Tarion

Breath Economics

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Hey all, 

Looking through Warbreaker again, and I've been wondering about Breath, in the big picture.  Do we have any WoB on the amount of Breath that's around? 

Because as I see it, the value of Breath could fluctuate quite heavily, which could have interesting repercussions.  If Breath gets cheaper, we'll see more Lifeless, more Nightbloods, more powerful Awakeners.  If Breath gets more expensive, what happens to the Returned?  Plus, I'm just kind of interested in the numbers.

 

As it stands, we have one Breath for every person.  Every time someone is born, a new Breath is added into the system, and it can go into circulation a handful of years later.

 

Breaths are primarily lost through Returned (1/week) and Lifeless (1/Lifeless).  They are also lost when someone dies with their Breath.  

 

Generally speaking, the Returned aren't hugely relevant for this, as far as I can tell.  There's only a few dozen of them in Hallandren.  Assuming a 52 week year, you're only talking about a few thousand Breaths a year (Less than 2,000 Breaths for 3 dozen Returned per year).

 

The Lifeless army that defends Hallandren, which is apparently pretty formidable, is only 40,000 strong.  While that's a big investment of Breaths, its also relatively stable - Provided they're kept safe, they last multiple years and provide labour, policing, etc.  

 

The final Breath "sink" is death.  Anyone who dies accidentally will be a Breath lost, obviously.  But the question is, how many people die of old age or illness with their Breath intact?  We've seen at least one instance of death-bed Breath passing.  Is that the norm?  It would be quite a handy inheritance for your descendants.  Outside of the Idrians, who see their Breath as sacred, I think most people would be willing to pass on their Breath at the end of their life.  

 

T'Telir is a big city.  Unfortunately, I can't find a size for it - I've not seen any descriptions that would give us hard numbers.  But, it's big.  Big enough for people to disappear without a trace.  So, the question is, are the amount of Breaths in the "system" going up?  From these numbers, I think so.  Unless lots of people are dying with their Breaths intact, it seems quite likely that people are having babies quicker than they're spending Breaths. 

What does that mean for the future?  Is there a limit on the amount of Breath floating around, or could we reach a future where everyone is at the Tenth Heightening (Eventually.  Really, really eventually)?

 

More likely, is it leading to another Manywar?  As the amount of Breaths go up, the value of Lifeless goes down, enabling more powerful armies.  Similarly, Type IV creations can only exist in a world where people have lots of Breath to spend on Awakening.  

 

I came into this ready to argue that maybe Endowment was using Returned as a safety valve - Too many Breaths building up, time to introduce another Breath eater.  But at ~50 Breaths a year, they're just not very efficient.  Nightblood was the equivalent of feeding a Returned for 20 years.  And that was just creating him.  Drawing him is, if anything, more efficient.  

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Worth noting - breaths make you healthier. I would expect this fact to cause a lot of people to die with their breath. Ex: "with the extra health of my breath, I can kick this bout of flesh-eating bacteria and get back to providing for my family." Spoiler alert: it eats his flesh. He dies.

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Ahh, Pechvarry, even with flesh eating bacteria, you don't die immediately. If you can't kick it, you'll probably realize your death is coming and thus pass your Breath on to someone. Also, if you only have one breath, that's the baseline for Nalthians, right? Thus it probably doesn't "help" people heal better because it's just normal for them. They already understand what their Breath is capable of doing for them. If I have a flesh eating bacteria, I'd assume my normal Breath wouldn't be enough to heal me because I know its limitations. 

 

Tarion, I actually hadn't considered the implications of inheritance of Breath. It seems like it would be an amazing thing to pass on to your descendants and would be a great way to accumulate wealth for your family. But...then Breath would be relatively worthless over time because poorer people would now have (potential) access to more than just one Breath as is the normal for Nalthian society. This would cause inflation: the value of an individual Breath would decrease because what before one Breath was capable of, we'd now assume you'd have to trade more of your Breath to acquire.  Now, instead of one Breath being locked up in a lot of people, each family has at least one person with more than one Breath and all other members of the family have at least one (assuming they didn't sell it...because if they did they wouldn't get the same sized basket of food). 

