What Can Vampires Teach Us About Economics? (Ep. 184)

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(Photo: gaelx)

(Photo: gaelx)

Do vampires employ an optimal strategy in choosing their mates? Would a zombie invasion help create jobs? And what would happen if vampires didn’t have to attack humans to get blood?

These are some of the pressing questions we ask in this week’s episode, “What Can Vampires Teach Us About Economics?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

It was inspired by a book called Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science a collection of 23 scholarly essays edited by the economists Glen Whitman and James Dow. (Here’s the table of contents; here are some excerpts.)

Whitman teaches at California State University, Northridge, and also writes for TV. His chapters in the book focus on romantic relationships (“Human Girls and Vampire Boys,” Parts 1 and 2) and resource management (“Tragedy of the Blood Commons: The Case for Privatizing the Humans.”) In the podcast, Whitman talks about the economics of the undead as well as how his academic work merged with his own dating life.

You’ll also hear from Enrique Guerra-Pujol, a professor of law at the University of Central Florida, who argues that vampires are driven to violence by the absence of a legal blood market:

GUERRA-PUJOL: Economists often talk about market failures when certain voluntary transactions impose costs on others or on society. Here I’m talking about legal failure. What I mean by that is when the law, for a wide variety of reasons, prevents transactions from taking place in the first place, prevents market transactions. And what it really comes down to, is this intuition that, you know, if vampires had the choice to buy blood, they would probably do so.

Guerra-Pujol’s solution to vampire violence?

GUERRA-PUJOL: As a legal scholar […] I think the solution is there right under our nose. It’s let vampires buy blood.

You’ll also hear from Steve Horwitz, a professor of economics at St. Lawrence University, about an essay he co-authored (with Sarah Skwire) called “Eating Brains and Breaking Windows.” It uses the premise of Frederic Bastiat’s famous “Parable of the Broken Window” to ask whether a zombie apocalypse could actually be good news for the economy, as some people argue that war or a natural disaster can be.

And, most important, you’ll hear the answer to a question that I’m sure has plagued you for years: is Twilight fan Steve Levitt a member of Team Edward or Team Jacob?

Here’s hoping that if you spend Halloween as a vampire, zombie, or werewolf, you will now be armed with a bit of economic background to make your portrayal even more convincing.

Special thanks to Simon Adler for help in producing this episode.

Dave Tufte

Back in the day, X-Files had an episode about vampires who broke into blood banks because they couldn't 1) buy the blood, and 2) didn't want to attack humans.

scott fowler

I am listening to 'What Can Vampires Teach Us About Economics?'. I think one very large point was missed. Vampires "procreate" via their bite. The urge to procreate is innate in most species. There are humans that choose not to procreate for some reason or another, and this might (since vampires are sentient) make some vampires choose to drink animal blood or drawn human blood. There are also many movies where humans are used as feed bags strung up, fed and used as a renewable source of food. This is preferable to buying and selling blood since vampires don't work regular business hours.


One of the other podcasts I love, "Underwood and Flinch" from Mike Bennett, deals a lot with the idea of how a vampire should manage in modern society... eating without killing, etc. It's a fantastic story if you like fiction podcasts or books. /plug

Truth & Beauty

Y'all know that Zombies and Vampires aren't real, right? Let's move on. Nothing the "undead" can teach us about economics that they didn't teach us the first time around.


Ok,.there are not real vampires,but it seems to me a funny and interesting topic.!!

Sam Tayor

I love this episode. Can anyone tell me the music is in the background at 17:50?

Gustavo Lima

Hey Stephen, here is a question.

What would be the economic impact if, all of the sudden, 50% of human kind could teleport themselves to anywhere in the planet?
Considering that they could not take anything with them (including clothes).

I imagine that the automotive sector would take a huge hit, since half of the population would no longer need a car to go to work, college, etc.
But I guess tourism and "clothes rental" would increase exponentially.

What other consequences do you think this would trigger?


Liked the Parable of the broken window. The rest of this podcast was my least favorite. Big this is a topic I assume aliens will be next.

Cuylar Conly

Here is a movie exploring the concept of Vampires and a "Blood economy". http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433362/
Because Vampirism is "contagious", Vampires have become the dominant species and humans a rarity. Thus there is a significant scarcity of blood and therefore violence reigns.


Cuylar Conly

Another thought. Vampires pre-date the technique of blood extraction and storage. Therefore taking blood by force may be so culturally ingrained among vampires that in modern times when blood can be extracted and stored for long periods there is a cultural barrier against it.


Relevant to the economics of vampires, I'm pretty sure that the premise of HBO's True Blood is a town where vampires and humans coexist and artificial blood makes relationships more possible.


Hey Dubner,
You seem to have gone against your own comment about the "Broken Window" fallacy. You are afraid that if the Vampires are allowed to legally purchase blood, this could eliminate all the scary vampire stories. This is the same thing as saying the broken window is good for the economy. You didn't look at what is unseen: New vampire fiction where they don't need to injure but use their powers for the good of the planet.

Matt Harmon

I know one guy who has never learned The Broken Window Fallacy...

Jessica Abel

I actually co-wrote a comic that really springs out of an interest in how (especially new, very young) vampires (without hundred+ - year-old investments) might actually have to make a living...the night shifts of 24-hour stores (where they can also buy blood beer, by the way) Future story ideas include investigations of how these vampires ever get to leave the lowest rung of the vampire economy.

It's called Life Sucks. For your consideration. http://us.macmillan.com/lifesucks/jessicaabel


While an interesting thought experiment, the notion that vampires steal blood because there's no legal method to procure it is flawed in its genesis. Guerra-Pujol ignores the fundamental tenet of vampirism, which is that most vampires consider themselves to be superior beings to humans (in much the same way humans feel superior to cows, e.g.), and as such have no compunction about 'stealing' blood to feed them.

Paul Martin

There were a few unseen items missing from the discussion on the broken window fallacy. There are costs to having people left not working such as unemployment payments, food stamps, and medicaid costs. Further, there are insurance premiums paid by the homeowner which, if there are no claims, simply enrich the insurance companies with them performing no work to enrich the society as a whole.


Those 'costs' of people not working are not inherent, though. It's certainly possible to have economies in which they don't exist. (Most of history, perhaps.) It's also possible to require that work be done in exchange, as with the depression-era CCC and WPA.

As for insurance companies, I think it's easily arguable that the reduction of personal risk does enrich society. For an anecdotal example, a few years ago I had to evacuate due to a wildfire. Without insurance, I'd have been worried about the house I left, and much poorer if it had burned. With insurance, the loss would have been a minor inconvenience at worst.

Rodolfo Soberanes

Very excited for next week's podcast. I am mexican and this summer I asked my grandfather (an economist) what would happen if Mexico merged with the US. The question got several people at the table angry.


Loved this episode for its sincerity in the value of a thought experiment. Also, found the conversations -- about the black market, the costs of prohibition, the role of markets -- to be a refreshing parable for a conversation our nation is finally having -- ending the decades-long, epic failure that is the War on Drugs.