I've never seen. I can't wait.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Well, the first indicator, the armies. I mean, even though you haven't seen it, you certainly know that armies are a big feature of "Game Of Thrones," right?

GARCIA: Lot of fighting.


GARCIA: Lot of dragons - fire-breathing - yes.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. Epic battles between these giant armies. And these armies - they're sailing over oceans. They're marching over great distances. And Lyman says economically speaking, that actually does not fly because he says moving armies around was just a logistical nightmare. It was like moving a city around. And he said you needed, like, a ton of time between battles to just regroup and make new weapons. And he said all the speeding from one battle to another which happens in "Game Of Thrones" is just not realistic. It would never happen.

STONE: Real question is how are you going to feed everybody, right? This was one of the reasons why the Mongols were able to steamroll through Europe so quickly is that the Mongols, or horse nomads, who would go for months at a time surviving on, like, the milk from the mares in their herd - right? - this army could actually feed itself to a great extent.

And so these European armies would march out. And it'd be, like, you know, 15,000 guys on one side and 15,000 guys on the other, except on the European side, on the Christian side, you've got, like - really, like, 5,000 guys and 10,000 people who are kind of support staff. And on the Mongol side, you just have, like, 15,000 trained horse archers.

VANEK SMITH: Who can, like, survive off of, like, horse milk?

STONE: Yeah.

GARCIA: That makes perfect sense, yeah.


GARCIA: I mean, big army - got to feed it, got to clothe it.

VANEK SMITH: But, of course, as you mentioned, the battles in "Game Of Thrones" were not just about the armies. They were also about the fire-breathing dragons. And that is our indicator No. 2, dragons. So the dragons in "Game Of Thrones" - Lyman says they're basically like a weapons technology. And he said this happened a lot in medieval times. This new weapon would be developed. And this weapon would give a huge advantage to one side for a while, and then, you know, everyone else would have to scramble to find a way to deal with this new weapon.

STONE: So you see, well, literally an arms race between the quality of weapons and the quality of armor. So in the early medieval period, you've got guys in, like, chains - chain-link or, like...

VANEK SMITH: Chain mail, yeah.

STONE: Yeah, things like that. And then what happens is the crossbow comes along. And suddenly, I mean, you really need heavier armor.

VANEK SMITH: Like plate mail.

STONE: Yeah.

GARCIA: Wait a minute. Isn't this some kind of, like, dragons' rights violation here?


GARCIA: Because the dragons - we're referring to the dragons as weapons, but aren't they autonomous beings themselves, capable of deciding what to do? Like, are they just being wielded by one side versus the other? Are they like horses, basically?

VANEK SMITH: So you know there's this woman, Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons? She's always walking naked out of burning buildings.


VANEK SMITH: She does it so well. Anyway, so she's...

GARCIA: (Laughter) Sorry.

VANEK SMITH: They're basically a weapon that she can use, but a lot of the other armies start developing weapons to deal with the dragons. And, in fact, one guy develops this arrow gun to shoot down the dragons. And they do actually shoot down and kill a dragon.

GARCIA: Oh, it's kind of like if you develop a new aircraft that's really great technology, and then the other side develops, like, an anti-aircraft gun...

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, exactly.

GARCIA: ...To shoot it down, OK.

VANEK SMITH: Exactly. That is exactly what happened.

GARCIA: That's the arms race.

VANEK SMITH: Of course, though, in "Game Of Thrones," fighting is not just about weapons and armies. It is also about defenses, namely walls. So this is indicator No. 3, walls - walled cities, walled castles. There's also this giant wall that stands between civilization and these wild lands where the army of killer zombies is, led by the scary Night King.

And Lyman says the wall thing is right on. But, you know, here's the other thing. All the walls in "Game Of Thrones" - spoiler alert - they just all get breached. Lyman says that's actually also pretty realistic. But, he said, nonetheless, walls were still a really good medieval investment.

STONE: If you're a city, you're not thinking, oh, how can I resist an army of 15,000 determined enemies? You can't. Your goal is just to make yourself look like enough of a pain in the butt that when a raiding party comes through, just be like, look; you could take six days to besiege us and look for the weak spot in our wall, or you can just go on to the next village that doesn't have a wall.


STONE: But then as everybody gets walls, suddenly, it's not enough to have walls. You've got to have a moat.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: Makes sense, though.


GARCIA: Walls and moats were just meant to be an annoyance.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. So, you know, according to Lyman, the big walls around the big, important cities in Westeros and Essos - very realistic. Not so realistic, says Lyman, the big, important cities in Westeros and Essos. And that is indicator No. 4, the cities.

STONE: The cities, essentially, are a complexity problem, right? So let's say you have a million people living in an area. Those people need to be fed. They need to get water. Their poop needs to be dealt with. The poop of their horses needs to be dealt with. You need sophisticated mercantile systems.

The huge metropolises of the Middle Ages were unique events, and things like Constantinople under Basil the Bulgar-slayer. You didn't get multiple big cities in one small region, as you have in Westeros or in Western Essos.

VANEK SMITH: Lyman says conspicuously absent from these big cities are just food preservation and storage facilities. So in "Game Of Thrones," they have these winters that last for years. You might have heard of this, right? And Lyman says, like, if this were the case, if there were these multiple years-long winters, that these populations would be, like, completely and 100% focused on one thing, our final indicator, food.

STONE: No one should be eating fresh food ever. Everything should be pickled.

VANEK SMITH: So Lyman says you see this kind of thing in regions that used to experience, like, really harsh winters and regular famines, like Scandinavia and the Korean Peninsula.

GARCIA: There seems to be kind of an underlying thread to what Lyman says here, which is that all of the resources in this show sound like they were dedicated to going to war - right? - or defending against...

VANEK SMITH: Fighting over this, like, throne - the Iron Throne - to, like, rule all the kingdoms.

GARCIA: Right.


GARCIA: And maybe not enough of the advanced technologies in the show were going towards actual economic development that could've made people's lives better.

VANEK SMITH: Or, like, living because, you know, Lyman says the second they got wind that one of these years-long winter was coming, like, everyone should've just dropped everything and focused on food. They wouldn't have been, like, bickering over, like, oh, like, my claim to the throne, like, I think you're my aunt and, you know, all the stuff that they're always quibbling about. It's like, no, there's one thing and one thing - only thing you need to be focusing on, which is, like, eating.

He got so upset by the inaccuracies that he had to stop watching.

STONE: I mean, I was cheering for the Night King.

VANEK SMITH: You were cheering for (laughter) the Night King? How come?

STONE: I was irritated enough at this setting - you know, really did not prepare enough food for winter. They clearly do not deserve to survive this. The thing is I would be fine with all the wrong economics in the world if they - if the whole pretense of the show were not that it is like a realist fantasy. And I'm like, well, sure, it's the real world, as long as the real world means lots of torture, lots of (grunting) and then lots of sex. But it's not the real world when it comes down to pickling their vegetables.

VANEK SMITH: They should be pickling their vegetables. They lost you.

STONE: I'm not fine with calling it realistic and then not having proper food logistics.

GARCIA: What's the over/under on how many seasons I would get through, do you think?

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I would think...

GARCIA: Point five?

VANEK SMITH: I think - you know, I think you'd get through the first couple seasons. That's really when Daenerys stops walking naked out of buildings, and the whole thing went downhill after that.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: It really did.


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