How Could a 'Handmaid's' Economy Pay the Bills?

The Hulu series raises lots of questions about work and trade and technology in the fictional Gilead.

Who pays for all those red dresses?

Photographer: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

How does the economy of Gilead work? That’s the question I was left with after my wife and I recently binge-watched “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu. Based on Margaret Atwood’s best-selling dystopian novel, the show fully earns its sterling critical accolades. It’s one of the best things on television right now. Yes, the series might fairly be criticized for deracialization 1  or offensiveness to the Christian faith. 2  But the narrative and world-building are so compelling that even the skeptical viewer is swiftly caught up. Still, the question lingers. How does Gilead pay its bills? (Don’t worry, no spoilers below.)

Consider the structure of power. Women may not work (other than at domestic labor) and are forbidden to read. They exist to breed, for the regime arises when infertility becomes epidemic. The ruling elite are the Commanders. A Commander whose Wife (capital W) cannot conceive is assigned a Handmaid, whose function it is to be ceremonially raped once a month in the hope that she will become pregnant. 3  The tale is told by a Handmaid known as Offred, meaning that she belongs to Fred. 4

One of the show’s central and most-discussed tropes, drawn directly from the novel and powerfully depicted on the screen, is that the economic part of the transition required only pushing a few buttons, cutting off the access of all women to their cash. Cleverly, the money has not been seized by the government. It has been transferred to the husband or the nearest male relative. In this way, Gilead plays on what its leaders plainly believe is a deep-seated male instinct to take care of women. (Whether or not you believe the instinct actually exists, you are bound to get a kick out of the incisive and hilarious critique by the narrator’s best friend, Moira.)

Aside from that clever bit, what does the economy of Gilead look like? In the first place, the story provides a useful lesson in the economics of discrimination. Prejudice is inefficient. For example, if Snoke, a merchant, refuses to serve black customers, he reduces his customer base. Competitors can earn higher profits by serving white and black alike. To stay in business while at the same time maintaining his prejudice, Snoke must persuade the government to adopt laws forcing his competitors to join him in discriminating. 5

Thus we see Gilead’s problem. Women’s employment has to be forbidden by law because otherwise profit-maximizers would outcompete discriminators by sexually integrating their workforces. Perhaps firing all women would create, at least temporarily, a full-employment economy for men. But with the economy stripped of half its productive capacity, Gilead would suffer a serious slowdown, probably a depression. (The savings because of women’s free domestic labor would not come close to making up for the losses.)

And where are the men working? We are told in the series that the European Union has imposed a trade embargo, but Commander Waterford insists that the sanctions are hurting Europe more than Gilead. If the embargo is not lifted, he says, the euro will collapse. Waterford might simply be a naif, repeating what he has heard at meetings. (The writers are at pains to make clear that his wife is the brains of the outfit.) But let’s assume that he knows what he is talking about. If Europe cannot thrive without Gileadean trade, then Gilead must have something to offer. But what? 6

Not petroleum products. Aunt Elizabeth emphasizes that one factor in the rise of Gilead was the way that in the old days, big businesses polluted the world for profit. Perhaps agricultural products are raised for export; perhaps North America has become once again the world’s breadbasket. But competition would be fierce. Still, the economic slowdown has likely depressed wages severely, and the standard of living, other than for the Commanders, seems low. Perhaps Gilead could become an exporter of cheap textiles or manufactured goods. But that would take some time to develop, and a decline in the standard of living is often a precursor to unrest and rebellion. 7

What about technology? That might provide the great comparative advantage for a nation spanning what was once the continental U.S. Although Atwood's novel is set in the near future of the 1980s, the Hulu version is set in the near future of the present day. There are laptops and tablet computers. There's an internet. The trouble is, the techies would have fled. If Silicon Valley has not seceded, its top minds have likely left for what remains of the United States. 8  But the new nation could not survive without them. How would Gilead get them to stay? Neither capital controls nor naked force would do much to rein in world-straddling companies. So Gilead would have to offer something else.

