The Economics of The Walking Dead

Or why Negan and the Saviors might not be that bad.

The walking dead is a TV series that shows us groups of people trying to survive in a world devastated by a zombie apocalypse. Last week I had my personal marathon of the 8th season, and while watching it I started thinking about the complexity of the human interactions that may occur as survivors try to … well… keep surviving.

Just to refresh the memory of those who follow this series, this season focuses on Rick’s group’s constant interaction with other groups: Hilltop, the Kingdom and specially the Saviors, Negan’s group, for whom they now have to work and give most of their resources.

As you know, economics is the science of scarcity and choice, and I would like to point how many of the mechanics we find in TWD have much to do with it.

Now, I am gonna start by taking a step aside from what most (if not all) fans think and make my initial statement:

Saviors are good, they are the real heroes of the story and they will bring society back to the post apocalyptic world.

Ok, maybe I am exaggerating a little, but I think that’s one of the main points of this post. Saviors bring many things that are necessary to reestablish society.

After the zombie outbreak, those who survived started gathering together, and the reason was protection. What we saw in the first seasons was a group of 10–20 people, trying to make their way. They were gatherers, since most of us don’t have any of the abilities to produce the basic goods we need , like growing food. That’s one of the bad effects of globalization, we are really vulnerable to things like a short in our supply chain. We can live without software (this is hard to say to me, I write software), without art, without music, but we can’t live without food. Unfortunately getting food for us means going to the store, which would be empty because zombie farmers don’t farm. We don’t have to go that far, nowadays natural disasters have the effect of food scarcity in stores too, because of speculation and lack of transportation.

We have seen a trend in Rick’s, they are gatherers until they find a nice place to stay, they are relatively happy for some time, then something goes wrong and they have to escape, live as gatherers, find a nice place, everything goes to hell and they start again. So long this has happened with Hershel’s farm, the prison, and is happening in Alexandria, to mention the most significance. This group’s situation seems very volatile to me, and this is so because they aren’t in a strong position. Sure they have proven to be very good with weapons and extremely effective for killing the undead, however they don’t seek to expand their territory, nor find new people for Alexandria. At the end of the day, they are looking for a place where they can have a decent life, without having to fight for their lives everyday. That’s what makes them weak, not fighting makes them lower their arms and become an easier target for foreigns who want what they have.

Historically, people have joined bigger and bigger groups to protect themselves from other big groups, who could take their resources. Having the numbers is good. This is where the early states raise, and we know these states tend to have two things: an army and taxes. Guess what, Saviors have both.

In order to keep growing, early states need an army that can help “convince” others to join their cause. This army will help create colonies that can make them stronger, and also provide protection. But having and army is not cheap, dedicating time to a militar campaign has the cost of not using that time for things like finding or growing food. They need a way to make this army sustainable. An army is a public good, and the way to pay for public goods is taxes. I don’t think it is unfair for colonies in The Walking Dead to pay for the protection of the Saviors, the benefits are that if you are outsourcing protection, you can spend your time in some other way, maybe farming or trying to find the best uses to the leftovers of technology. People in the Kingdom didn’t even know the Saviors existed, and for what we could see, they weren’t doing that bad. They had stability, which is a thing most of us value.

Think about the vikings, they started by raiding small groups of people, looking for loot. But they then realized extortion was a better way to get people’s goods. And even more, later they started to rely on trade which is a great path to wealth.

This evolution from a pretty violent to a more win-win (or “no zero sum”, if you prefer fancy names) situation could be an opportunity for the Saviors. Let’s see the things they are doing right to get there:

  • They already have a big army, provided with many weapons.
  • They have an organizational structure. Their chain of command seems clear for them, they know who is in charge of whom. On the other hand, Rick’s leadership in Alexandria only shows us that he is boss and everyone else is a team member.
  • They have rules. The rule of not raping a prisoner can seem minimal, but to me shows a step out of barbarism.
  • They respect their colonies’s social structure. This has the benefit of reusing what others have built. In Peru, when incas conquered a village in the pacific way (there was also the violent way), they made the local leader submit to the Inca (be it for spontaneous sympathy or for fear). He would become a Curaca, and would keep his status as leader of the village. This makes logistics easier, because local leaders already know how to manage their communities.
  • They tend to respect their deals. Ezequiel didn’t have much trouble with his deal. Things started to get tense with the Kingdom because of a jerk in the Saviors team, who constantly looks for trouble and ends up killing one of Ezequiel’s men; however, Saviors group’s leader disapproved this behavior, he didn’t enjoy this because he knew this kind of things bring troubles.
  • They don’t take things too personal, businesses are businesses. When Negan found out Eugene had made the bullet that almost killed him, he didn’t kill him in revenge, he made him join the Saviors, giving him many privileges because he knew Eugene would be a valuable asset for his group.
  • Saviors have a points and accounting system for using resources. This is very intelligent in a growing society.
  • They use violence pretty effectively. Negan uses violence to make a point, give a message and win people’s loyalty. Remember when Negan asked Rick to cut his son’s hand? And when he was about to do it, Negan stopped him because it was a test, he wanted Rick’s loyalty (who would put a father in such a situation right?). Negan really broke Rick. Fear is a powerful way to modify people’s behavior, religions know about this.

On the other hand, there are many things they want to improve:

  • Sometimes they push too hard. Virtually all cultures have used extreme violence when they considered it necessary. Asking another group to pretty pretty please join yours doesn’t work (In the 20th century we have seen a raise of pacific movements to achieve things, but I think the conditions for this aren’t present in this context). Even Rick has used a lot of violence, not just for defense (but he is the main character, so we forgive him everything, go Rick!). But when a state uses too much violence or ask for too many taxes in a colony or it’s own people, they are planting the seeds for a revolution (going against the interests of local leaders is also a bad idea, like not giving them a place in the decision making process). Alexandria had already surrendered but Negan pushed too hard too early, and that made them think of fighting again. On the other hand, Negan was pretty forgiving with some things, like when Carl (Rick’s son) hid in a truck, killed two men and then threatened with killing Negan. Negan took his time to decide what to do with the kid because if he killed the kid, that could be a message but would also anger Alexandria so much that they would revel; on the other hand, forgiving the kid may give a message to Rick, and act of good faith that in the end would make Alexandria cause less trouble. He did the last one, he even fed him spaghetti!. However things didn’t go so good since he also killed two people in Rick’s group (to be fair, one wanted Negan to kill Rick, and Negan killed him because that kind of behavior was also dangerous to him, and the other one was because Rosita shoot at Negan, failing). At the end, the message was of an abuse of power, which at the end made Alexandria stir up (just when they were working so well, damn it).
  • Saviors colonies need to see what they are winning in this relationship. It is not only that Saviors won’t attack them, but also that Saviors may protect them from foreign attacks or zombie hordes. If Saviors don’t provide this kind of protection, they should! This would make their “empire” much more stable. Negan could really use a behavioral economist in his team, wonder if there are some left out there. He could also help him balance the level of intimidation he uses. A marketer would also be great.
  • They need to improve their tax collection efficiency. Becoming a little softer might make their empire more economically sustainable.
  • Too many people want to kill Negan. Loosing the leader is bad, a power vacuum leads to confusion and to civil wars (maybe in season 10 or 11?). We have seen many people from within and outside who want him dead, and the abundance of long range weapons may make it easier to happen. Negan has to improve his popularity. It would be interesting to know how he became the leader in the first place, and how he got everyones respect. Maybe he pulled Lucille out of a stone or the Lady of the Lake gave it to him, and that’s how he became a leader (which by the way would be hell of a way to legitimize his leadership).

Saviors are presented as de bad guys of the story, however they don’t seem that bad to me. Like in many things, it is a matter of perception; we have known Rick’s group for a long time, and to us they will always be the good guys.

Well I guess those are most of my points, I hope you enjoyed some thoughts I had about The Walking Dead, it was more a thinking exercise than a theory of the series, although it would be great to see a society rise in that post-apocalyptic world and see the evolution between groups fight, to states war, to, who knows, a zombie world war. (mmm, wonder if anyone has thought about that)

To end, since I think it is finally trade what makes states flourish, it would be great if Saviors start focusing on it. With more colonies Saviors may even come out with their own kind of currency, like the USNegan or Lucyllings (get it? lucylle + shilling? anyone?). I just hope Rick doesn’t ruin it all, because maybe Negan is the one that can make America great again.

Of course all of this will not happen, the show won’t show the raise of the saviors and how Rick’s group works hard to pay their taxes, fulfilling their roll in a bigger society, for that we can just look at our own lives.