Ok, a while back, madeinmyr responded to my rebuttal of their critique of A Laboratory of Politics Part III. I had been intending to reply for some time, but a half-finished version of this got eaten by a browser crash, and I got delayed.
So here goes. Putting this under the cut because it’s huge.
On the Nature of the Westerosi Economy
To begin with, I think madeinmyr’s perspective on the nature of the Westerosi economy is not realistic. It is claimed that: “Westeros is an economically integrated continent and the Riverlands are at the center of a major transport hub.”
To begin with, I strongly question the extent of economic integration. Continent-wide economic integration in historical Europe took a long time to accomplish – long after the Industrial Revolution began in England, large parts of Europe were still primarily based on local subsistence agriculture. While the expansion of railroad networks were a huge push towards genuine economic integration during the 19th and early 20thcentury, it’s important to note that as late as the 1990s, you had large pockets of subsistence agriculture in Central and Eastern Europe.
One of the major things holding back economic integration was transportation technology. Prior to the invention of the steam engine, all travel takes place at the speed that the wind, waves, cart animals, and human feet can muster – as the eminent historian Fernand Braudel reminds us:
“The Mediterranean was certainly not within the measure of sixteenth century man; it was only at the cost of much effort that he mastered its immense area, much as twentieth century man has found it difficult to master the Pacific…the fastest speeds, 200 kilometres or more per day, were hardly ever attained except by sea, in fair weather and preferably in well-manned galleys…on land, record speeds fell short of those achieved by sea…the fastest speeds at in Europe were probably reached by the couriers…at about 139 kilometers a day…the essential point to note here is that very variety, the wide range of times taken to travel the same journey: it is a structural feature of the century. The modern transport revolution has not only increased the speed of travel to an extraordinary degree; it has eliminated (and this is also important) the uncertainty imposed in the past by the elements…
The sum of the average time taken [to send a letter between Madrid and Constantinople]…gives us a Mediterranean world either eighty or sixty-six days long…But the essential point to bear in mind is that both average and record speeds remained sensibly the same before and after the sixteenth century. Goods, boats, and people travelled as fast, or as slowly, in the days of the Avignon Popes or to Venice during the first half of the fifteenth century, as they did in the age of Louis XIV. Major change and advance did not occur before the end of the eighteenth century.”
This distance limited markets – not only do perishable goods suffer both spoilage (damp, mold, vermin, rot) and shrinkage (theft, goods simply falling off the wagon), but the longer a voyage took, the more transport costs (whether in shipping fees, the cost of feeding cart animals, lodging and food for the journey, warehousing fees, and tolls) ate into the potential profit that could be realized, especially from staple crops. Hence why it took the steam engine and the railroad to begin the task of economic integration within the boundaries of a single nation, let alone a continent.
And that’s Europe – Westeros is far, far larger than Europe, on the order of South America, that distance exacerbates the difficulties of economic integration, and Westeros has not experienced a transportation revolution. Longer distances means higher travel costs and more product lost during the journey, more uncertainty about what price goods will fetch when they get to their destination. All it takes is a few simple calculations to show that it’s not possible for Westeros to be genuinely economically integrated when it comes to staple crops: an order for food from White Harbor to the Reach would take a week to get there by raven, and then a ship would take around 43 days to make the journey from Oldtown to White Harbor. But that’s the best-case scenario – put those goods on a cart instead of a ship, and you’re talking anywhere from seven months to a year and a half. Simply put, if there’s a famine in the North, they’re all going to starve to death before Highgarden can save them.
Moreover, Westerosi transportation mechanisms are incredibly crude. There’s no canal linking the Manderly to the Blackwater or the Blue Fork to Ironman’s Bay, so that there’s no way to travel by boat across the continent rather than around it. There are incredibly few bridges (thus the existence of the Freys), and major intersections lack bridges – there’s no bridge at the intersection of the Kingsroad and the Trident, despite the fact that all road travel between the North, the northern Riverlands, the Vale, and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms goes through that point. There’s no mention of any bridges over the Blackwater Rush, despite the fact that said river intersects the Gold Road, the Roseroad, and the Stormlands’ section of the Kingsroad. The North has no ports on its western coast, Seagard barely exists as a port for the Riverlands, and there are no ports anywhere on the southern coast of Dorne.
