Sunday, April 02, 2017

Again Fictional Economics

A while back, I put up a post about an idea for a book, a collection of works of literature that taught economic ideas. Thanks to comments on that post, my list has expanded from two works to four, with a few other possibles. The purpose of this post is to make what I am looking for clearer and ask for more suggestions.

The plan is for a book consisting of works of literature, probably stories and poems, that are good enough to be worth reading for entertainment but that in addition embody interesting economic insights. Since it is to be a collection, the individual pieces have to be reasonably short—a novel would not fit. In my experience, good fiction writers usually write better fiction than even good economists, so I am not looking for something written by an economist to teach in fictional form, such as Looking Backwards by Hazlitt or Murder at the Margin and its sequels by Breit and Elzinga writing as Marshall Jevons–and in any case, all of those are too long for my purposes.

My present list:

"Margin of Profit" by Poul Anderson

A science fiction story whose point is that, in order to stop someone from doing something, you don't have to make it impossible, just unprofitable.
"The Peace of Dives" by Rudyard Kipling

An allegory in verse arguing that economic interdependence brings peace.
"So I make a jest of Wonder, and a mock of Time and Space,
"The roofless Seas an hostel, and the Earth a market-place,
  "Where the anxious traders know
  "Each is surety for his foe,
"And none may thrive without his fellows' grace."
--> "The Cambist and Lord Iron" by Daniel Abraham

A short story about prices--of an obscure currency, two men's lives, and a soul. 

--> "Business as Usual DuringAlterations" by Ralph Williams

A short story about why matter duplicators would not crash a market economy. 

Other suggestions? An excerpt from a longer work isn't impossible, but it has to stand on its own, be worth reading as a story. 

P.S. I think I have one more. "The Jigsaw Man" by Larry Niven. The central point is the same that I later and independently published in the  JPE as "Why Not Hang Them All: The Virtues of Inefficient Punishment."

A commenter pointed me at The Literary Book of Economics by Michael W Watts, which seems to be a project along the same lines as mine; I've ordered a copy. From descriptions I could find, it's a lot of relatively short excerpts from works of literature, each  making some economic point. I'm thinking in terms of many fewer pieces, probably each complete. 


At 4:11 PM, April 02, 2017, Blogger Casey B. Mulligan said...

Have you seen "The Literary Book of Economics" by Michael W Watts?

"seventy-eight selections from classic and contemporary fiction, drama, poetry, and prose to give flesh to more than twenty major economic concepts, issues, and themes."

At 5:57 PM, April 02, 2017, Blogger Wirkman Virkkala said...

Does the public choicery of "An Inspired Lobbyist," by J. W. DeForest, count?

See Atlantic Montly, December 1872, reprinted in the fourth volume of Stories by American Authors, Charles Scribner's Sons (1901).

At 8:50 AM, April 03, 2017, Anonymous David Wall said...

There is a lovely little story I've been trying to track down since your last query, about the Soviets winning the Cold War. The idea is that in the story's universe, for vague reasons, central planning does work better. Various other things fall out of whatever causes this difference; I remember in particular that a collection of even a million fast computers is never quite as capable as a single supercomputer. The characters speculate about how the world might have been different in the impossible world where self-organizing bottom-up economies happened to be more effective than principled unitary top-down economies.

I'm thinking this was Turtledove, but I have not been able to put my finger on it. I feel sure it's in one of the books I own physically. I'll keep looking unless this rings a bell in somebody's mind.

At 9:47 AM, April 03, 2017, Blogger Claudio said...

Timon from Shakespeare.

At 12:32 PM, April 03, 2017, Blogger technicalities said...

Few good ones here

At 12:32 PM, April 03, 2017, Blogger Claudio said...

If comics could be a choice, the Carl Barks' The Great Duckburg Frog-Jumping Contest (Donald Duck) could be a suggestion, I think. ( About my suggestion, Timon, I am currently writing a short essay about the economics in this Shakespeare play. I think it's really interesting. Anyway, my preferences...

At 12:44 PM, April 03, 2017, Blogger David Friedman said...


I hadn't seen that. It sounds like the same idea as mine, although a different selection.

Judging by a review I found, he is working mostly with excerpts. While I might use some, I was thinking mostly of complete pieces people would read for their own sake. Ideally, as with most of my nonfiction, it would be a book that would be used both in college courses and by people reading it on their own.

At 1:07 PM, April 03, 2017, Blogger David Friedman said...


It's an entertaining story and I hadn't seen it before, but I don't think it works for my purposes. For those interested, it's webbed at:

At 6:01 PM, April 03, 2017, Blogger Stevo Darkly said...

David Wall said: "There is a lovely little story I've been trying to track down since your last query, about the Soviets winning the Cold War. The idea is that in the story's universe, for vague reasons, central planning does work better. Various other things fall out of whatever causes this difference; I remember in particular that a collection of even a million fast computers is never quite as capable as a single supercomputer. The characters speculate about how the world might have been different in the impossible world where self-organizing bottom-up economies happened to be more effective than principled unitary top-down economies."

The first half of that description sounds somewhat familiar. Or else it reminds me of another story with similar themes. The short story that I half-remember is that the Soviets win the Cold War because:

- The West uses a competitive market system to produce things like toilet paper, but monopolistic government-controlled system to produce things like weapon systems and space exploration technology.

- But in the USSR, it was (in the story, at least) the other way around. And deliberately so. And therefore the USSR falls behind in "trivial" things like toilet paper product, but triumphs as a space-colonizing military power.

