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Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science

Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science

by Glen Whitman (Editor)

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Whether preparing us for economic recovery after the zombie apocalypse, analyzing vampire investment strategies, or illuminating the market forces that affect vampire-human romances, Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science gives both seasoned economists and layman readers something to sink their teeth into. Undead characters have


Whether preparing us for economic recovery after the zombie apocalypse, analyzing vampire investment strategies, or illuminating the market forces that affect vampire-human romances, Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science gives both seasoned economists and layman readers something to sink their teeth into. Undead characters have terrified popular audiences for centuries, but when analyzed closely, their behaviors and stories—however farfetched—mirror our own in surprising ways. The essays collected in this book are as humorous as they are thoughtful, as culturally relevant as they are economically sound, and provide an accessible link between a popular culture phenomenon and the key concepts necessary to building one’s understanding of economic systems big and small. It is the first book to apply and combine economics and our society’s fascination with the undead, and is an invaluable resource for those looking to learn economic fundamentals in a fun and innovative way.

Contributions by: Kyle William Bishop, Eleanor Brown, Ian Chadd, Darwynn Deyo, Steven Horwitz, Daniel Farhat, Jean-Baptiste Fleury, Enrique Guerra-Pujol, Brian Hollar, Sebastien Lecou, Joseph Mandarino, Alain Marciano, Fabien Medvecky, David T. Mitchell, Michael O’Hara, M. Christine Phillips, A. Lynn Phillips, G. Michael Phillips, Lorna Piatti-Farnell, Robert Prga, Hollis Robbins, Sarah Skwire, Ilya Somin, David Tufte, Mary Jo Tufte, and Charlotte Weil

Editorial Reviews

Megan McArdle
Those who are looking to get their finances in order for the coming Zombie apocalypse should definitely buy this book. But so should anyone else who is interested in how the worlds of zombie and vampire movies would really work—or for that matter, anyone who is interested in having complex economic topics lucidly and entertainingly explained. Whether you are a professional economist, a Buffy fan, or a vampire, you will learn something new and interesting in every chapter.
Economics of the Undead, edited by Glen Whitman and James Dow . . . is the perfect blend of smart and pop culture. On the one hand, it is a deep collection of studies and economic thought, referencing Adam Smith and Charles M. Tiebout, who defined the theory on local community. On the other, it is jammed with examples from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dawn of the Dead (any and all versions). . . .Economics of the Undead goes in a wide variety of directions, giving something for anyone who wants to ponder the impact of the dead-alive.
Stephen J. Dubner
These are serious people taking on serious topics…That’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?
The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies
Perhaps the best aspect of Economics of the Undead is that it links what is so often considered an escapist genre to the real world. As outlined above, many of the theories that are applied to the undead figures also have practical economic, social, and political applications. . . .Whitman, Dow, et al have certainly made a convincing argument for the relevance of undead workings in the field of economics. Recognising that a vampire can be persuaded to trade with the living rather than stealing their blood; having a sense of security under the terms of comprehensive zombification insurance; appreciating the fact that this dazzling creature in front of you might just be your new Tinder date — the volume encourages us to ponder these scenarios and more. Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires and theDismal Science permits the reader to rest easy in the knowledge that their next graveyard encounter with the supernatural will be decidedly less one-sided.
Daniel W. Drezner
For too long, economics has been lagging behind the other social sciences in explaining the political economy of the undead. With this volume, Whitman and Dow take a lurching step forward in closing the gap.
Publishers Weekly
Whitman (Strange Brew: Alcohol and Government Monopoly) and Dow, both professors of economics at California State University, Northridge, gather 23 essays that explore the centrality of economic issues to today’s popular vampire and zombie novels and films. Whitman uses vampire romance to explain marriage markets, suggesting, among other things, that undead love tales shed light on the sunk cost fallacy. Dow takes the characteristic wealth of vampires (they do have to finance a very long retirement) as an excuse to talk about compound interest. Other essays connect the zombie apocalypse with Adam Smith (how will post-apocalypse survivors “return to their prior level of prosperity”?), True Blood to privatization, zombie invasion to problems like the spread of feral hogs in the U.S., and the residential and geographic choices of the undead to the Tiebout Hypothesis. More insightfully, contributor Lorna Piatti-Farnell notices the way Gothic language pervades Marx’s writings about capitalism. This frothy foray into Econ 101 might seduce freshman to the dismal science, but more advanced readers will learn little about economics or pop culture. (Aug.)

