Monthly Archives: July 2014

Zombie Hunting for Fun and Profit

In Chapter 16 of Economics of the Undead, “Zombies as an Invasive Species,” Michael O’Hara suggests that recreational zombie hunting could help to keep the zombie population under control. As evidence, he points to the popularity of video games like Left 4 Dead and Resident Evil. And that popularity shows no signs of abating. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve become aware of no fewer than seven recent or forthcoming zombie-related video games: Zombie Village (cartoonish zombie hunting), Zombie Puzzle Panic (Candy Crush with zombies), Coffin Dodgers (car racing with zombies), Escape Dead Island (mystery on a zombie-infested island), Deadskins (zombie Indians, the most politically incorrect of the bunch), Undead vs. Plants (zombie vegetation? I don’t know), and Zombie Driver (car chase-and-rescue with zombies).

But could it be that real zombie-hunting and virtual zombie-hunting are economic substitutes? If so, then the presence of these video games could actually reduce the efficacy of recreational zombie hunting as a means of keeping the zombie population in check. Is there any evidence that people would prefer the real thing?

Actually, yes. A spate of recent news stories document the rise of zombie gun ranges. Tired of firing their weapons at the same old boring targets, gun enthusiasts now imagine they are blowing away hordes of the undead. In a related development, paint-ballers and laser-tag enthusiasts have also adopted the walking dead as favored targets. Point being, people are no longer content to hunt zombies from the comfort of their couches — they want the experience to be as real as possible. I’m guessing at least some of these folks will jump at the chance to take on the genuine article.

Zombies in the Real Estate Market?

Fun with headlines: A Connecticut newspaper reports, “Zombie puts house on market in Woodbury.Walking Dead fans will be surprised to learn that the walkers are now allowed to buy and sell real estate in the Governor’s zombie-free safe haven. I don’t know if this is bad news because it means the zombies have infiltrated the town, or good news because apparently they’re already vacating.

(Turns out the seller is actually musician Rob Zombie, and the Woodbury in question is Woodbury, Connecticut.)

Econ vs. Psych in Undead Narratives

Which discipline better explains the appeal of vampire stories — psychology or economics? Two recent articles present differing perspectives. On the psychology side, we have Kaylynne Spauls at Liberty Voice offering a variety of reasons that vampires touch the deepest of the human (and especially female) psyche:

Yes women love bad boy characters. It is maternal instinct to nurture and help someone grow. Feeling needed is an important aspect of the fantasy, and one that audiences outside the genre seem particularly annoyed by…

Women also have an instinct to breast feed. It is an extremely intimate action and creates a bond between mother and child. A potential mate that needs to feed, and is particularly inclined towards a specific woman’s blood, gives the impression that she could nourish and sustain them better than anyone else. …

According to myth, vampires are extremely protective. Though we live in a society that frowns upon the damsel in distress, it is still basic human instinct to search out a mate that can better protect a family.

I only report these psychological claims, without endorsing them — though I will say that if a male writer had made such generalizations about women, he would be inviting a storm of criticism.

On the economics side, we have Joy, an intern at Beaufort Books, arguing that the appeal of vampire stories relates to the difficult choices vampires are forced by their nature to make. She doesn’t use the word “economics,” but as an economist, it’s hard not to notice the leading role of trade-offs in Joy’s argument:

The central dogma of the vampire myth is that they drink blood. Further, by far the most popular thing in current cultural recreations of vampires is, you know, that one broody dude vampire who is so tortured and doesn’t want to drink human blood because “it’s wrong” and he’s so conflicted and his nature so disgusts him, god, isn’t he tortured.

That guy is what, potentially, makes vampires interesting.

Because you’ve got this undeniable desire for something (in this case, blood). No one can deny that you’ve got that desire when you’re a vampire. That’s your food. It’s what you survive on. … With vampires, this thing they live on, the thing they crave, comes with this stipulation that, probably, you’re going to have to kill someone. …

Further, vampires skip over these laborious discussions of, “Well, why do you want that thing?” and creaters [sic] can go straight into what effect this want has on their individual. …

So many characters that are vampires go through this struggle with their own nature, and it’s handled by different artists in a variety of ways. But one thing you always return to is this moral struggle: I want this thing, but I shouldn’t be able to have it. That’s the central plot of every vampire-based piece of media I can think of at the moment. That’s the drama.