Thus, at best, Westeros is regionally integrated. The North could probably draw supplies from the Riverlands or the Vale, but not the Reach; King’s Landing is supplied by the Crownlands, the Riverlands, and the Reach for the most part, but the Vale isn’t mentioned when it comes to food. Even then, a calculation of distance suggests that most likely, we’re talking about the most proximate of other regions to the point in question – a farmer from Bitterbridge would take anywhere between a month and three and a half months to get to King’s Landing; a farmer from Highgarden would take 2.5 to 6 months to make the same trip.
These kind of limitations mean that the Seven Kingdoms have to be moderately self-sufficient when it comes to basic staple crops, and thus primarily engaged in subsistence agriculture – although obviously the story is quite different when it comes to less perishable goods, luxury items, and other items that could bring a higher price for their weight.
Given this reality, the idea that a credit crisis is causing the famine is simply not realistic – no matter what the credit conditions, there’s a hard limit to how much trade in staple crops can be done imposed by the level of technology and the distances involved. So to get back to my original point – “There are huge hardships and starvation that the smallfolk are going to face, but they’re primarily the result of the war and the winter, not the Iron Bank.”
It’s absolutely true that there are large areas of Westeros facing food shortages: the Riverlands suffered extensive losses, although I’d note that the area inside the Trident escaped the devastation of the area south of the Red Fork, an important distinction. Some parts of the North lost part or most of their harvest – although the war doesn’t seem to have touched the Barrowlands or White Harbor’s lands, which make up a large part of the North and its more southerly and fertile part, or for that matter the hill country or Karstark or Bolton lands. However, as the worldbook clearly shows, winter brings famine in the North regardless of any economic policy – the six year winter of 130-136 AC led a “greater army of childless and homeless men, unwed men, old men, and younger sons…for a glorious death to spare their kin beyond the Neck one more mouth to feed,” and “during the hardest winters, it is customary for the oldest and most infirm amongst the northmen to claim they are going out hunting – knowing full well they will never return and thus leaving a little more food for those likelier to survive.”
The Crownlands are largely undamaged – while Duskendale and Sow’s Horn are damaged, Stokeworth, Rosby, Antlers, Rook’s Rest, and Cracklaw Point aren’t touched by the war, nor is Massey’s Hook. The Westerlands took some damage, but other than the cattle taken by Lady Mormont, most of the damage was done to its mining infrastructure and castles, as opposed to food. The Reach is largely untouched as well, while the Ironborn have begun to raid up the Mander, they’ve been stopped at the Honeywine (so the area around Oldtown is untouched), and even up the Mander, there’s a limit to how far up and how far from the river the Ironborn can raid, especially given the presence of a large army near Highgarden. The damage simply isn’t enough to offset the huge productivity of the region. Add to this that the Vale, the Stormlands, and Dorne are all basically untouched.
Thus, when we’re talking about famine, I still contend that we’re talking about a famine largely concentrated in the Riverlands, parts of the North, perhaps parts of the Westerlands, and limited areas of the Reach. But out of nine administrative regions of Westeros, four regions are completely untouched (Dorne, Stormlands, the Vale, and the Iron Islands), three are largely untouched (the Reach, the Crownlands), one is moderately damaged (the Westerlands), and two are greatly damaged (the North, the Riverlands).
However, the point still stands: the Iron Bank did not cause this devastation. The destruction of crops was done by the Westerosi – in large part because of the actions of the current government in King’s Landing in starting the war in the Riverlands between the Starks and the Lannisters, and to a lesser degree because of the actions of the Ironborn in the North and the Reach.
The Refugee Crisis:
I take a somewhat different view regarding the refugee crisis than madeinmyr – the refugee crisis of 299/300 AC is largely caused by war rather than economic conditions, in sharp contrast to the mass migrations of 210 AC, which were caused by the combination of plague and drought causing a collapse in agriculture throughout most of the south. The basic problem is that the war is forcing people from their homes and they need military protection to create the minimum level of security needed to get people back on the land, producing the food that they need to survive. Hence, the Sparrows’ primary demand is for knights to patrol the highways and guard religious centers, or at least to allow the poor to arm themselves, not for food.
