How the Zombies on 'The Walking Dead' Explain Economics


We live in an era of zombie banks, financial institutions that should be dead and gone, but which continue to exist only because of government financial support. On Sunday, February 12, the second season of AMC’s The Walking Dead will resume on television. Although the show’s plotline follows how survivors of a zombie apocalypse struggle to survive amidst both zombies and, perhaps more importantly, each other, it is also a crash course in some fundamental economic concepts.

Scarcity. The Walking Dead highlights scarcity, one of the most basic concepts in economics and a situation, which according to The Penguin Dictionary of Economics exists “when the needs and wants of an individual or group of individuals exceed the resources available to satisfy them.” For aficionados of the show, this will sound quite familiar.

From guns and bullets to food and water, the show’s protagonists are seemingly always looking for more supplies necessary for their continued existence in a chaotic world. How are the goods distributed? Who decides who gets what? Scarcity, of course, also existed in the pre-zombie era.  In the time of the zombies, however, scarcity’s impact on daily life seems even more pertinent. Something to keep in mind the next time the main characters bicker over decision-making and resource allocation.

Uncertainty and Central Planning. Can we be truly certain about a given policy’s impact on the economy? When policymakers implement plans intended to improve the economy, they cannot know for certain if their policies will end up doing more harm than good. Indeed, economic models that work well in the classroom don’t always work the way they should in the real world.

In the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead, nothing is certain. Neither the main characters, nor the fans watching at home, know what’s coming next. Indeed, much of the show’s appeal lies in its ability to draw the viewer in with a seemingly straightforward narrative that quickly changes course.

Rick Grimes, the nominal leader of the group, is continually making difficult choices under a thick cloud of uncertainty. He does what he thinks is right at the time. Suffice it to say, central planning would definitely not work for these ragtag survivors. Indeed, most of their plans seem to go awry. This forces the main characters to readjust their plans in light of new circumstances and information, something ideologically rigid politicians of both parties could stand to learn.

Value. What is more valuable, a hundred dollar bill (value in exchange) or a case of bottled water (value in use)? In zombie-ridden Georgia, where The Walking Dead takes place, the answer is pretty straightforward. The difference between the pre- and post-zombie apocalypse era, then, is not just about the presence of zombies. It is also about how the main characters have to reassess what is valuable. If given the choice between a new flat-panel television and more ammo, all of the characters would choose the latter. After all, they have zombies to contend with.

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