Introduction: Living Dead in the Modern Economy

by Glen Whitman and James Dow

In season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy Summers uncovers the existence of a vampire brothel, where thrill-seeking humans pay vampires to suck their blood. Worse yet, she learns that her boyfriend Riley has been visiting the establishment and making regular donations, so to speak.1

These troubling events raise a host of questions. For most viewers, the question is, “What will Buffy do now? Will she stay with Riley or dump him for good?” But as economists (and dedicated fans of the show), our first reaction was, “Wait a minute. The humans pay the vampires? Wouldn’t the money go the other way?”

Actually, the answer is “not necessarily.” If both parties get something valuable from the exchange—sustenance for the vampires, illicit thrills for the humans—then in theory, the monetary payments could go either way. You see, it all depends on the relative size of human supply and vampire demand…

And so it began: a growing realization that the vampire genre is positively swollen with economic questions. And the zombie genre? Maybe more so. Economic issues take center stage in many undead narratives—and when they don’t, they’re still lurking in the shadows. Is there enough food to fill all those hungry mouths? Do humans have the resources, mental and physical, it takes to survive? Will people be able to cooperate with others to fight a collective threat—or will humanity descend into chaos and disorder? These are questions that the discipline of economics is uniquely positioned to address.

But it took time for the idea to evolve into a book. In the meantime, another academic discipline jumped headfirst into the pop culture field. In 2000, Seinfeld and Philosophy2 marked the first of a series of “pop-culture-meets-philosophy” volumes—a trend that has grown to more than one hundred volumes and at least three different publishers. Many of the titles involved the undead, including Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy (to which one of us contributed a chapter inspired by Buffy’s vampire brothel).3

After more than a decade of philosophers dominating the pop culture scene, we decided it was time for economics to have its turn. This seems only appropriate, since Adam Smith—the father of modern economics—was in fact an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, and his work helped economics to leave the nest of its parent discipline.

It would be tempting at this point to define economics. But that’s harder than you might think. Numerous definitions have been offered since Smith’s time—but every definition ends up neglecting some of the questions economists ask and some of the methods they use. In the broadest sense, economists seek to explain how people interact with both each other and the material world around them. In this sense, economics overlaps with philosophy, psychology, sociology, demographics, history, biology, and indeed all of the social sciences. Economists also tend to share a similar approach to their subject matter: systematic, analytical, with curiosity constrained by intellectual rigor.

But aside from these “family resemblances,” economics defies any single definition. Embracing that fact, we have organized this book in sections, with each section reflecting a different notion of what economics is really about. For each section, we’ve included a short explanation of the unifying theme behind the included chapters. If one section doesn’t suit your taste, sink your teeth into another.

But before you start sampling, let’s return for a moment to the subtitle of this book: “Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science.” In a book about the undead, we couldn’t resist the temptation to use the economics discipline’s most famous nickname. But while many people know economics as the dismal science, few know the true origin of that phrase. It came from Thomas Carlyle, another Scottish philosopher. And Carlyle was not denigrating economists for their (quite real) tendency to emphasize the limits of our resources and the barriers to remaking society as a fanciful utopia. No, Carlyle was criticizing economists for supporting the abolition of slavery! He was incensed by the optimism of economists like John Stuart Mill, who believed that people of African origin—like people of all races—were capable of governing themselves.4

We tell this story because we think you’ll find, possibly to your surprise, that this book presents one of the more optimistic perspectives you’ll find on the undead threat. From Darwyyn Deyo and David T. Mitchell’s argument that we should trade with vampires instead of staking them; to Kyle Bishop, David Tufte, and Mary Jo Tufte’s suggestion that innovative humans might ultimately achieve victory over the zombie threat; to Brian Hollar’s discussion of how humans will seek prosperity even after a zombie apocalypse, a broad theme emerges: that humans—and maybe our recently dead brethren as well—have a vast capacity to cope with adversity and somehow make the world a better place.

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Into the Woods,” season 5, episode 10.
2. William Irwin, ed., Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing (Chicago: Open Court, 2000).
3. Douglas Glen Whitman, “The Political Economy of Non-Coercive Vampire Lifestyles,” in Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead, ed. Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammed (Chicago: Open Court, 2010).
4. See David M. Levy and Sandra M. Peart, “The Secret History of the Dismal Science.
Part I. Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century,” Library of Economics and Liberty,
2001, accessed October 31, 2013,

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