I also seem to vaguely recall there was some discussion of the USSR having a superior understanding of business cycles and using this knowledge to induce the USA to massively "malinvest" its resources in the wrong things, causing the American economy to collapse. (Or I might be confusing two different stories here.)

This might have been a story I read sometime years ago in some random issue of Analog magazine, in which case I will never find it again.

However, I seem to recall that I might have read it in one of the several anthologies I own that were edited by Jerry Pournelle -- either the "There Will Be War" series or the "Imperial Stars" series. I will have to take a look through these and see if I can turn it up.

At 7:45 PM, April 03, 2017, Blogger David said...

This may not match your criteria, but I've always enjoyed The Calf Path by Sam Foss. It is a good illustration of path dependence and emergent order.

You can find it here:

At 6:47 AM, April 05, 2017, Blogger Unknown said...

Every time I read "The Peace of Dives" I am reminded of Norman Angell's "The Great Illusion" from about the same time period, saying roughly the same thing ("economic interdependence makes war unprofitable and therefore it will not happen" ... and remembering that World War I came about not so very long after.

At 7:57 AM, April 05, 2017, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's another Poul Anderson, unfortunately, but "Starfog" (one of this year's nominees for the Libertarian Futurist Society's Hall of Fame) is a good story about how to produce public goods without centralized authority.

At 3:14 PM, April 05, 2017, Blogger David Friedman said...

David: The calf path is entertaining, but I don't think it works for my purposes.

At 8:08 PM, April 05, 2017, Anonymous Chris Hibbert said...

Unfortunately, this is a subplot from a novel. In Heinlein's "Time Enough for Love", Lazarus Long is a colonist on New Hope, and founds a bank among many other activities. He correctly predicts that eventually the local government will want to nationalize the bank, and when the time is getting close, he stops making new loans, and reduces the bank's exposure. As cash gets turned into the bank, he starts burning the bills rather than storing them in the vault. When the day comes to nationalize the bank, the city fathers discover that the vault is empty. As Lazarus explains, any notes outstanding are liabilities not assets, so he wanted to reduce the amount the government could steal. The final confrontation is explicit enough to be clear, but you may not decide it stands on its own well enough. In my copy, the denouement of this subplot starts around page 269, and continues through 273.

At 8:18 PM, April 05, 2017, Anonymous Chris Hibbert said...

And in the context of Scrooge McDuck, Phil Salin wrote an excellent review of the libertarian aspects of McDuck that was reprinted in the LFS newsletter. Salin also pointed out that Nevil Shute's work had a lot to recommend it. Unfortunately, I can't recall anything that was short and particularly pithy on economics.

At 6:59 AM, April 06, 2017, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you ever run across "A !Tangled Web," by Joe Haldeman? It's been a while, but I recall it as having a scene where the protagonist offers to trade a commodity that has zero value, finite value, and infinite value . . . and it was remarkably funny.

"Business as Usual, During Alterations" was an entertaining reread, and I think it fits your criteria, but the version you linked to seems to have John W. Campbell's editorial blurb as the first paragraph. I don't think that adds anything to the story. . . .

At 3:34 PM, April 07, 2017, Blogger chriscal12 said...

You may have already considered and rejected Rand's Anthem as a possibility. It certainly dramatizes the costs of burdensome regulations on technological improvements. Think of the way the candle was invented and approved by a large committee, and only then approved for use, while the lightbulb was rejected out of hand.

And this may fall afoul dog your desire for fiction writers, but some of Bastiat's short pieces are genuinely entertaining, like the petition of the candle makers.

I seem to be on a candle kick.

At 5:36 PM, April 07, 2017, Blogger The Cynical Bard said...

It's apparently no longer available for free online, but Daniel Hood's 1993 short story "The Wealth of Kingdoms (An Inflationary Tale)" is explicitly economic, if very rudimentary.

At 7:09 AM, April 10, 2017, Blogger Unknown said...

On the impact of scarcity, there is the tale in Livy that the Sibyl offered nine books of oracles to one of the early kings of Rome, at a high price. He turned them down. She burned three and offered him the remainder at the same price. He turned them down again. She burned three more and offered the last three to him at the same price.

That time he paid, and the Sibylline Oracles stayed in Rome for a thousand years, occasionally consulted by decree of the Senate.

At 11:30 AM, April 10, 2017, Blogger Walt said...

Someone must have already mention Maugham's The Verger.

At 12:48 PM, April 10, 2017, Blogger Nancy Lebovitz said...

"The Big Pat Boom" by Damon Knight.

"Compounded Interest" by Mack Reynolds.

At 4:40 PM, April 10, 2017, Blogger David Friedman said...

Walter: You are the first one to mention "The Verger." A good story I hadn't read, and I think it might work for me. Thanks.

Nancy: "Compounded Interest" is a good story, but I don't think it works for my purposes. Also, ten percent is much too high for a real interest rate over a long period of time--one to two percent would be more plausible.

Thinking about it, it might work as a "list the things wrong with this story" story.

At 7:31 PM, April 19, 2017, Blogger Miguel Madeira said...

"Not the Running Type", a short story by Henry Slesar, adapted for TV in "Alfred Hitchcock Presents":

At 1:44 PM, June 01, 2017, Blogger Andy said...

Is that really the URL you meant to post for The Jigsaw Man? It has the string "porn recommender" in it and my firewall says it's malicious.

At 7:23 AM, June 02, 2017, Blogger David Friedman said...


My software does not say it is malicious, and it does go to the right story.


Post a Comment

<< Home