Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.45: Economics

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab

Economists tend to see everything as economics, which is kind of how proponents of ANY discipline see their discipline, but it’s not a bad way to look at worldbuilding through the lens of economics. In this episode we talk about how this works for us, and how it lets us roll our worldbuilding into our storytelling.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson

Liner Notes: Mahtab mentioned The Economics of Science Fiction on

Homework:  Write a truly moneyless society or setting. You can still have transactions… just no money.

Thing of the week: Making Money, by Terry Pratchett.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Economics in worldbuilding? The science of human behavior between ends and scarce means with alternate uses. Not just money! Time, trade… Incentives and motivation. Remember, everyone doesn’t have all the information! Don’t spend too much time on value, worry about what people do for a living and why. Fantastic scarce resources make good fantasy books! As writers, ask what makes an interesting extrapolation by changing our culture in some way. Don’t just think of currency. Most of the economics of science fiction and fantasy don’t work if you look too close. So… handwave, and give the reader a chance to suspend their disbelief. You get one bye, one freebie, and you can earn more by explaining something in detail, by showing you are trustworthy. 

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 45.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Economics.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.

[Brandon] This is a really hard one to not be that smart on…


[Brandon] Because there are a lot of very smart economists out there. We have touched on economics a lot in various podcasts in the past. We want to talk about how, as a writer, you consider economics in your worldbuilding, specifically. So, can we… Let’s get a kind of a foundation here. What do we mean by this, what do we mean by economics? The more I study economics, the more I realize that economists see everything as economies, which is basically how every discipline is when you really drill into it. I was talking to a friend who studies math. He’s like, “Oh, math is really philosophy, which is really the existence of everything, so math is everything.” Well, economics is everything.

[Dan] When all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like economics.

[Mahtab] I have a really good definition.

[Brandon] Okay, go.

[Mahtab] By Lionel Charles Robbins, who is a British economist, and this was in the 1930s. But he said… He defined economics as the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternate uses.

[Brandon] That’s really good.

[Mahtab] I found that was really good, because if you have alternate uses, that’s where the economics comes in.

[Howard] I like that, because when you talk about economy, most people think money. When you say the word money, somebody in the room is going to remember that time is money. Well, time is a scarce resource. The economy of I am going to spend time on a thing so you don’t have to spend time on a thing, so you’re going to spend time on a thing so I don’t have to spend time on it. Then the two of us are going to trade things. Now somehow, we’ve each gotten more than if we tried to spend all of our time on one thing. That is the whole market of buying things with real money that only exist in video games. Somebody spent 20 hours playing for it, and now they sell it to you. Now you have it without having spent the time.

[Brandon] Because you spent your time doing something at which you are really good, and therefore got paid for that, and spent a fraction of that on someone else’s time doing something at which they are very good.

[Dan] I love in your definition, it talks about…

[Mahtab] Not mine, but it’s the good one.

[Dan] Whoever. I remember your name and not his. I love that it talks about different resources with alternate uses. Because wood, for example, if the only thing we used wood for was to build a house, then it wouldn’t be wood, it would just be house points. You have to accrue enough house points, and then you have a house. But wood can also be used for weapons. Wood can also be lit on fire, make fires and things. So…

[Howard] You burn your house points! What?

[Brandon] It can also be a beautiful thing as a tree that we enjoy.

[Dan] Yeah. [Garbled] preserve the forest. So when you start thinking about not just that I need to accrue enough points to make this thing, but how am I going to spend these points because there’s so many different things to spend them on.

[Brandon] I really like, in economics, the study of incentives. Specifically, how human beings are motivated by different things. These points, how different points motivate people in different ways and how we can be motivated by different levels of points in different areas. That is all really interesting to me. I think it plays into storytelling really well, because the economics of how a character value something versus how someone else in the team or an antagonist values that thing is great, ripe for storytelling opportunities.

[Howard] The place where I think worldbuilding falls flat on economics is if you try and make it all logical in ways that all of the players are acting as if they have all of the information. Fundamentally… A great example is the Pentagon paying $1200 for a hammer. Where does a $1200 hammer come from? Well, in part, it can come from the guy who’s building the spreadsheet, and he’s told, “Look, we’re charging $1 million for this thing. Add up all the stuff.” He gets to the end, and he’s like, “Ugh. I’m $1200 short. But they require everything to be line item. I’m just going to raise the price of a hammer.” Okay? It’s not a $1200 hammer. It’s $1200 of the guy building the spreadsheet not caring and knowing that nobody’s going to read this until it’s too late. Then they’ll be making fun of the Pentagon, instead of the subcontractor.