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Economics of the Undead

Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science

By Glen Whitman, James Dow


Copyright © 2014 Rowman & Littlefield
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4422-3502-1


Human Girls and Vampire Boys, Part 1

Looking for Mr. Goodbite

Glen Whitman

"And so the lion fell in love with the lamb ..." he murmured. I looked away, hiding my eyes as I thrilled to the word.

"What a stupid lamb," I sighed.

"What a sick, masochistic lion."

—Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (2005)

Bella and Edward. Buffy and Angel. Buffy and Spike. Sookie and Bill. Sookie and Eric. Elena and Stefan. Elena and Damon. It seems you can't crack a book, flip on the TV, or walk down a dark alley these days without finding a human girl and a vampire boy making googly eyes at each other.

Society has clearly evolved a great deal since the late 1800s, when the romantic relationship between Count Dracula and Lucy Westenra led a small group of fanatics to stake her, behead her, and stuff her mouth with garlic before tracking down Dracula himself. Until recently, romantic relationships between the living and the dead were regarded with sheer horror. But Buffy, Bella, Sookie, and Elena have blazed a trail that many young women are eager to follow. The human-vampire dating scene is taking off.

It's a competitive environment out there, and a girl who wants a vampire beau can no longer simply wait for a soulless mate to fall in her lap. You have to choose a search strategy that will enhance your odds—not merely of landing a vampire mate, but of landing a good one.

But how much advice can economists possibly offer to those interested in dating the undead? You might be surprised. The economic literature on "marriage markets" offers a great deal of insight on finding, keeping, and even breaking up with undead lovers. In this chapter, I'll focus on the process of finding a mate; in the next chapter, I'll consider staying together and breaking up.

As a matter of inclusiveness, I should mention that some vampire girls might want to date human boys (for example, Jessica and Hoyt in True Blood), and other vampires might be interested in same-sex relationships (as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Christabel). I'll address my advice primarily to human girls seeking vampire boys, because that seems to be the most common case, and it avoids confusion over pronouns. But many of the lessons here apply to any relationship with the undead—and, perhaps, even to more traditional relationships.


Is the dating scene truly a "market"? Yes. All potential mates seek something of value, and they offer what they have in return. In that sense, a relationship is a special kind of exchange. As Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker observed in 1973, the situation is fundamentally competitive, as "Each person tries to find the best mate, subject to the restrictions imposed by market conditions."

Not all markets are alike, of course. In the mating market, money is usually not on the table, at least not explicitly. Without monetary prices, transactions take the form of barter. Each romantic partner offers his or her own qualities—looks, intelligence, personality, and so on—in exchange for his or her partner's. In the human-vampire dating market, some other attributes might also be involved; for instance, the human girl may offer a risk-free source of warm blood, while the vampire boy offers superior physical protection. Most importantly, both sides hope to benefit from the trade.

Despite its unusual features, the mating market shares key features with other markets. The most salient of these is competition. In general, more competition on the other side of the market is good for you, because it improves your options and increases your bargaining power. If vampire boys outnumber the human girls on the market, then even an average girl has a chance of snagging a truly sparkly vamp. Moreover, she can command a higher "implicit price" in terms of a potential boyfriend's behavior. If he's the kind of vampire who feeds on other girls, or he doesn't keep that fresh-from-the-crypt odor under control, there are plenty of other vampire boys ready to step in. On the other hand, if the human girls outnumber the vampire boys on the market, then some girls will have to do without. Those who do successfully reel in a vampire mate may have to make greater sacrifices, such as tolerating greater broodiness and nineteenth-century fashion choices.

