Thursday, December 28, 2006

Wanted: Economics Stories

There have been a number of attempts by economists to write fiction that teaches economics, including at least one series of mysteries. None, in my opinion, works very well.

It occurred to me some time ago that a better approach might be to look for works not by economists but by good writers that happened to contain important economic ideas. So far I have only two candidates. One is a short story: "Margin of Profit" by Poul Anderson. The other is a poem, "The Peace of Dives" by Kipling. They are both excellent works of their kind and each is primarily about economics, broadly defined. The point of Poul Anderson's story is that, in order to keep people from doing things you don't want them to do, you don't have to make doing them impossible, merely unprofitable. Kipling's poem is an allegory describing how economic interdependence leads to peace.

If I had a lot more pieces of the same sort I could create a collection to be used as suplementary reading in economics courses—much more interesting and enjoyable reading than most textbooks. Unfortunately, I don't.

Hence this post. I am looking for suggestions for good works of literature—poems and cartoons also qualify—that succeed in making an important economic point.


Bill Smith said...

Professor Friedman,

I don't know if this is sufficiently explicit in its economic lesson but I'd like to nominate Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron."

Bergeron lives in a nightmare world that is supposed to be a utopia. The government tries to make everyone equal. Sounds nice, right?

But it's easier to make people equal by impoverishing the rich as it is by elevating the poor. In this story, beautiful people are uglified, swift people are slowed, etc., etc.

Actually, I can think of an even better work that makes the same point. The rock band Rush (a bunch of Objectivists, really) has a song called "The Trees" about the fight between the short Maples and the tall Oaks.

The last verse goes like this:

Now there's no more Oak Oppression/
They passed a Noble Law/
And the trees are all kept equal/
By hatchet, axe, and saw


How about them for some unintended consequences?

Full lyrics here. (Scroll down)

Harrison Bergeron is here.

Anonymous said...

Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle books make a great, if lengthy, introduction to economic history. In the Baroque Cycle, the typical Stephensonian hacker-hero persona is split out over a number of different characters, all of whom are involved in ingenious manipulations of a variety of economic and monetary systems.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... Gordon Dickson wrote something that cited the "Law of Least Effort". Now I'll have an itch in the memory until I find it.

Anonymous said...

have you seen The Literary Book of Economics, edited by Watts? I've perused it and it seems to be along the lines of what you are looking for. Here's the Table of Contents:
Comus 4
"The Road Not Taken" 7
"The Grumbling Hive" 9
Wuthering Heights 21
Atlas Shrugged 22
The Book of Merlyn 24
"The Parable of the Water Tank" 28
Doctor Faustus 34
"Mending Wall" 40
The Perfect Storm 42
Ride With Me, Mariah Montana 44
God's Little Acre 50
The Grapes of Wrath 52
Winesburg, Ohio 57
East of Eden 59
Spoon River Anthology 61
Sister Carrie 64
Travels with Charley 69
The Merchant of Venice 76
Epistle III 79
Epistle IV 81
"Prince of Peace" 82
"Tin Lizzie" 83
Catch-22 89
Banker 95
All My Sons 97
Songs of a Savoyard 105
The Octopus 106
Arcadia 107
Journals 108
East of Eden 109
The Poor-Devil Author 112
Dancing at the Rascal Fair 117
The Perfect Storm 120
The Joy Luck Club 127
The Pearl 129
The Robber Bride 138
Into Thin Air 143
Imitations of Horace 145
Travels with Charley 147
Gargantua and Pantagruel 148
Hard Times 150
Into Thin Air 152
The God of Small Things 153
The Merchant of Venice 156
The Jungle 167
The Cancer Ward 169
Les Miserables 173
Democracy 178
Good As Gold 183
Autobiography 189
The Great Gatsby 194
"Something For Everyone" 195
Into Thin Air 200
The Perfect Storm 201
The Road to Wigan Pier 205
"Song to the Men of England" 212
In Dubious Battle 214
God's Little Acre 215
The God of Small Things 220
Travels with Charley 224
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 230
Dancing at the Rascal Fair 233
Troilus and Cressida 243
Journals 245
The Road to Wigan Pier 246
The Octopus 249
A Moveable Feast 253
Tobacco Road 254
"Harrison Bergeron" 257
Cold Mountain 264
The Black Obelisk 267
Faust 270
"Money" 274
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court 277
Bucking the Sun 282
The Prisoner of Second Avenue 285
"Petition of the Manufacturers of Candles" 297
"A Modest Proposal" 302
"A Hero's Death" 304

Brian Dunbar said...