 

Also, such an inheritance system could cause a lot of internal strife within families after a death. "Why did Jim Bob get all the Breath from dad? I deserve it more than him!"...which leads to fights and possibly betrayals and death. Which could be the end of the wealth of Breath because someone would rather die with it than cause such animosity. Unless, culturally, it was just expected you'd give your breath to your eldest child (heir) or through whatever other traditional system is in place.   

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Also, such an inheritance system could cause a lot of internal strife within families after a death. "Why did Jim Bob get all the Breath from dad? I deserve it more than him!"...which leads to fights and possibly betrayals and death. Which could be the end of the wealth of Breath because someone would rather die with it than cause such animosity. Unless, culturally, it was just expected you'd give your breath to your eldest child (heir) or through whatever other traditional system is in place.   

 

Unless the person knew how to split up the Breaths between however many heirs there are (admittedly, not a guarantee), or hired an Awakener to split them up equitably in the will.  In fact, once law firms come into being on Nalthis, I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't keep a few Awakeners on retainer, just for that sort of thing.  

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It has been while since I've read Warbreaker, so correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think it's possible to give some of your breath to another person with the "My breath to yours" command. I think it's an all or nothing scenario. 

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You can give away only some of your Breaths. It's hard to do, but it is possible. Denth told Vivenna it wasn't possible, but we know how trustworthy he is.

 

So now I'm imagining a nefarious Breath Production Plant, where there is a breeding program designed to produce babies who are encouraged to give their Breaths away when they get old enough.

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You can give away only some of your Breaths. It's hard to do, but it is possible. Denth told Vivenna it wasn't possible, but we know how trustworthy he is.

 

So now I'm imagining a nefarious Breath Production Plant, where there is a breeding program designed to produce babies who are encouraged to give their Breaths away when they get old enough.

On the slightly less horrific side, it could easily be the standard "fee" for an orphanage - You take in children who need someone to care for them, you raise them, and when they're ready to move on, they pay in Breath.  In terms of expenditure, it seems like a no brainer - Raising a child seems cheaper than Breath, especially once you've got a few kids on the go at once.  

 

Or how about the equivalent of Breath moneychangers?  Assuming that it's too hard to split your Breaths for the average Nalthian, it makes sense that people who could do it would try to profit from the situation. 

You give them all your Breath, they take a small fee, and then they split the remaining Breath however you want it (which could include giving one back to you, so you're not Drab).  Do that on your deathbed, and you get to pass on your Breaths to whoever you please relatively easily.  

 

This also goes a long way to solve the "What do Awakeners actually do with their powers" bit.  If high-end Awakeners basically function as Breath managers, moving it from person to person and splitting it precisely, then that's something they can do that actually requires them to be skilled Awakeners.  This would also require you to be a trusted member of society, which is something that powerful Awakeners clearly are.  

EDIT: Credit to Landis, who had basically the same idea and I overlooked it.

Edited by Tarion
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It has been while since I've read Warbreaker, so correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think it's possible to give some of your breath to another person with the "My breath to yours" command. I think it's an all or nothing scenario. 

 

The "my life to yours" command is all-or-nothing, but there are hacks you can use to be sure that not all your Breaths go into the recipient.  Brandon mentioned one in an annotation: Awaken something with however many Breaths you want to pass on (And there are one-breath Commands), store the rest in your cloak or something with a muddled Command, retrieve the Breaths from the Awakened object, and then do "My life to yours, my Breath become yours."  Once you've done that, retrieve your Breaths from the cloak (or something) with "Your Breath to mine" and you're back at square one minus whatever Breaths you've handed off to another person.  

Edited by Landis963
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Got it. That makes perfect sense. Awaken something that doesn't need all your Breath, then give the remaining Breath to someone else. Then get your Breath back from the Awakened object. That is a convenient hack. I like it. 