If this seems hard to believe, consider the effect of the increasing ratio of women to men at American colleges and universities. "On college campuses where there are far more women than men," writes sociologist Kathleen A. Bogle, "men have all the power to control the intensity of sexual and romantic relationships." This result is dependent, of course, on most of the women being heterosexual. A similar situation has occurred in nursing homes, another environment where women tend to outnumber men.

So which is it—do the interested vampires outnumber the interested humans or vice versa? The evidence is scant, but it seems to indicate that vamps will have the upper hand. The population of human girls (like the rest of the population) is increasing worldwide, and the ongoing vampire dating craze means a rising percentage of them will enter the market. Meanwhile, the vampire population is much smaller than the human population, and boys both living and dead also appear less susceptible to the current fad (note that women constituted a whopping 79 percent of the audience for the final Twilight movie).

On the other hand, human girls tend to exit the datable age range within a decade or two, while vampire bachelors can remain highly eligible for centuries. In addition, if vampires lack a safe means of acquiring human blood or a substitute for it, they may see having a human girlfriend as their best option. Both of these factors will weigh on the opposite side of the scale, giving human girls a bit more market power. Ultimately, you'll need to assess the market conditions in your region to predict which side has the better bargaining position.


Although the effect of competition is similar across markets, a key feature that distinguishes mating markets from many other markets is heterogeneity. Finding a romantic partner isn't like going to the grocery store and picking out one of a hundred identical bags of rice. Vampire boys differ from each other in age, beauty, wealth, psychotic tendencies, and so on. Human girls differ substantially as well. The quality of the mate matters, to both sides. To complicate matters further, not every couple is a "good fit"; we all know perfectly nice couples who just don't belong together, however much they try. So the quality of the match matters as well. In this respect, the mating market resembles other markets with heterogeneous people searching for good matches: the job market and the housing market. As it turns out, economists have used the same model—known as "search-matching"—to understand all three of these markets. In fact, three economists shared the 2010 Nobel Prize in Economics for their research in this area.

Suppose you're a human girl interested in vampire boys. Since you can't just go pick one up at the store, you must search for one—for example, by keeping an eye out in school, night spots, and local cemeteries. On any given day, you may or may not meet a vampire. And if you do meet one, he may or may not suit your fancy—or you may not suit his. So there's a large element of randomness involved, because you can't be certain of finding a good match in a finite amount of time.

Now suppose you've just met a vampire boy named Arnold. He's reasonably good looking, but no Edward Cullen. (I'm assuming that girls do in fact find Edward Cullen very attractive, for reasons beyond my understanding.) And Arnold's nice, but a little on the broody side for your taste. Should you embark on a relationship with him? If you start dating him now, you could be taking yourself off the market too quickly. If you hold out just a little while longer, maybe you'll find your Edward! Then again, if you turn Arnold down and keep looking, you could end up searching for months or years without meeting anyone better. You might end up wistfully wishing you'd snapped up Arnold when you had the chance.

So what should you do? In the search-matching model, the best strategy is to calculate your reservation level of romantic satisfaction. Your reservation level corresponds to the lowest-quality boy that you'd be willing to date. You'll start a relationship with any boy who meets or exceeds this quality level and reject anyone else. (In labor markets, your reservation wage serves a similar purpose: it's the lowest wage offer you would accept.)

You might think a reservation level sounds a lot like "standards," and you'd be right. But many people foolishly think of "standards" as entailing strict requirements for every quality of a mate, from sex appeal to political party. Economists know better, because they know trade-offs are possible. You might, for instance, be willing to sacrifice a small amount of devilish good looks for a large enough increase in otherworldly charm. Rigid standards could prevent you from making that trade-off, thus ruling out some perfectly acceptable mates. By targeting your overall satisfaction, a reservation level avoids that mistake. When you raise your reservation level, you're not necessarily demanding a vampire mate who's better on every dimension—just one who's a better package all things considered.