[Brandon] So, as you’re building a fantasy or science fiction culture, do you spend time on the economics? Like, the raw economics, the monetary system? How do you decide how much things are worth in your cultures that you are worldbuilding?

[Dan] I don’t spend a ton of time on value, so much as figuring out what people do and why. So, like, what do you do for a living? Is it important that this is a community of farmers or of ranchers or of fishermen or of whatever it’s going to be. Because then that tells me something economically about the society and about their standard of living and so on. It doesn’t matter to me as much how much a meal costs as knowing where their money comes from.

[Brandon] I really like fantastical resources in fantasy books. We’re going to do an entire podcast on that in a couple of weeks. I like tying my economics to something that is scarce in a fantasy world that we just don’t even have in our world. Because then it lets me start asking these questions about well, how would they value this thing? How would we value this thing if we had it? If someone could actually cast a spell and make something materialize, what does that do to the value of the thing, or the value of the person who can make that thing? Those things, in fantasy, are part of what draws me to fantasy, is that we can ask these questions that can’t really be asked in the real world because it’s just impossible.

[Howard] A classic example is the Dungeons & Dragons spell, Continual Light, which I think had a thousand gold piece material cost. But… Guys… It’s continual light. For a thousand gold pieces, you could make a light that will never go out. We’re going to find enough thousand gold pieces that in five or six generations, nobody needs candles. So, by the time we’ve gotten to this point, yeah, your economy… Your economy is not centering around how do we find light. There may be other things that are scarce, but light isn’t one of them.

[Brandon] It’s easy to kind of make fun of games, sometimes. Because they’re building their system to play a game. But you are writers, listeners. So, you… Your job is not to ask what makes a good game. Your job is to ask what’s going to make an interesting extrapolation by changing our culture in some interesting way.

[Dan] I was working on a fantasy setting several years ago in which I wanted to have magic essentially just be energy. Like, wizards could channel energy. I realized, as I got deeper and deeper into it, that there was no use for a wizard that outweighed the value of just plugging them into a power station somewhere. Which is a cool story idea on its own, and if that’s the direction you want to go, that’s awesome. But taking the time to think about these things helps you get a sense of what… Like Howard was saying, what the scarcity really is, what the economy really looks like with this thing you’ve invented.

[Brandon] There’s a famous SMBC [Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal], the web comic, that postulates that the greatest good Superman could do if he really exists would be just to run really fast on a treadmill or push a thing to generate boundless electricity for the world. It takes that to ridiculous lengths. But it does make you think. “Huh. You know, rather than saving people, if Superman were pushing a turbine, it actually would do greater good for the world.”

[Howard] I think it was Terry Pratchett who… There was a dwarven artifact which is a pair of rectangular blocks which one of them rotates in relation to the other and you cannot stop them from doing that. So what you do is you fix one end of the block into the mountain and then start building gear step-down systems attached to the other end of the block because you haven’t… It’s not turning very fast, but nothing can stop it. So all of the dwarven industry around this artifact was centered around how can we build enough gears so that everything is driven by this one miraculous thing. I loved the economy of that. It’s… You only have one Superman. Well, how do we build the turbine the most efficiently so one Superman can do enough running?

[Brandon] Speaking of Pratchett, you have our book?

[Howard] The book of the week. Making Money by Terry Pratchett. This is the second Moist von Lipshwitz [Lipwig] book. In Going Postal, Lord Vetinari takes our hero, Moist, and puts him in charge of the postal system. Moist manages to turn stamps into a currency. In Making Money, Lord Vetinari approaches Moist and says, “Good job creating a currency. Now I need you to create a currency.” And puts him in charge of the Ankh-Morpork mint. It really is a delightful… Pratchett writes social satire. It is not just a satirization of banks and commerce and economy. But it’s a satirization of humanity. It’s Pratchett at his…

[Brandon] It’s brilliant.

[Howard] Pratchett at his best.

[Brandon] My favorite books in the entirety of Discworld are Making Money and Going Postal, so… Can’t recommend it enough. They are wonderful.

[Brandon] Mahtab, you had something you wanted to add.

[Mahtab] Economics, most people don’t… Even in science fiction and fantasy, they don’t concentrate too much on it. One, because it’s… The jargon that is used for it can be a little bit boring and sometimes intimidating. So most people tend not to. One is because of the fact that it is… in the fantasy genre, people are willing to suspend their disbelief, rather than if it was a nonfiction where you have to get all your rules right. But I found this really interesting essay or article on which was between Jo Lindsay Walton, who’s the editor of the Economic Science Fiction and Fantasy Database. He had… He’s mentioned that as far as economics go, sometimes we only think of hard currency or something that’s monetary. But there can be so many other economies that are based on a non-currency medium. So, that’s something to think about. And that’s a really interesting essay. If anyone wants to read about it and just get some more ideas, it’s on, The Economics of Science Fiction.