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I really like the idea of exploring Breath-to-money comparisons. It seems like there would be an interesting sort of economy to include both things. We know that a lot of poor people are more or less forced to sell off their Breaths as children, but we don't know exactly where that poverty line lies. How often would one see a Drab in the middle class? Does selling your Breath to the Court of Gods get you more or less money than selling it elsewhere? (I realize that we don't have answers for this, but it's fun to play with!)

 

I guess the interesting part is that it's transferable Investiture that is distinct from money, but valuable, as opposed to Roharan spheres, where the two are much more intertwined.

 

(But... Investiture literally falls from the sky there, and sphere value should appreciate with the return of KR and surgebinders.... And now I feel like someone should offer a class on comparative Cosmere economics... O.o) 

 

On the flipside, it would be interesting to see how someone might run a Breath bank, like Tarion said. How much would you allow your various 'bankers' to hold? What protections to you supply, and what incentives against theft? How much do you pay them not to risk their cache by Awakening? As was mentioned above, the idea of Breath inheritance seems likely to happen, especially among the upper class. And that's another thing... how bit is the disparity in Breaths among the classes, compared to basic money?

 

Right, I'm gonna go pin yarn to maps, or something equally conspiracy-nutty now...

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Also, if you only have one breath, that's the baseline for Nalthians, right? Thus it probably doesn't "help" people heal better because it's just normal for them. They already understand what their Breath is capable of doing for them. If I have a flesh eating bacteria, I'd assume my normal Breath wouldn't be enough to heal me because I know its limitations.

Look at it from the other direction: people on Earth hope for a recovery. We get bed rest while our body fights off infection, or go to the hospital. We think we can just hang in there. If we COULD detach a chunk of our health, that's the time where conventional wisdom would say "not an option." In fact, giving up your breath at a time like that could be viewed like suicide; being complacent in it or receiving the breath could be like euthenasia.

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So, I started the previous thread on the economics of Breath a while ago - it's just such a cool topic to think about. Of all the systems Brandon's done (or anyone's done, for that matter) Awakening is really original in that everyone has the same innate capacity for magic, but the catch is that for any one person to have a useful amount of raw material, it has to be concentrated at the expense of others. So many social ramifications....

 

Anyway - my original thread dealt mostly with how much money, roughly, a Breath was worth, and I think we agreed it would be somewhere around 5-10k or so. Meaning, a lot of money to the average person, especially someone who's poor, but not a life-changing amount for someone who is middle class, and certainly not much for someone who is rich. But in terms of inheritance....I would imagine that it would be extremely taboo for someone to die without passing on their Breath; there could well be religious prohibitions on it. Since Breath is most useful when it's concentrated, I would think that most families would pass Breath to the eldest child, to avoid splitting it up. It takes a serious amount of Breath to be able to practice Awakening, so only really wealthy people could afford to study it. This would also mean that most Awakeners wouldn't have much motivation to find practical (or at least, economically practical) uses for it, since they're generally independently wealthy already. 

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Anyway - my original thread dealt mostly with how much money, roughly, a Breath was worth, and I think we agreed it would be somewhere around 5-10k or so. Meaning, a lot of money to the average person, especially someone who's poor, but not a life-changing amount for someone who is middle class, and certainly not much for someone who is rich. But in terms of inheritance....I would imagine that it would be extremely taboo for someone to die without passing on their Breath; there could well be religious prohibitions on it. Since Breath is most useful when it's concentrated, I would think that most families would pass Breath to the eldest child, to avoid splitting it up. It takes a serious amount of Breath to be able to practice Awakening, so only really wealthy people could afford to study it. This would also mean that most Awakeners wouldn't have much motivation to find practical (or at least, economically practical) uses for it, since they're generally independently wealthy already. 

 

Except, of course, if they died in a way that is statistically likely to produce a Returned: died in battle, died rescuing another, that sort of thing.  I wonder how the Returned would be treated in this hypothetical Nalthian future-state (because I didn't see any banks during the events of Warbreaker), especially since they only have one, supercharged Breath to pass on, whose power expends itself when restoring someone to the Spiritual default.  (Assuming of course that the local sect of the Iridescent Tones doesn't keep a few around as a paper pantheon)  

 

EDIT: Maybe soldiers are required by law to only have one Breath on them at time of enlistment, which would mitigate the Breath loss from fatalities but still keep the possibility of soldiers Returning open.  