David Louis Edelmean - Infoquake.

It's science fiction, about an guy running a business a few centuries from now. I'm 1/2 through the book and it's _good_.

The Owner said...

Don't forget Bastiat's Parable of the Broken Window!

Steve Sailer said...

Tamara Janowitz's "Slaves of New York" is about a little understood effect of rent control: among couples living together, the person whose name is on the lease of the rent-controlled apartment can cheat on and abuse his or her lover because the other person can't afford to move out, since they'll never be able to find such a cheap apartment again. (The movie version with Bernadette Peters leaves out all mention of rent control so the plot is baffling to those who haven't read the book.)

Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" has a rent-control theme as well. It includes the classic line, "Nobody in Sicily hates anybody more than a rent-controlled landlord hates his tenants."

Anonymous said...

"The Choice" and "The Invisible Heart" by Russ Roberts.


Anonymous said...

There is a German short story "Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral" ("Anecdote concerning the lowering of productivity") by Heinrich Böll. Apparently there is an English translation in the book "The stories of Heinrich Böll" (ISBN 039451405X).

Böll was a leftist author. However, the story is quite charming and amusing. Basically it's about a fisherman in a small village who is approached by a tourist. This tourist challenges the fisherman to not just hang around but keep fishing all day. The story then develops around the tourist's visions about a great fishing business the fisherman might have one day if he would just work harder.

The punchline is that in the end, the only motivation the tourist can give is that the fisherman could "just hang around all day" once he became a successful businessman, and the fisherman just replies that that is just what he is doing already.

John Fast said...

I'll add Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, Henry Hazlitt's Time Will Run Back, and practically everything in Anderson's "Polesotechnic League" series, especially "A Sun Invisible."

Plus Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon and For Us, The Living for explanations of Social Credit.

Anonymous said...

There's a great spoof of Miss American Pie here:

When I teach my high school economics class about money and monetary policy (and trade, and debt, etc.) I'm going to use it.

Ah, here it is in full. Enjoy!

A long, long time ago
I can still remember
How the dollar used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
I'd sell the currency of France
And, maybe, I'd be happy for awhile.
But all our spending made me shiver
With every T-bill we deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn't take one more step.
I can't remember if I cried
When I heard our politicians lied
But something touched me deep inside
The day the dollar died.
So bye-bye, dollar assets good-bye
Sold my Chevy at the levee
cause my pension ran dry.
Them good old boys were drinking sake to try
Singing this will be the day that it died
This i'll be the day that it died.
Did you write
Or have you a Yen to fall in love
If Japan will tell you so?
Now, do you believe in oil and coal
Can China fill our import hole
And can we teach them how to grow real slow?
Well I know the country's fit and trim
ause the jobs are in the Pacific Rim.
We all knew savers lose
Man, I dug not having to choose.
We were living off the almighty buck
We got their goods and they were stuck
But I knew we were out of luck
The day the dollar died.

Now for ten years we were sure we owned
All the stocks and bonds and mortgage loans
But that's not how it's gonna be.
When we've spent it all like kings and queens
In clothes we bought from The Philippines
The Asians pick the reserve currency.
Oh, and while the king was looking down,
Their central bankers came to town.
Our stocks and bonds were spurned
Those dollars were returned.
And while unions filled their books with Marx
The President said drill in parks
Our thermostats froze in the dark
The day the dollar died.
We were singing
Bye-bye, dollar assets good-bye

Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The equity is gone from your leveraged shelter
Fannie and Freddie are falling fast.
Crash, they landed, but in a new class
Full faith and credit have long since passed
With Congress, in denial, out of gas.
Now the Wal-Mart there has cheap perfume
With imports filling every room.
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance.
The consumers tried to take the field
The central banks refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the dollar died?
We started singing

