WASHINGTON — Times are tough for the great families of Westeros in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
Sharp-tongued fan favorite Lady Olenna, matriarch of the Tyrell clan, was just forced to gulp down a vial of poison. The menfolk of House Frey were summarily dispatched in the Season 7 opener by avenging angel Arya Stark. And when last we saw Ser Jaime Lannister, he had just missed being incinerated by dragon fire, only to find himself sinking into a lake, weighed down by his own armor.
Grim stuff indeed has befallen Westeros’ ruling class.
But as economics writers for the Associated Press, we wondered: Could the destruction of the established order have an upside for the beleaguered people of Westeros? Could it narrow the economic divide that leaves peasants impoverished and hungry while the rich enjoy fine wines and luxuriate in vast castles?
We discuss the economic implications of war and the resulting social fallout on our weekly audio show, “The Wealth of Westeros.”
In his 2013 book and surprise best-seller “Capital in the 21st Century,” the French economist Thomas Piketty argued that 20th century’s two world wars — and the taxes required to pay for them —humbled and reduced the economic elites of the United States and Europe. The decline of the 1 percent and the policies and social structures that kept them on top set the stage for decades of unprecedented economic equality and the rise of a prosperous middle class.
War is certainly ravaging Westeros’ blue-blood families. Most of the Tyrells of prosperous Highgarden were killed off last season in a massive bombing; Lady Olenna survived to plot revenge — until she, too, was cornered and forced into suicide.
Gone are the Freys, the Martells (slaughtered in a coup) and the Boltons (done in by their own malice and treachery). The Tullys have lost their ancestral castle. The Greyjoys are divided. And the Lannisters, though technically rulers of the realm, are down to one sibling couple; they have no more heirs and face enemies on all sides.
So is the time right for a great social leveling across Westeros?
“When established hierarchies are toppled over, you get at least a brief period of something like meritocracy, where the people who are able rise to the top,” says our guest this week, Lyman Stone, a Washington economist who has written about Game of Thrones.
In Europe, the worst medieval catastrophes did create some pressure for change. After the Black Death in 1348, which killed an estimated one-third of Europe’s population, surviving peasants pushed for higher wages to work the fields.
But aristocrats pushed back, and in Great Britain laws were passed that barred workers from demanding more pay, or even moving to different regions for better opportunities. Historians say the law was poorly enforced, but resistance to it eventually contributed to an uprising in 1381 known as the Peasants’ Revolt.
The rise of the middle class in the mid-1900s didn’t just reflect war. It came at a time of mass industrialization and surging productivity growth, which created opportunities for millions of laborers leaving farms to make way for mechanized agriculture. Previous upheavals — such as the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, which wiped out about a fifth of the population of Germany — did not produce appreciable drops in inequality.
We also looked at the biggest question of the week — did Jaime Lannister survive? — from an economic perspective.
Tycho Nestoris of the Iron Bank of Braavos seemed eager to extend more credit to the Lannisters after their forces vanquished Yara Greyjoy’s fleet and conquered Highgarden. Would the bankers reconsider if they knew Jaime was drowning?
“We don’t know if Jaime is alive or dead,” Stone says. “When your repayment is based on your ability to pillage your neighbors and your chief general is missing, you’re perhaps not as good a bet.”
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Listen to the “Wealth of Westeros” audio series: https://soundcloud.com/user-186673023/sets/wealth-of-westeros-the-economy