[Brandon] Excellent.

[Mahtab] Very interesting article.

[Brandon] That kind of segues into the next question I wanted to ask, which is, sometimes the economics of science fiction and fantasy just don’t make any sense. They really just don’t. The one that Howard and I were chatting about before the podcast is the economics of space invasions. A lot of times, if you look at the cost-to-benefit ratio for moving the ships through the galaxy, which is a really big place, the amount of energy expended that it doesn’t make any sense. A lot of shipping, intergalactic shipping, just wouldn’t make any sense. Most science fiction books and movies just wouldn’t work. Fantasy is even worse at this, right? We like to have great vast enormous battles that are very awesome and epic. Yet, the economic system that would have to be in place to feed these forces and make this actually work just… Everything collapses if you start asking the hard questions. So my question for you is how do you approach this in your stories? Where do you handwave, where do you not handwave? How do you do this right so it won’t kick people out? How do you maybe do it wrong that you’ve seen?


[Dan] So in my cyberpunk series, Mirador series, I was trying to create the story that I wanted to tell. That had the certain elements that I wanted to tell. That included the conceit that everybody has a computer installed in their head, and that there are drones that can do essentially everything for us. That, economically, falls apart so fast. Especially because I wanted to make sure that this world also included poverty. So how can all of these poor people have this incredible technology unless it is incredibly cheap, at which point then why is anyone poor? Like, there’s a lot of things that start to fall apart. I kind of had to do the handwaving, and get to the point where I was able to come up with a couple of excuses. For example, well, people are poor because drones do all the thing, so nobody has jobs anymore, but, on the other hand, energy is essentially free because we have all this incredible solar technology and… Constructing as much of a house of cards as I could. Then saying, “What’s that over there? Don’t look any closer, because this will fall apart.” But I needed to be this way in order to tell the story that is exciting to me to tell.

[Brandon] By its nature, science fiction and fantasy is going to fall apart. Almost all of it. Because we are doing things that can’t be done. By definition, that is what leads us to sci-fi fantasy. Barring some of the really intense hard science fictions where they are postulating a few years into the future, things that they think we will do, and then we do. Every fantasy book breaks the laws of thermodynamics, just tosses them out the window. As a writer, my job is to make it so that you don’t feel like you have to toss everything out the window when you read the book, that I give you that opportunity to suspend your disbelief. But that also varies very much on genre. A lot of the middle grade books that I’ll read… They don’t care about that and they don’t need to. They shouldn’t have to, because the story is not about that.

[Mahtab] The thing is if you got really bogged down with making the economics work, the story would not work. For us as storytellers, the main thing is I have to make the story work. But I have to make sure that the reader believes what I’m saying. Which basically means making sure that they have confidence in me and my writing. So I would do that with some other techniques, and then rely on making sure that they trust me enough to kind of skim past if my economics is not solid. Because…

[Howard] Previously this season, we’ve talked about the concept of you get one bye. You get one freebie that the audience is just going to let you have. Boy, economics is a great place to spend that.


[Howard] One of the tricks for me is the concept of scarcity, which was mentioned in the quote that you gave us earlier, Mahtab. In the Schlock Mercenary universe, it really would be regarded by most people as a post-scarcity economy. Yet, even in post-scarcity, there are things that are scarce. Time is scarce. Locations can only exist once. A unique location is, by definition, scarce. There’s only one of it. So in your fantasy setting, in your science fiction setting, no matter what you have being provided for people, if time and real estate are things that still function the way they function for us, you can have poverty, you can have wealth you can have economics. Because those things are going to trade… Change hands in some way.

[Dan] Now, to extend that metaphor a little further of you get one bye, you can earn yourself more byes. By doing what Mahtab was talking about last month, of I’m going to explain this one thing in detail, and then you’re going to trust me. Then, that’s going to allow me to fudge two or three extra things that I wouldn’t have been able to get away with otherwise.

[Brandon] Good writing can earn you a ton of byes. I would agree with that.

[Dan] So there is an economy of economies.


[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and end this here. Mahtab, you were going to give us a writing prompt?

[Mahtab] Yes. So, just kind of going further on what I mentioned earlier, develop a moneyless economy, where something is paid for without hard currency. It could be gift-based, honor-based, barter-based, but describe how that economy would work and what are the advantages and disadvantages of that economy would be.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.