 

EDIT EDIT: Or maybe they'd just use Lifeless.  It seems neater.  

Edited by Landis963
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Got it. That makes perfect sense. Awaken something that doesn't need all your Breath, then give the remaining Breath to someone else. Then get your Breath back from the Awakened object. That is a convenient hack. I like it.

Or do what Vasher did. He uses that command a lot and yet hasn't died so far. You can definitely simply withhold breath through some method.

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Look at it from the other direction: people on Earth hope for a recovery. We get bed rest while our body fights off infection, or go to the hospital. We think we can just hang in there. If we COULD detach a chunk of our health, that's the time where conventional wisdom would say "not an option." In fact, giving up your breath at a time like that could be viewed like suicide; being complacent in it or receiving the breath could be like euthenasia.

So, technically, a Breath is not health. It just helps you stay healthier because I'd argue it's similar to being part of your immune system. You get rid of it, you're immune system is repressed. That's what happens when someone becomes Drab. 

 

I also don't agree with your assessment of giving up your Breath as suicide or euthanasia. If someone has a terminal illness is the US, a lot of people "pull the plug". It doesn't make economic sense to keep a person alive via a machine if they're going to die anyway. Keeping someone alive for an extended period of time costs quite a lot of money, and frankly (and in my opinion), is quite selfish. If you're keeping the person alive long enough to say goodbye to friends and loved ones, that's one thing, but if you're keeping them alive for the sake of life but they're suffering and can't live a normal life...what's the humane thing to do? That's why a lot of people decide to turn off the machines. And usually, when this happens, people don't die right away. Their body just starts to shut down on it's own, but not immediately as if it were a light switch. To ease this time period, doctors can and do prescribe medicines to relieve pain and prevent any additional suffering. 

 

For example, my girlfriend's uncle recently passed away after having a brain infection. He was being kept alive with machines because the medicine wasn't able to kill the infection, and even if it had been able to fight it he'd be brain damaged and no longer able to communicate with anybody. His family made the difficult decision, based upon his wishes in his will, to take him off of life support. The doctor's didn't want him to suffer so they gave him some morphine and let him pass on his own. Two days after being taken off of life support he died. But before that, his entire family had time to pay their last respects, in honor of his memory and life. In a few cases, while holding his hand, he squeezed back as they talked to him. 

 

If we think about it on Nalthis, if the person is terminal, and their single Breath can't save them, why not bequeath it to someone else? You won't die immediately, most likely, and I'd argue it's like pulling the plug in our world. That person is going to die eventually, whether or not they give someone their Breath. So bequeath it to someone, especially if they're family. 

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Very good point - Breath is NOT health in the way that Feruchemical gold is. The whole point behind Breath is that each individual one is a very tiny, incremental amount of Investiture, hardly noticeable. Only in larger quantities does it start to have a "magic" effect. I think there was WoB at some point that each Heightening increases a person's average lifespan by about 10 years. At the 4th Heightening one becomes immune to disease, but that takes a thousand Breaths. It takes two thousand to stop aging. 

 

Same with Awakening. All the basic Commands we see Vivenna use require dozens to a couple hundred Breaths. Even Vasher, using a straw humanoid enhanced with his own hair, needs 25 or so in the intro. So your average Joe Awakener really won't be able to do much at all without at least the First Heightening, and more likely the Second. The single-Breath Lifeless Command is a major exception, but it requires certain preparation of the body and probably a lot of mental practice; I would bet that only very experienced Awakeners are good enough to make it work. So practically speaking, it's not really an exception. 

 

Overall, this tells us that it's large concentrations of Breath that will likely be important enough to conserve. Poor families might well bequeath their single Breath, but it would take dozens to make a significant concentration, and even then whoever received it wouldn't be able to do much Awakening with it.

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Overall, this tells us that it's large concentrations of Breath that will likely be important enough to conserve. Poor families might well bequeath their single Breath, but it would take dozens to make a significant concentration, and even then whoever received it wouldn't be able to do much Awakening with it.

