08/15/2017 11:07 EDT | Updated 08/15/2017 11:40 EDT

Game of Thrones: What you don't know could get you killed

WASHINGTON — Samwell Tarly knows more than the maesters of the Citadel. Littlefinger knows more than Arya. And Bran knows more than anyone in "Game of Thrones."

The imbalance in knowledge is what economists call "asymmetric information" — when one party in a transaction knows more than the other and can exploit the advantage. It can be bad for economies. And it's certainly bad for the people of Westeros as the threat of Whitewalkers drew closer in the seventh season's fifth episode, Eastwatch.

The episode ended with Jon Snow leading six others beyond the Wall. They're on a possible suicide mission to capture a wight — a re-animated corpse controlled by the Whitewalkers. Why? Because of the imbalance of the knowledge, the group hopes to prove that the threat is real to Queen Cersei in order to unite Westeros' warring factions against a common and demonic enemy. Little do they know that Cersei is already prepared to call a truce, providing only more evidence about the challenges caused by asymmetric information.

The Associated Press' economics team digs into this problem with Moody's Analytics economist Adam Ozimek in the latest episode of "The Wealth of Westeros." Later, author and journalist William Cohan joins the show to discuss the connections between "Game of Thrones" and Wall Street.

"Asymmetric information" is often a cause of markets failing. Think about sub-prime mortgages that Wall Street firms sold to investors as safe. Or used cars where the dealership knows more than the buyer — the example cited by George Akerlof in his Nobel Prize-winning paper on the issue. This problem makes it difficult to foster any sense of trust. Economists have developed ways to handle an imbalance of information, but Westeros lacks those strategies.

Consider Samwell Tarly's frustration with the council of maesters.

He killed a Whitewalker with a dragonglass blade while stuck north of the Wall, so he knows that they're a legit threat. But now he's at the Citadel training to be a maester, where the most valuable books that might contain secrets for defeating this threat are kept under lock-and-key. Nor can Tarly convince the maesters that Whitewalkers are real.

"Definitely for the maesters this is a problem," Ozimek said. "It gets at kind of the closed-off and cloistered nature of knowledge and information in this economy. ... The role of information gathering and the role of spreading knowledge and sharing knowledge is held almost exclusively within the maesters."

This means that the maesters distrust any outside voices.

So what does Tarly do? He steals the relevant books and hightails it out of town on a horse-drawn cart. He's ready to share whatever knowledge he might glean, even though the public might be just as doubtful as the maesters.

But even Tarly is subject to asymmetric information. He departs unaware that Daenerys ordered one of her dragons to flambe his father and brother to death for refusing to follow her as queen. So Tarly isn't just a maester dropout. He's now the lord of the family estate, Horn Hill.

Storytellers have relied on dramatic irony since Ancient Greece. But Game of Thrones is really detailing a fundamental challenge that markets are struggling to address — what to do when information is far from perfect and carefully guarded instead of shared.


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