Oh, and there we were all in one place
Our credit rating in disgrace
With no time left to start again.
So come on: Al be nimble, Al be quick!
Al, cut rates by 50 ticks
cause credit is the debtor's only friend.
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No congressman in hell
Could buy what he would sell.
And as the rates climbed high into the night
To stem the U.S. asset flight
The IMF said, Yes, that's right
The day the dollar died
They were singing

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her if we still could choose
But she just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the Medicare store
Where we had spent our dollars years before
But the man there said those dollars wouldn't pay.
And in the streets the children screamed
The seniors cried and the workers steamed
But not a word was spoken
The commitments all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
Faber, Rogers, and Bill Gross
Were at the forex trading post
The day the dollar died.
And they were singing

Anonymous said...

For kids/young adults, the work of Gordon Korman fits the bill. Many of his books are libertarian, although subtle enough that I didn't notice when I was young. One of them, "No Coins Please", is more explicitly about economics, or rather commerce, than the others.

John Fast said...

A while ago -- I think it was in 2005 -- I saw a cartoon drawing which showed a starving third-world child with a begging bowl, and a smug, self-satisfied figure labeled "Anti-Globalization advocates" was telling him, "Congratulations, we've prevented you from being exploited by taking away your job," or something to that effect. It's a beautiful economics-related cartoon.

Unfortunately, I lost the URL in a hard drive crash! I would dearly love to find it again and put it up on my office door at the university.

Lester Hunt said...

If you would consider texts that might be useful in a negative sort of way, you might look into "Looking Backwards," a fictional defense of (as I interpret it) totallitarian socialism. Many people have said it was the second most influencial American book of the nineteenth century, after Uncle Tom's Cabin. Students can learn something from figuring out why the author, Edward Bellamy, is all wrong.

Luke7777777 said...

Neal Stephenson's "THE GREAT SIMOLEON CAPER" about introducing e-currency invisible to the government and infoanarchy. A masterpiece.
Available in html at:
In pdf at:

chriscal12 said...

There is an episode of The Simpsons that illustrates the concept of moral hazard pretty well, at least as I understand it. The Simpsons go to Canada, Homer walks carelessly into the street, and someone tells him to be careful. Homer says that he doesn't need to be careful since Canada has universal health insurance. Then a car hits him.

Anonymous said...

Anthony Trollope: Why Frau Frohmann Raised Her Prices.

Not up with his best writing, but may fill your needs.

Anonymous said...

A lot of the discussions in _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ illustrate market transactions for all kinds of things that most people assume are government services. But I don't know that any of them work as specific lessons on some idea in economics.

John Markley said...

John C. Wright's Golden Age trilogy, about a far-future society where humans coexist with superpoweful A.I.s, has some stuff about comparative advantage.

Michael Roberts said...

Ok, my two picks are:

Islandia (for adults, it's LONG)
The Girl Who Owned a City (for kids)


Anonymous said...

A Deadly Indifference by Marshall Jevons.

Patrick Sullivan said...

I concur with the person who recommended Russ Roberts' books. 'The Choice' is the best explication of Ricardo's Difficult Idea I've ever read.

There's a film, starring Christopher Plummer (iirc), of Harrison Bergeron which is that rarity; a movie better than the story it was made from.

And, from a non-fiction book, Howard Schultz's 'Pour Your Heart Into It'. The story of how he went from being the son of two people without high school diplomas, living in the housing projects of Brooklyn, to being the entrepreneur who made a fortune from coffee.

It's a detailed explanation of how businesses are built from the ground up. It's the only business biography I've ever read that is worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

There is a "new" Robert A. Heinlein novel that explicates, to the best of my memory, a future utopia. It even has a appendix to more formally explain the economics involved.

It was an early work written in the 40s but not published until 2004. Probably with good reason.

Oh ya, the title is _For us, the living : a comedy of customs_

Anonymous said...

Cory Doctorow recently posted about an NPR story about economics in fiction, on

I'd second the recommendation for Ken Schooland's book; I picked up a copy at MPS 2006 in Guatemala.

Anonymous said...

F. Paul Wilson's book, "An Enemy of the State" specifically uses the connection of money supply and inflation.

Unknown said...

Debt, money management,wealth/poverty cycles and ethics...The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant is great. The Gift of the Magi is also very interesting.