My recent posts here have dealt with my current project of putting together a book of short works of literature that have interesting economic ideas embedded in them. I've gotten suggestions both here and in response to emails that I sent to people who I thought might help. Some of the suggestions I expect to use. But my reaction to most of them was that they were not what I was looking for. The purpose of this post is to explain why. Part of doing so is looking at the difference between the project I am planning and the somewhat similar, but I think fundamentally different, project that Michael Watts produced in The Literary Book of Economics.
What is Economics?
Probably the most common definition is "the science of allocating scarce resources to diverse ends." Watts offers Marshall's definition: "The study of mankind in the ordinary business of life." Neither of those is what I think of as economics. Still less is it the study of the economy, which I suspect would come closest to what most people think the word means.
To me, economics is that approach to understanding behavior that starts from the assumption that individuals have objectives and tend to take the acts that best achieve them. That is what economists mean by "rationality," and it is the assumption of rationality that is, in my view, the distinguishing characteristic of economics. What I am looking for are works that tell us something interesting about the implications of that assumption.
Someone at some point suggested Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. It is an interesting book, although much too long for my purposes. But what makes it interesting, economically speaking, is not the vivid picture of poverty in the period between the wars but particular details relevant to implications of rational behavior.
I can give, by memory, an example. Orwell observed waiters in a fancy Paris restaurant, out of sight of the diners, spitting in the dishes they were going to serve. In an idealized market context, the waiter would never spit in the dish unless the value to him of doing so was more than the disvalue to the patron he was serving, which is unlikely. But throw in the inability of either the patrons or the waiter's employers to monitor the waiter's behavior and any benefit to the waiter of expressing his hostility is a sufficient incentive to make him do it. That suggests the further point that, when you cannot monitor someone's behavior, his preferences matter--you want the job he is doing for you to be done by someone whose preferences are close enough to yours so that he will want to do what you would want him to do–even if nobody is watching.
Economics is not the study of the economy. A picture of poverty, or unemployment, or wealth, or economic growth, however accurate and vivid, does not in itself teach you any economics. A story such as Poul Anderson's "Margin of Profit," which deals with a wholly fictional future, does, because it demonstrates in that world an important implication of rationality that holds in our world as well–that in order to prevent someone from doing something you do not want him to do it is not necessary to make it impossible, merely unprofitable.
How to Learn
One difference between my project and Watts' is that he includes things that are not, by my definition, part of economics, along with others that are. The other difference is that most of what he includes are not complete works but excerpts from much longer pieces.
I can imagine an economics professor reading through The Literary Book of Economics in search of things he can use in his teaching. But I find it hard to imagine anyone else doing so on his own initiative, merely because he enjoyed reading it. There is a reason why a book is the length it is; a novel is not, with rare exceptions, a series of short stories. I conclude that most of the people reading Watts' book, most of the people it was written for, will be students reading it because their professor told them to. And, judging by my experience of students over the years, many of the students told to read it won't.
That fits the pattern of most modern schooling at all levels. Someone else decides what you should learn, tells you what you must do to learn it, and makes some attempt to make sure you follow his instructions. It is not a model I think highly of. A much superior model in my view, if you can pull it off, is to get someone to learn something primarily because he finds it interesting. The best way of doing that is to provide students with things to read that are worth reading on their own, not things they read only because they are ordered to. Not even things they read only because they think the labor of reading them will pay off in future benefit.
That view of education is why both children of my present marriage were unschooled
. It is also why all of my nonfiction books, with the partial exception of Price Theory
, were targeted at the proverbial intelligent layman. They can be, and sometimes are, used as textbooks, but they were written with the assumption that if the reader did not find a chapter worth finishing he was likely not to finish it.
It is also why I am not looking for literary excerpts that can be used to demonstrate economic points, unless the excerpt can stand on its own as a work of literature.