What would happen if all human girls wanted the same kind of vampire boys? If every girl had the same preferences, then it would be possible to objectively rank the objects of their affection, from the dreamiest vampire to the foulest. And likewise, if vampires all wanted the same things in human girls, then the girls could also be ranked from best to worst. In that situation, economic theory says that romantic partnerships would tend to form between people of similar quality: the best vampire gets the best girl, the second-best vampire gets the second-best girl, and so on. The more smoothly and efficiently the dating market works, the closer this prediction comes to reality. Economists call this outcome assortative matching.

Of course, people don't really have identical preferences. We want different things, and more importantly, we put different weight on those things. Some girls want a vampire with forever-youthful beauty, while others focus on the centuries-old bank account. Some vampires care more about a girl's charm and wit, but others care more about her blood type. As a result, there's no truly objective ranking of partners. Nevertheless, to the extent that people tend to like similar things, there will be a loose ranking, and some assortative matching will result. It's no mistake that Bella chose Edward, not Count Orlok of the Nosferatu.

Why does it matter? Because it means you have to set your reservation level of romantic satisfaction carefully. A girl who's attractive to almost everyone can safely choose a higher reservation level. A girl who's less conventionally desirable may have to set her reservation level lower. It may not seem fair, but it's a reality. That means it's useful to have a realistic (neither too positive nor too negative) idea of your attractiveness to vampires with typical preferences, as well as to vampires with more idiosyncratic tastes. Keep in mind that what vampires consider attractive may differ from what humans do, which means girls who have had difficulty with traditional dating may fare better on the cross-the-grave dating scene—the best example being Sookie Stackhouse, whose limited experience with human boys was fully eclipsed by her success with vampires.

The key to calculating your reservation level of romantic satisfaction is balance. If you set your reservation level just right, it should exactly balance two things: (1) the loss from settling for a lower-quality partner versus (2) the risk associated with going longer with no partner at all, continuing your search, and still possibly ending up single.

Your reservation level should be affected by both market conditions and your personal preferences. Here are the most relevant factors to consider:

Your satisfaction with being single. The happier you are unpartnered, the longer it makes sense to wait. You can afford to hold out for a higher-quality vampire, which means your reservation level should be higher. And this implies another lesson: do whatever you can to increase your happiness while alone. Cultivate a life that's worth living even without an undead man at your side.

The eccentricity of your preferences. As discussed above, human girls and vampire boys with typical preferences can expect to pair off with partners of similar quality, according to the typical scale. But if you have unusual preferences, you may have an advantage. There may be vampires out there who rank highly on your scale but not everyone else's. Maybe you're secretly aroused by peculiar accents from dead languages, or you dig the Civil War-era grizzled look that other girls shun. The weirder your preferences are, the more you can raise your reservation level, because you can capitalize on all the quirky vampires that other (typical) girls are passing by.

The cost of search. Beyond the time spent single instead of coupled, searching for a partner involves time, energy, money, and sometimes risk. If you live in a place where vampires have come out of the coffin and mingle openly with the living, then finding them shouldn't be that costly—especially since vampires tend to be wealthy and spring for drinks. But if your town's undead avoid the human nightlife in favor of dungeons, sewers, and graveyards—locations both unpleasant and dangerous—then the cost of search is correspondingly high. In the former case, it's rational to raise your reservation level; in the latter case, it's rational to lower it.

Your level of impatience (or, as economists call it, your discount rate). An impatient person puts relatively greater value on the present versus the future. The more impatient you are, the more it makes sense to settle for a somewhat lower-quality match in order to shorten the wait. On the other hand, the more patient you are, the more the future is worth to you, and hence the greater the value of waiting for a better vampire.


Excerpted from Economics of the Undead by Glen Whitman, James Dow. Copyright © 2014 Rowman & Littlefield. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dr. Glen Whitman and Dr. James Dow are both professors of economics at California State University, Northridge. Whitman is also the author of Strange Brew: Alcohol and Government Monopoly.

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