Of course, the choice between psychology and economics is a false dilemma; both might have something to do with the popularity of vampires. If Spauls is right, then psychological factors may play an especially large role for the female audience that seems to be driving the current vampire craze. But speaking as both an economist and a screenwriter, I find Joy’s emphasis on trade-offs — particularly moral trade-offs — compelling. Sharp trade-offs create sharp conflicts, a necessary component of all good storytelling, vampire or otherwise.

I could leave it at that, but… I also want to mention Ian Chadd’s Chapter 21, “The Economics of Bloodlust,” in which he applies Becker & Murphy’s model of rational addiction to vampire hunger. As Chadd emphasizes in that chapter, moral trade-offs do indeed fall within the explanatory realm of economics — which means your brooding “vegetarian” vampires like Louis, Angel, Stefan Salvatore, and the Cullen clan can be understood as rational actors optimizing in the face in unusual circumstances.

The Humans Fight Back

In my last post, I talked about early economic work studying the undead, in particular, a paper that showed how vampires could optimally manage the human population. Not surprisingly, not everyone in the profession thought that developing these methods was a good idea. In a subsequent paper, an economist criticized the earlier work by saying:

“Clearly this approach is somewhat misguided. One wonders what conceivable interest the authors could have had in helping vampires solve their intertemporal consumption problem. The implicit assumption of the Invisible Hand (or Fang) -whereby vampires, in pursuing their own interests, pursue those of human beings as well – is of questionable validity.”

In his paper, this author constructed a simple model of an economy that produced only widgets and stakes and determined the optimal stake production strategy and how low the humans should drive the vampire population. It turns out that the optimal policy is not to drive the vampire population to zero. Perhaps surprising, but this result shows up in many models of undesirables. Even though we don’t like crime, it’s probably not optimal to spend the necessary resources to completely eliminate it; particularly in the vampire case where the costs are predominantly paid up front while the benefits come in the discounted future.

Unfortunately the paper is gated (so may not be available to those without academic access) but I wanted to mention it to assure readers that economists were hard at work on the undead problem.

Corporate Corpses

Christine Dougherty’s book Zombie, Inc. tells the story of a private security corporation that (as told by one Amazon reviewer) “hunts down zombies, provides security against zombies, conducts research on zombies, as well as providing hundreds of jobs for the people who live in the city. On the theory of safety in numbers, the survivors long ago took over the abandoned high-rise apartments surrounding the company headquarters. Everyone sought jobs at Zombie, Inc., a nice take on the old company-store that kept workers poor in the early 1900s.”

I haven’t read the book (I only became aware of it last week), but I can’t resist sharing some premature thoughts on the plausibility of the premise. I admit I was skeptical at first. There’s no particular reason to think that zombie wrangling would be a monopoly, or even an oligopoly. The most important raw material — zombies — would be readily available, maybe too available, making it difficult for just one company to corner the zombie market. I also don’t see great economies of scale in zombie capture and zombie confinement. It’s possible that a single company might have proprietary technology or a government-granted monopoly, but absent those things, I suspect zombie wrangling would be a relatively competitive market.

However, the above analysis is premised on a particular vision of the zombie invasion — one in which, after the initial panic, zombies remain an ever-present threat (much like cancer and car accidents) but otherwise society returns to something like the status quo ante. But as described in the review, Dougherty’s book seems to imagine a full-scale zombie apocalypse having occurred in which huge numbers of people have died and most social institutions have collapsed. (Again, this is only my inference.) In that situation, we should expect to see groups of survivors banding together in relatively closed communities in the aftermath, such as the town of Woodbury in The Walking Dead. Zombie, Inc. plausibly suggests that a private security corporation might form the nucleus for such a community — and as such, it might operate as a de facto government as well as a profit-making enterprise. Given a much-reduced population and the danger of traveling long distances, it could be very difficult for people to leave one community for another, especially if communities are wary of new arrivals. For that reason, the corporation/government would face little competition, making the “company town” analogy apt.

But I’ll need to read the book before I can say whether the story actually makes sense in these terms. In any case, it seems to be one of the few novels that explicitly deals with the economics of the undead, so I feel I should give it a premature endorsement for that reason alone.

