I attended several great panels at this year’s FantasyCon. But the best was on a subject I never expected to be so engaging – fantasy economics. Chaired by Peter McLean, the panel also featured authors Jeannette Ng, Shona Kinsella, Vic James, who’s also a political journalist, and Stewart Hotston, who’s an investment banker with a degree in economics.
Peter’s first question was what economic pitfalls people found in their writing and how they got around them.
Stewart talked about how wars have to be paid for – this was something that constantly stopped Henry VIII going to war. Wars have economic consequences for hundreds of miles around, as horses are taken and farms burned.
Shona pointed out that, in a prehistoric setting like the one she writes about, everyone has to work to support the community. The value is in time, not money, and if someone doesn’t pull their weight that has consequences for everyone.
For Vic, the inspiration for her writing came from looking at the failures of an economic elite. If you have a magical aristocracy, that will shape the economy. It can lead to things like indentured servitude.
Jeannette pointed out the difference between building a plausible fantasy economy and using fantasy as allegory. The allegory doesn’t necessarily need to be economically convincing, but you have to know where it’s going.
This also led to some reflections on the reality of economics. Stewart argued that all economists are essentially fantasy writers, as they assume that people behave like rational actors to maximise economic utility. Vic pointed out that a plausible, functional economy isn’t always a sustainable one.
Peter asked how we define an economy, given that it can be built on things other than money, like barter. One definition Stewart gave was that money is a way of storing desire and allowing access to value, and this is how an economy works.
This led to a discussion of debt and how it can work if there’s no cash. Jeannette suggested favours and Vic said labour, which raises the question of when to pay that debt – get it out of the way when young, or enjoy your youth and work later?
Jeannette discussed the case of gift giving cultures, where giving increases your status and places obligations on others. This is something that has appeared in various places around the world, including in medieval Europe. Debt, obligation, and economic dominance don’t have to work in the way we’re used to.
Next on Peter’s question list was whether the magically powerful in a society would automatically become the super-rich.
As Stewart explained, the social elite and the most wealthy aren’t always the same in reality. Historically, merchants have tended to be a separate class from the aristocracy, who didn’t dirty their hands with trade. The wealth of the aristocracy came from debts and giving opportunities to merchants. So in a fantasy world, the powerful could channel magic where they want it to go and this would affect wealth distribution, but magic, wealth, and rank wouldn’t necessarily match.
In a question that would have got him burned at the stake five hundred years ago, Peter asked how we get to a point, as with medieval monasteries, where one of the wealthiest groups aren’t doing anything useful but are essentially a luxury. This led to a wider conversation about luxuries. Jeannette pointed out that we don’t appreciate what a luxury most clothes once were, as we get them so easily. Giving cloth had real symbolic power. Shona talked about how, in a society that doesn’t take excess resources from the earth, luxuries can take a different form – things made for each other.
This idea of the changing nature of luxury came up again as Jeannette discussed more egalitarian societies, in which anthropologists have seen people mocking the excessively successful. Stewart said that this fits a social difference between the UK and the US – in the US, people are more hierarchical and concerned with economic success, while in the UK we are more egalitarian in our outlook and celebrate heroic failures.
Vic described the aristocracy as a wealth-preserving mechanism – most early laws emerged to decide where property went.
Specialist skills are also important in directing wealth – Stewart explained how the creation of the specialist skill of double-entry book-keeping added to the wealth of book-keepers and their patrons.
Someone in the audience asked the panel about the most out there economic ideas they’d seen.
Stewart said basic minimum income. Evidence is starting to show that it generates wealth and doesn’t create inflation, completely contradicting dominant economic theories. Its day is coming, but many economists, shaped by Hayek and American puritanism, will fight this.
Jeannette said China’s gift-giving culture, where it’s scandalous to game the gifting system for profit but this can be done.
As Vic said at the end, economics is a codification of human relationships. This was what the panel drew out – how economics ties to other relationships, how it is shaped by them, and how it can be used to build more interesting worlds.
Seriously. Best panel of the whole convention.