The economist Ronald Wintrobe, in his study of dictatorships, reminds us that one way undemocratic regimes buy off the elites that keep them in power is by using government authority to transfer significant rents. But it’s hard to imagine that the leadership could find a way to guarantee Apple or Amazon or Google profits beyond what they would have been making under the previous regime -- not after Gilead cuts off half or more of their domestic customers from access to their goods and services. There’s nothing left to pay them off with.

And yet Gilead requires a significant technological economy. In the television version, we are told that the college professors have all been sent to the colonies (where miscreants are worked to death). This seems implausible. Even if Gilead no longer values the humanities, it will still need trained economists and linguists to engage in international trade, skilled engineers and architects to build its bridges and tunnels (and walls), and scientists and doctors both to invent new weapons and to undertake the surgery and the medical experiments that are obviously taking place. In the novel, Atwood tells the story differently: “The university is closed,” she writes -- singular. Her text implies that it’s only the Harvards that the leaders of Gilead are after. 9  On other campuses, STEM education is likely burgeoning.

Don’t get me wrong. These quibbles are only worth quibbling about because “The Handmaid’s Tale” is so compelling. It’s the depth and fascination of the world the show has created that makes us wonder how exactly it works. The first season ends where the novel does, but given that a second season is coming, I hope the showrunners will tell us more about how Gilead’s leaders hope to keep the economy humming.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Deracialization is the effort to remove race as a salient factor, as might be done for example in a political campaign. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the loss of salience of race is entire. In Atwood’s novel, Gilead is run on the basis of racial as well as gender supremacy. The television version presents a Gilead in which the ruling classes are multiracial. (Yes, I do understand the needs of the medium. Without integration, there would have been no significant nonwhite characters.)

  2. For example, the novel gives us not one but two references to Baptist guerrillas who are resisting Gilead. In the television series, we are told that rebels in the Blue Hills have been smoked out but not –--as in the same line as Atwood originally wrote it -- that they are Baptists. And of course it is difficult to defend the way the series uses the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (I won’t spoil it here). As regular readers know, however, I am not one to contend that occasional offensiveness is a reason to avoid a creative work. Moreover, the dramatic pull of the series makes up for these defects.

  3. Well-to-do households are also assigned Marthas, who cook and clean. Low-status men wind up with Econowives, who combine the functions of Handmaid and Martha. We are not told, either in the book or in the show, what happens when an Econowife is infertile. Divorce is illegal.

  4. In the novel we are not told her real name, that is her name from what those in the story call Before. In the original film, she is Kate. In the Hulu version she is June.

  5. The inefficiency of discrimination helps explain, for example, why much of the slippage in South Africa’s apartheid regime came in several large companies that quietly violated law and regulation by the promotions handed out to black employees. The leading analysis of the economics of discrimination remains Nobel laureate Gary Becker’s classic monograph on the topic.

  6. I will not spoil Ofwarren’s discovery of what the leaders plans to export, other than to say that the supply is not likely to meet the combined demand of Gilead and other nations.

  7. Of course the armed Guardians and unseen spies makes rebellion harder. But the observed ratio of Guardians to ordinary citizens is so astonishingly high that we might reasonably ask how Gilead can afford them. Perhaps one answer is that nearly the entire story takes place within an enclave of Commanders, a place that doubtless is more heavily guarded than other neighborhoods.

  8. In the series (not in the book) we are told that Anchorage is now the capital, and the flag has only two stars. Viewers speculate that the other “free” state is Hawaii, although some have suggested Florida, where we are told that fighting continues. (True, one might posit that the male-heavy leadership in the tech sector is still plugging away. But this seems implausible, given the Valley’s strong left-libertarian politics.)

  9. Ofwarren tells us in the novel that there are no lawyers any more either. Not, perhaps, for the criminal “trials.” But there are doubtless commercial disputes, and, in any case, they would be necessary for the smooth functioning of international trade.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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