Zombie Recession Stories

When I saw the op-ed headline “Kill these zombie recession stories,” I assumed it would be about recessions that seemingly come back from the dead after the recovery has begun — what economists often refer to as a “double-dip” recession. But no! It’s really about recession-related news stories that keep coming back every time there’s a recession.

And then I realized… it’s what my linguist brother Neal would call a bracketing ambiguity! You see, I read it as {{zombie recession} stories}, whereas the author meant {zombie {recession stories}}.

On this site, you don’t just get undead economics, you get undead linguistics, too. And add “zombie [ ] stories” to the list of undead metaphors.

Optimal Control of the Humans

Of course, we were not the first to look at the connections between economics and the undead. Here’s a paper from 1982 that examines the optimal management of humans from the vampires’ point of view. Warning – the paper is very mathematical (much more than we are, but this is what happens when people who like math get bored).

Leaving the math aside, the basic idea is that vampires value humans for their blood, but taking blood turns the humans into vampires which both increases the number of predators and reduces the number of prey. The paper develops an approach for determining the optimal number of humans relative to vampires – a “steady state”. It then raises an interesting question. Say that there are currently 7 billion humans but the goal is 15 billion humans. What is the best way to get there? Do you temporary stop killing humans completely to grow the population as fast as possible? Or do you keep killing a few humans now to enjoy the blood even though it will take longer to get to the desired stock?

The answer turns out to depend on marginal utility, that is, the amount of enjoyment you get from each additional pint of blood. If the 10th pint of blood is just as good as the first, then you’ll want to get to the steady state as fast as possible (the “bang-bang” solution). On the other hand, if a pint is worth much more when you haven’t had much to drink, a more gradual path to the steady state is better.

It’s never this simple, of course. As Glen explains in Chapter 15, vampires have an incentive to behave individually in a way that undermines the optimal solution for the group.

Also, if you haven’t had enough of dynamic systems — and who has? — Bishop, Tufte and Tufte take a non-mathematical look at the how the population of zombies might rise or fall over time in Chapter 6.

The Working Dead

Could zombies and vampires become a productive part of the labor force? At least two chapters in Economics of the Undead (11 and 14) suggest the answer is yes; indeed, Chapter 14 even addresses how they should be taxed. But what sort of jobs would they take? Two recent news stories suggest answers. First, apparently zombies are already sacking groceries – a suitably mindless task, though I worry they might put the eggs at the bottom of the sack. Second, it seems that at least one vampire has become a gigolo, although the outcome wasn’t exactly an advertisement for undead in the workforce.

Return of the Undead Metaphors

Earlier this week, I assembled a partial list of zombie metaphors. Three more have come to my attention since then: zombie funds, zombie statistics and zombie fleets.

Vampire metaphors don’t seem quite as common, but I’ve found a few. In addition to vampire squids (discussed in Jim’s last post), we also have vampire cable boxes and the vampire state.

And based on these few data points, I’m ready to make a generalization. Even though both zombies and vampires have risen from the dead and are hard to kill, and both zombies and vampires feed on humans, when it comes to metaphors there’s a segregation at work. Zombie metaphors almost exclusively reference the risen-from-the-dead or hard-to-kill quality, whereas vampire metaphors almost exclusively reference the feeding-upon-us aspect.

Why the difference? The focus on feeding by vampires is a bit easier to explain, because the vampire metaphors highlight not just the feeding, but also its parasitic quality — that is, the tendency to drain energy without killing the host. For example, the vampire cable box doesn’t kill you or your household; it just drives up your electricity bill. Zombies, on the other hand, kill and/or convert anyone they feed upon, which makes them less useful for parasite comparisons. As for why zombie metaphors focus on the risen-from-the-dead quality, I suspect it’s because zombie horror emphasizes how they keep on coming no matter what you do — despite the fact that both zombies and vampires can be exceedingly difficult to dispatch permanently.

Death by Econ

What did I learn from “Zombie High,” a film made by students at Oak Park High in Winnipeg? That zombie teachers teach economic history, and that their lectures can zombify students without physical contact. Go to the 8:05 to see what I mean. If only he had taught economics of the undead instead of economics while undead, his students might have been spared…