More importantly, it’s a profoundly regional crisis – disorder in the Riverlands forces peasants from that region into King’s Landing. We don’t see large movements of refugees in the Reach, or the Vale, or the Stormlands, or Dorne.
It’s also a crisis profoundly shaped if not outright created by the government in King’s Landing. It was Littlefinger’s taxes and Joffrey’s psychotic hatred of the poor that touched off riots in favor of “King Bread,” to begin with. (Notably, we don’t see a joining of the urban poor with the rural Sparrows when they arrive in the city) When Cersei takes over as Regent following Tywin’s death, she does nothing about the refugee crisis. Nor does she intend to restore the peace and order necessary for resolving the refugee crisis – as she puts it, “Cersei did not intend to squander Tommen’s strength playing wet nurse to sparrows, or guarding the wrinkled cunts of a thousand sour septas.”
How is Credit Used:
Madeinmyr posits that “Jon Snow’s solution to the Night Watch’s crisis provides a model, the only model, for how Southern communities could deal with theirs. If anything this solution is even more suited to the rest of Westeros.” The problem here is that there’s an enormous gap between what ought to be and what is, and much of the textual evidence presented actually bolsters my argument that loans and credit affect only a small minority of the population.
Madeinmyr essentially proves my point when they state that “loans and credit are a regular part of Southron aristocratic life…The Lannisters are big on loaning out money and the Tyrells are apparently involved in it as well. There are moneychangers and moneylenders in Oldtown, Gulltown, and Kings Landing.” Loans and credit are a phenomenon of the nobility and the cities, not the rural smallfolk who make up 90%+ of the population. Moreover, look at the kinds of things being bought with loans – Jonah Mormont goes into debt buying luxury goods and entertainment services, the Waynwoods into living above their means. Not buying food for peasants.
It might be argued that it is moral for the lords of Westeros to do as Jon Snow does, but as we have seen throughout the series, noblesse oblige is not a value held by most lords of Westeros. Ned Stark believes that a lord ought to sit down to supper with all of his bannermen and servants to live their lives, but as we see in AGOT, such honor is not found in the South. Edmure Tully is practically the only example we get of a lord in the Riverlands who actually looks out for the interests of his smallfolk – and Catelyn’s stunned and disapproving response shows how genuinely out of character such behavior is.
In other words, simply because famine relief is possible does not mean it’s going to happen. In which case, it really doesn’t matter whether the Iron Bank extends credit or no, there’s no food going to the smallfolk in either case.
The Crown and Credit:
The best example of this comes from the government in King’s Landing – the entity primarily responsible for the default. In a time of plenty, the Iron Throne ran up a debt of more than six million dragons – three million is owed to the Lannisters, about a million of it is owed to the Faith, leaving upwards of two million owed to the Tyrells, the Iron Bank, and the Tyroshi. This money didn’t go to famine relief, or storing up grain, or badly needed infrastructure, or any system of welfare for the poor – it largely went to lavish entertainments and luxury goods (and massive embezzlement on Littlefinger’s part, but that’s a story for another day). The Iron Throne then suffers a huge increase in expenditure and a huge decrease of revenue during the War of Five Kings, as no less than four regions stop paying their taxes to King’s Landing.
So what policy does the Iron Throne adopt, following the end of the War of Five Kings? Rather than drop its debt costs by half by forgiving the debts owed to the Lannisters who now own the kingdom, it raises taxes by establishing the dwarf’s penny. Rather than curb expenditures, it throws royal weddings for seven hundred guests, with seventy-seven courses and lavish entertainments, triples the size of the Gold Cloaks (although notably it doesn’t use the Gold Cloaks to provide peace and order outside of the city), and decides to build a whole new navy (that it promptly loses to pirates). The default on the debt is not forced on it by circumstance but by choice:
“I have decided to defer our repayment of the sums owed the Holy Faith and the Iron Bank of Braavos until war’s end.” The new High Septon would doubtless wring his holy hands, and the Braavosi would squeak and squawk, but what of it? “The monies saved will be used for the building of our new fleet.”
