Monthly Archives: September 2014

Was Jesus the First Undead Economist?

I just received news of a Kickstarter campaign to fund The Silent Night of the Living Dead Nativity Scene, which features Mary and Joseph protecting the baby Jesus from zombie wise men.  What makes this Christmas prop especially interesting is that it reminds us of the disturbing fact that one of the world’s major religions is premised on the worship of an undead being.

Think about it:  Jesus was a human being who died and then rose from the dead in an altered (spirit) form.  No offense intended to Christians, but that is pretty much a textbook definition of “undead” — which, as any D&D player knows, encompasses not just vampires and zombies (the primary focus of Economics of the Undead) but also ghosts, spirits, liches, revenants, wraiths, and a host of other creatures both corporeal and incorporeal.  The same D&D expert might also wonder whether Jesus’ undead status means that a high-level cleric (perhaps one of evil alignment) could turn him.  (For the non-RPG players out there, “turning” basically means scaring away an undead creature by religious means.)

Jesus might also qualify as the first undead economist, inasmuch as he preached an economic philosophy of love and sharing — specifically, that his followers should sell all their possessions and then give away the money.  That philosophy was heavily criticized by economist Frank Knight, who argued that Jesus’ gospel was essentially an “interim” set of rules meant to govern behavior for a very short time.  The early Christians (at least some of them) believed that the Kingdom of God was literally nigh, meaning that any day now (circa 1 A.D.) the Rapture would occur and all scarcity would disappear, at least for the faithful.  Thus, there was no danger in sharing, overusing, and running down supplies of scarce resources.  But now we know that the Rapture wasn’t coming for at least a couple of thousand years and possibly more.  Given that we could be waiting indefinitely, a different set of temporal rules might be appropriate for governing economic life in the meantime.  For a summary of Knight’s work in this area, see Frank Knight and the Chicago School in American Economics (some of which you can read online in this Google books version; see p. 162).

The Growing Field of Undead Studies

Economists aren’t the only ones taking a scholarly approach to the undead…

1.  Williams College math professor Colin Adams brings us Zombies and Calculus, a book that uses a fictional narrative about a zombie invasion to explain the principles of calculus.

2.  UCSD neuroscientist Bradley Voytek will soon publish Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain, which uses zombies to help understand the functioning of (presumably functional) human brains.

3.  This one preceded our book by several years, but we would be remiss if we failed to mention Tufts international relations professor Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies (which has just been re-released in its “Revived Edition”).  Dan kindly wrote a back-cover endorsement for Economics of the Undead, which means his judgment can be trusted.

Zombie Job Opportunities

In our ongoing effort to publicize job opportunities for the undead, we bring you this:  the Zombie Burlesque Show at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas.

For more on zombies and vampires in the job market, see Deyo and Mitchell’s “Trading with the Undead: A Study in Specialization and Comparative Advantage,” Chapter 11 in Economics of the Undead.

Vampiric Medical Technology

Guest Post by Enrique Guerra-Pujol

In Chapter 12 (“Buy or Bite?”) of The Economics of the Undead, I observed how most members of the vampire race resort to coercion, compulsion, and confiscation to procure fresh supplies of blood — an essential staple of the vampire diet — and I posed the following fundamental question: “Are vampires ‘bad’? Are they inherently evil or unethical creatures?”

My main argument in “Buy or Bite?” is that vampires are not necessarily bad, that without a legal market for the purchase and sale of blood, vampires have no other choice but to steal their supplies of blood through fraud and force. I thus proposed the creation of legalized “blood markets” to allow us humans to transfer our property rights in our blood to vampires on a consensual and contractual basis.

The domain of my argument, however, was limited to the fictional world of vampires, the world of film, literature, and the arts generally. But now new research by scientists at Stanford and Harvard universities has found that blood from young mice can significantly improve the learning and memory of old mice. Assuming these exciting research findings hold true for humans, my argument for the legalization of the purchase and sale of blood becomes more salient than ever.

For as Jess Zimmerman asks in this fascinating post titled “Young Blood,” “what’s to stop old people from stealing [blood] from the young?” This is a question that has haunted us since the monstrous myth of the blood-thirsty Hungarian countess Lady Elizabeth Báthory, who lived in the 17th century and who was alleged to have killed hundreds of her young peasant servants and taken daily baths in their blood in order to keep herself from growing old.

But with a legal market for the regular purchase and sale of blood, we need not fear the specter of the old stealing blood from the young. Why not? Because as I explain in “Buy or Bite?,” legal markets convert mutual conflict into joint cooperation since both sides to a transaction benefit from voluntary trade. By way of example, given the potential human applications of the scientific discoveries described above, both old and young could reap enormous benefits from trade in blood.