Ah, but that means that they'll probably sell it. 

If you don't feel much difference between one and two Breaths, and each Breath is valuable, it makes sense for you to sell it off.  So the more Breaths build up in the rich Awakeners.  

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Ah, but that means that they'll probably sell it. 

If you don't feel much difference between one and two Breaths, and each Breath is valuable, it makes sense for you to sell it off.  So the more Breaths build up in the rich Awakeners.  

 

Exactly! I would imagine that most poor people would have sold their Breath at some point. For the middle class, it might be a sign of status to have one Breath; shows that you aren't poor. Beyond that, I would think that Breath gets concentrated somewhere around the First Heightening for the wealthy, and then around the Second Heightening and beyond for those who are truly rich, or for professional Awakeners. 

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If every poor person did sell their Breath, then there would be a lot of Drab's about. Vivenna doesn't really notice other Drabs and thinks that Jewels is the anomaly. This makes me assume that most people don't sell their Breath and probably keep it as "savings for a rainy day" in case they are really desperate for money.

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Just have a hospital where the doctor gives the sick person 1000 breaths and then takes them back when the person is better

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On 12/11/2016 at 10:44 AM, PewterAGoldF said:

Just have a hospital where the doctor gives the sick person 1000 breaths and then takes them back when the person is better

But as we saw in the very opening scenes of Warbreaker, "taking Breath" from someone is not possible. If unwilling, they have to be... Encouraged... To give it up with the Command, "My life to yours, my breath become yours".

I think a hospital that gave people 1,000 Breaths and expected them to just pass them back to the clerk by the door on the way out would soon be 1,000 Breaths poorer. If not via a scammy patient, then simply by having the clerk by the door eventually give in to temptation.

 

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55 minutes ago, robardin said:

But as we saw in the very opening scenes of Warbreaker, "taking Breath" from someone is not possible. If unwilling, they have to be... Encouraged... To give it up with the Command, "My life to yours, my breath become yours".

I think a hospital that gave people 1,000 Breaths and expected them to just pass them back to the clerk by the door on the way out would soon be 1,000 Breaths poorer. If not via a scammy patient, then simply by having the clerk by the door eventually give in to temptation.

 

True, you can't forcefully take Breaths from someone, but you can convince them to give it up with torture, as we saw with Vahr. As such, this idea isn't that unreasonable as you just have guards watching the people with a thousand Breaths and if they refuse to give them then you just walk them off to the dungeons.

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Here's an interesting thought: we see increasingly difficult Commands being possible, or Commands becoming instinctive, with higher and higher Heightenings. Including the power to break Commands and to override Commands in Invested objects (the Eighth Heightening - as far as we know, only currently held by Susebron the God-King, and possibly only ever by Shashara and Zahaladasheralaxin the Warbreaking, Peacegiving Strifelover of a bad ardent).

The most basic Command of all is the one to give up your own Breath to another: "my life to yours, my breath become yours". Even a one-breath baseline Nalthian is pre-loaded with enough Breath to do this. So, what if a high-level Command akin to Breaking or Overriding existing Commands... Was a Breath-stealing one, like "your life to mine, your Breath become mine"?

Maybe that's how you get from the ~8,000 Breaths needed for the Eighth Heightening - already a massive collection - to the FIFTY THOUSAND PLUS Breaths that are in Peacegiver's Treasure, which remember, is largely what was LEFT OVER after creating Kalad's Phantom's and ending the Manywar.  "Kalad" actually had way MORE Breaths than that when the war began. And Shashara even more, to Awaken Nightblood, and to propose making more like him (and I doubt she gave her Breath to Vasher when he killed her).

It is pretty difficult to acquire huge amounts of Breath when each "rolling transaction" must be individually voluntary. It's easier to imagine if (as has been debated) Vasher and/or Shashara could hop to Roshar and collect Stormlight to use as Breath back on Nalthis. Or, if they could just out and out suck it out of people at will after a certain point.

Edited by robardin
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