“Your Grace,” Pycelle said in a quavering voice, “this will cause more trouble than you know, I fear. The Iron Bank…”
“…remains on Braaavos, far across the sea. They shall have their gold, master. A Lannister pays his debts.”
“The Braavosi have a saying too.” Pycelle’s jeweled chain clinked softly. “The Iron Bank will have its due, they say.”
“The Iron Bank will have its due when I say they will. Until such time, the Iron Bank will wait respectfully.”
And this is the institution that madeinmyr suggests ought to be kept supplied with finance, whose debt is clearly still good.
The Iron Bank:
I think the Iron Bank’s actions thus have to be viewed in light of the actions of the Iron Throne: is it good business to continue to extend credit to an institution that racked up huge debts and then failed to make any payment on the principal and indeed took out new loans to pay the interest during times of plenty, then suffers a huge economic setback? Is it good practice to continue negotiating with an institution that’s been palming them off? Remember, Tyrion was denying the Iron Bank a royal audience back in Tyrion IV of A Clash of Kings, a year before Cersei flatly imposes terms on Noho Dimittis.
Simply put, the Iron Bank has no reason to think that this debt is still good, when the cause of default is so blatantly a deliberate policy decision to prioritize war over sound finance, when the institution in question is deep underwater and increasing expenditure, and when the institution in question both fails to communicate and then seeks to impose terms.
On a deeper level, I think madeinmyr’s argument about the Iron Bank is self-contradictory. On the one hand, the Iron Bank supposedly has a vast enough reserves to easily withstand a loss of one to two million gold, and should treat the Iron Throne’s credit as good despite all evidence to the contrary, such that Iron Bank’s policy of “maximum suffering” is nakedly malicious. On the other hand, the Iron Bank’s entire business model relies upon its “fearsome reputation for collecting debts.” And yet there’s no consideration of what would happen to its fearsome reputation should it allow a major client to openly default against it, or what those economic consequences would be for the Braavosi economy and the working class of Braavos. The Iron Bank is not a charity set up for the interests of the Westerosi smallfolk; the government of King’s Landing is the institution that bears responsibility for their well-being, as Davos Seaworth so eloquently puts it.
Moreover, madeinmyr misrepresents the larger financial environment – it’s simply not the case that the Iron Bank can cut the Iron Throne off from all sources of finance. The Lannisters are potentially self-financing to the point where they could start up their own bank backed by the gold of Casterly Rock; the Tyrells are almost as wealthy, and the Faith of the Seven can clearly support a loan of a million gold dragons without grinding to a halt institutionally. Outside of Westeros, it’s clear that there are other financial institutions capable of fulfilling the role of the Iron Bank, collectively if not individually: Tyroshi trading cartels are mentioned as existing creditors of the Iron Throne, and Ser Harys Swyft reaches out to banks in Pentos and Myr for a new line of credit that could be used to buy out the Iron Throne’s Braavosi debt.
To sum up:
- Westeros is not an economically integrated continent, especially in the realm of staple crops. 90%+ of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture.
- Famine in Westeros is the result of war, not the Iron Bank’s policy.
- The famine and the refugee crisis are largely regional crises, and both are the result of Westerosi policy, not the Iron Bank.
- Credit is limited to the nobility and the cities, and is not used in rural areas or for the support of the smallfolk. It doesn’t matter what the Iron Bank’s policies are.
- The Iron Throne needlessly provoked a credit crisis through bad policy, and the Iron Bank has every reason to consider their debt bad, and a threat to the Iron Bank’s business model.
- There are alternatives to the Iron Bank.
 Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II , p. 355-369.
 George R.R Martin et al., The World of Ice and Fire, p. 82, 11.
 Tyrion V and of ACOK.
 Cersei IV of AFFC.
 Cersei VI of AFFC.
 Cersei IV, ACOK.
 Cersei V, ACOK.
 And indeed, the Iron Bank’s actions actually work. Following the credit shutoff, Kevan Lannister sends Ser Harys Swyft, the Master of Coin to Braavos to engage in negotiations with the Iron Bank, something the Throne refused to do under Cersei Lannister.