“Winter is Coming”

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
24 May, 2019

Being an economist is great. But there is a downside. A lot of people wind up annoyed by some parts of fantasy worlds in books and movies, but economists get annoyed by very different things.

HBO’s Game of Thrones finally ended this week. The last two seasons brought increasing fan annoyance: the plotting and pace made far less sense than in prior seasons.

For those who haven’t followed, Game of Thrones largely takes place on the continent of Westeros, in a fantasy world with peculiar winters: they come with long and variable lags. A winter can last for months or years, and it can be years or even a decade between winters.

The motto of House Stark, traditional rulers of the North of Westeros, is simple: “Winter is Coming”. In other words – always be prepared. Winter could come next month, and it could last for years.

No spoilers here for those who are still catching up. I have other grievances instead to air.

If you grant the premises of that universe, some things make little sense. Westerosean technology seems largely comparable to our medieval times. But if winters can come at short notice and last long, food storage should be of paramount importance. Any kingdom with better food storage technology will be ready to take over all its neighbours as winter ends.

Competition among neighbouring states can drive technological development and is one of the more plausible explanations of why the Industrial Revolution centred in Europe with its several nation states rather than in unified China.

But Westeros does not seem to have figured out even canning – solved in our world by the 1700s despite our predictable winters. England had glass windows before the Norman conquest; heated glasshouses in Westeros could provide necessary nutritional complements to salted and preserved meats. But Westeros imports glass at great and difficult expense from Dorne instead of manufacturing it.

For that matter, where are the storehouses? Why is there no Master of Stores on the small council?

Unfortunately, many places do things that make little sense to economists, even in the real world. Policy creates housing crises and then tries to undo the harm by subsidising rents – which only makes things worse. Policy remains woefully underprepared for the next earthquake. And climate change policy is too often haphazard.

Perhaps we should end more of our policy reports with the simple reminder: “Winter is Coming”.

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