Rollins economics professor, punk-pop-economist-at-large, and host of WPRK 915FM’s show “Punkonomics” which airs Mondays from 4pm-5pm responds to last weeks much talked about episode of Game of Thrones as only he can —
By Dr. Beni Balak
I’m shocked! Just shocked…at how shocked people are about The Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones (season 3 episode 9). What’s your problem? You don’t seem to mind the slow-motion ballet-like torrents of blood in Quentin Tarantino’s film, or the mechanical butchery in a typical horror movie, or the gruesome pictures of victims in your run-of-the-mill TV crime drama? Where did this sensitive outrage come from?
Allow me to speculate that it’s all about the narrative: the story the authors tell us about the images we see and our own interpretation of it. Unlike in most media today, in this excellent gritty fantasy-drama, the heroic noble “good guys” get slaughtered randomly along with copious collateral damage (innocent bystanders). There is no cathartic moment in which justice is served and not even an overarching meaning to all the senseless suffering. Sort of like in the real world eh? The problem is that we are deeply conditioned to believe that if we do the right thing and behave well then we shall be rewarded. Really? Can I see some statistics please? Maybe there are just rewards in the afterlife, but there certainly aren’t any in this world.
If this rant is beginning to sound somewhat anti-religious then let me say that religious institutions do often behave deplorably, dupe people into submission, and justify horrible violence. However, every serious theology has a strong element of doubt built into it–read the book of Job in the Old Testament if you don’t believe me. Religion is what we make of it and what I’ll call the “media religion” is 3rd rate. It’s a rare pleasure to enjoy a highly entertaining, action packed, TV drama that bulks this trend. Whether the ubiquitous nudity is there for rating or is a valid element of the gritty realism I’m not quite sure but I ain’t complaining.
Now we need to deal with the two stinking bloated rotting elephant cadavers in the room: The Games of WAR and POVERTY. These games are not in an imagined medieval fantasy world. They are happening in the real world every day from the African Americans gunned down on our streets (one every 36 hours on average), through the torture centers and death squads in Iraq, and the mass sexual mutilation in the Congo, to the regular drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen (often on weddings BTW), to name just a few recent theatres of operations. Are these distasteful things we have to do to protect ourselves? Well the character Lord Walder Frey who orchestrated The Red Wedding massacre also had good reasons: revenge, sending a message, geo-political advancement, etc.
A little less obvious to our sensitive modern minds is the violence of poverty. Despite popular belief, people don’t just happen to be poor–a sad but inevitable human condition. The vast majority of human suffering is avoidable and is perpetrated by the powerful against the weak using violence. I’m thinking about the almost third of Americans who are hungry and half who are poor, the over billion people worldwide who are starving, the over 40,000 Americans who die each year from illness due to denied medical coverage, the generation(s) poisoned by our agricultural industry, and the many thousands of workers dying while crafting our cherished consumer goods in poor countries. These “savings” that cost so many lives do not go to the consumer as much as to the executive pay of our beloved leaders (North Korean pun intended). I am convinced that most Americans would be willing to pay a few percent more for our cheap apparel and electronics, but that option is not on the table because that’s not where the blood money goes. Instead we are offered crocodile tears, fake apologies, and public-relations campaigns that will have no positive effect on the suffering multitudes. Just like in the Game of Thrones: no happy ending, no justice, no balance .
So now you’re probably thinking I’m a socialist right? Well maybe I am but that’s not the point. Adam Smith is the greatest advocate of the free-market system (aka capitalism), and his concept of the Invisible Hand is constantly invoked to argue that unregulated individual self-interest leads to the best social outcomes. Sadly the people who use this to justify murder seldom read the great man himself, and if they do, seem to ignorantly or willfully misunderstand him. Smith argued that a free-market system could potentially yield such benefits if and only if it maintains an ethical balance by enforcing strict moral behavior. Wealthy and successful people must hold themselves ethically responsible and society as a whole must enforce a social ethic upon them. For example: insurance executives bragging that they denied coverage to so many thousands of people would not be celebrated by their peers nor rewarded with a monstrous Christmas bonus. Under Smith they would be socially ostracized by an elite that values entrepreneurial excellence and hard work and not economic warlordism, corporatism, and kleptocracy. Furthermore, their companies would be shut down for being destructive and criminal by a government representing the long term interests of all the people. Yeah, I know, this sadly sounds way more fantastical than anything Game of Thrones has to offer but my point is that a successful free-market economic system depends on a game of balance.
As the red witch Melisandre keeps telling everybody in Game of Thrones: “the night is dark and full of terrors.”
Dr. Balak is one of the most highly respected tenured economics professors at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He currently teaches various courses on economics, media, and propaganda.