Consider first the demand side of this potential market — old people who might want to purchase the blood of young adults for this blood’s possible youth-conferring and curative powers. Obviously, if the promising results of the mice-blood experiments were to apply to humans, old people would be better off if they could procure supplies of young blood in order to stave off dementia and live longer and healthier lives.

Now let’s consider the supply side. If you are old enough to vote, join the Army, or drink, why can’t you also be free to choose to sell your own blood? With a legal blood market, young adults would now have a new form of renewable “human capital” at their disposal, and to the extent young people tend to be poorer than older people, many of them could put the potential income generated from the voluntary sale of their blood to good use.

Of course, many people may find the possibility of blood sales morally repugnant. But even if you include yourself among this group of anti-market moralizers, you should keep in mind that markets are always voluntary. That is, when markets are legal, nobody is forced to sell their blood if they don’t want to. But when markets are illegal or legally unclear (as is the case with blood sales today), everyone is prevented from realizing mutually beneficial transactions.

In short, with legalized markets in blood both young and old could benefit from a medical advance that seemingly benefits only the old. The old and the young — as well as vampires and humans for that matter — would have incentives to engage in mutually beneficial trade. Imagine the possibilities!

Econ vs. Lit-Crit on the Zombie Apocalypse

I’m sure it must have happened before, but today is the first time I’ve ever read a po-mo lit-crit review of a video game.  In the Paris Review, Michael Thomsen offers an extended critique of the PlayStation zombie apocalypse game The Last of Us.  Thomsen’s criticisms are various and sometimes incoherent, but these two passages capture one major thread:

The apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of the world, just the end of humankind, and considering such a fate can lead us into a sentimental peace with the present day. Suddenly, in spite of all its flaws — flaws that might be harder to accept in less dire circumstances — the world seems worth keeping intact. …

The underlying expectation here — that without Western civilization humans would become monsters — is a psychic tic of game designers, who tend to be overeducated upper-middle-class men whose primary lens for understanding the world comes from commercial entertainment. If your worldview is built around a series of compromises you’ve made to secure a comfortable salary building eidolons of human narcissism into restricted-admission dream-states, paranoia and projected self-loathing are in order. And when these labors make you servant to an economy of Moore’s Law and inescapable obsolescence, the competition for scarce resources (conveniently abstracted in the game with overlaid icons, as if Google Glass were the only thing to survive the collapse of human civilization) must seem like an especially poetic prism.

I actually think Thomsen’s position here is correct — but where he sees a bug, I see a feature.  What stories of the zombie apocalypse (and other post-apocalyptic stories like Y the Last Man and Revolution) do best is throw our current prosperity into sharp relief — and make us ask what that prosperity depends upon.

This is a theme that appears repeatedly in Economics of the Undead, particularly in Chapters 3 and 5.  Why should the zombie apocalypse cause such a drastic collapse of living standards?  In short, the answer is that the modern world economy relies on a vast (and vastly complex) web of social cooperation, and that web is built on specialization and division of labor.  We consume goods and services assembled using resources (including labor) from around the world.  This happens for the most part without central planning, and without most people knowing more than just a handful of the millions of people they’re cooperating with.

The zombie apocalypse plays havoc with that web of social cooperation, in a couple of different ways.  First, the zombies kill off (or convert) large numbers of people who fill key positions in the division of labor.  I’m not just talking about medical doctors and nuclear engineers; I’m talking about truck drivers, crane operators, operations managers, and thousands of other people whose small individual contributions add up to massively complex chains of production and trade.  The system has enough redundancy to be able to tolerate occasional losses; after all, people do retire and change jobs from time to time.  But when it happens all at once, as in most apocalyptic narratives, the system collapses.

Second, the zombies massively increase transaction costs — that is, the costs involved in making exchanges occur.  We are accustomed to a world in which transaction costs are typically low; we can communicate with others and make deals without much difficulty.  A phone call or coffee-shop meeting is often enough.  Negotiations over terms of complex transactions may take longer to conclude, but they still usually don’t involve any threat to life and limb.  But when the phone lines are down, the police have disbanded, and zombies roam the landscape, it becomes much harder to find people to deal with, to hammer out the deals, to actually hand over the goods or provide the services in question, and to punish the cheaters and bandits.  That means survivors have to do a lot more for themselves, and what trading they do will tend to be restricted to small communities instead of the whole wide world.  The result?  A dramatically, painfully lower standard of living.

All things considered, then, the prospect of a zombie apocalypse does make the modern world seem worth keeping intact… if we can.