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Why Economics Appears in Literature and Drama
The central part of Alfred Marshall's famous definition of economics is "the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life." While some literature and drama deals with extraordinary people in extraordinary situations, ordinary people engaged in the ordinary business of life-including the rest of Marshall's definition, "the attainment and ... use of the material requisites of well-being"-make up a large part of what literary writers and critics often refer to as the human condition.
Like economists, literary writers-including novelists, dramatists, poets, and literary critics-often write about such topics as work, income, consumption, production, markets, trading, poverty, unemployment, money, prices, inflation, businesspeople, profits, and government programs and policies that make an economic system better or worse, or would make it better or worse if they were implemented. On rare occasions some literary authors and critics even write about economists and economics, and some economists occasionally return the favor. From both sides, however, these references are frequently less than complimentary.
Although such antipathy is in some cases related to individual personalities or particular historic events, more often it stems from factors deeply rooted in the different professions themselves. For one thing, while the subject matter of these seemingly disparate disciplines often overlaps, there are clearly major differences in the methodology of their analysis, presentation, and discussion. And occasionally-but not always, as I will argue-the friction between economists and literary writers is based in the discrepancy between their fundamental attitudes about, or knowledge of, economics and economic issues, and in particular the role of markets and government.
The appendices to this volume briefly review the relatively small (in volume) but nevertheless broad (in scope) range of work by economists, literary historians, and literary critics in which these scholars consider each other's work. But the real reason for this book is the large selection of primary works from literature and drama it presents. These selections will, I hope, serve as a pleasurable and instructive way for many students, teachers, and other interested readers to enhance their knowledge of key economic concepts, and will also add to their appreciation for the many ways economic ideas affect daily life for individuals, businesses, and policymakers. For economists, who already are thoroughly familiar with the economic ideas illustrated here, I hope these readings will not only be a pleasant consumable, but will also be of use in their own teaching and writing.
The brief introductions to sections and individual readings that I have provided usually suggest in non-technical language a few key points about mainstream economists' views on the topics and issues described in the excerpts. Economists may therefore want to skip these introductions and let the passages speak for themselves, with no external "framing" or pre-suggestion, and then perhaps compare their interpretations of the passages with mine.
But as I say, my primary motivation in compiling this anthology has been to demonstrate just how often literature and drama deal with economic concepts and issues, and frequently (but not always) deal with them very well. I hope that readings such as these will become more widely used by economists as they teach their courses, as well as by English and other humanities teachers who would like to build more economics into their courses in order to show students that literature and drama, no less than economics, speaks to the ordinary business of life.
To the surprise of some of my economist and English-professor friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, it was not especially difficult to find literary passages dealing with economic themes, simply because economics is such a basic part of life that literary authors have to, and often want to, deal with it. Indeed, there are many other passages I could have used but did not (occasionally because of steep copyright fees or outright prohibitions against reprints), and I am sure there are far more passages of which I am simply not aware. Few months pass when I do not discover at least one more text that could have been included, regardless of whether I am reading contemporary authors or those long deceased. And whenever I have presented this material to meetings of either economists or literature professors, it is typical for at least one new (to me) example to be suggested by someone in the group. All of which leads me to a confession and warning: the selections presented here are mainly a reflection of my own choices and tastes in literature or, in some cases, my own long-past academic coursework.
As is obvious from the list of readings, my interests lean mainly to writers from the United States and the United Kingdom. I am keenly aware that there are few writers represented here, even in translation, who do not write in English. Some have suggested that women authors and critics are also underrepresented. If that is true, mea culpa. I also decided not to include passages from science fiction and fantasy literature, although I have found some suitable passages in those works, despite the fact that I did not begin to read in those genres until the relatively old age of about 25. I am certain that suitable passages could be found among all of these groups of authors, too, but my publisher has already been very generous in spending money for reprint permissions. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, a thicker, subsequent edition of this work will appear that addresses some of these concerns, featuring additional selections suggested by readers of this edition.
Differences and Similarities in Economics, Literature, and Drama-in Ends As Well As Means
Another necessary warning is that, despite the frequent similarities in the topics they consider, the important differences between economics and literature and drama should not be minimized. Nothing in this volume is meant to suggest that we should rely on literary authors to do what economists do, or vice versa. Through long years of training and practice, but probably also because of different inclinations and talents, the methods and skills the disciplines employ have become so unlike that it can be difficult for these specialists to understand each other, even when they do write about the same thing. As Adam Smith pointed out in 1776, and Alexander Pope several decades earlier, there are important and substantial costs as well as benefits associated with specialization and the division of labor.
Beyond the obviously far greater use of mathematics and statistics in economics, there are methodological differences related to the ends of the disciplines, not just to the tools they use. Most modern economics analysis is intentionally designed to be limited to positive (what is), rather than normative (what ought to be), analysis and discussion. For example, economists assume that individual consumers maximize utility; but exactly what goes into the consumer's utility functions-in other words, what things will make consumers happy-and how it gets there is rarely studied, and even more rarely questioned.
That is not as limiting as it may sound to people hearing it for the first time. For example, if some goods or activities are judged to be illicit and declared illegal by political authorities, economists can show how that judgment will affect prices and the production and consumption of these goods and services. Conceivably some economists might even conclude, as some have with respect to Prohibition during the 1920s or perhaps with heroin today, that the costs of making a product illegal outweigh the pragmatic and financially measurable benefits of such a policy. Or they might show how economic interests lead to coalitions with the power to ban or legalize certain products.
Sometimes economists accept without questioning the appropriateness of a political authority's determination about the legality of certain goods and services. For example, markets in slaves are banned because that violates our notion of basic human rights. And markets for directly buying and selling votes on election days are prohibited because that violates democratic ideals-despite the fact that most third-year undergraduate economics majors can explain how such markets would make individual buyers and sellers better off, at least in their own judgments.
In all such cases, however, no amount of training as a professional economist could confer any special expertise allowing an economist to say definitively that a good or service should be prohibited or legalized. Nor, to consider the mundane kind of choices that are quite possibly more important in the ordinary business of life, can an economist make a professional judgment that consumers are wrong to spend fifteen dollars for a pink flamingo to put in their front yard rather than a paperback copy of the latest novel to win the Pulitzer Prize. If the price of the plastic bird and the book are the same, the question comes down to which product the consumer-not the economist or any other kind of expert-believes will provide more satisfaction.
Generally, literary authors neither seek nor accept such restrictions. Their canvas is the entire range of human experience: normative and positive, material and spiritual, utilitarian and aesthetic. Once a subject has been chosen, literary authors present material from the standpoint of "human interest," developing characters and plots to present studies of people, themes, and institutions, rather than collecting and then analyzing quantitative data. It might surprise literary authors to learn that in this they are working much like economic theorists, though unlike empirical economists and other social scientists. The typical practice of the economic theorist is also to begin with the individual (buyer, seller, worker, voter, firm, or representative of whatever group is being studied), to try to understand what motivates that individual "unit of analysis," and then to determine how that decision-making unit would respond to different opportunities and constraints. Both the literary author and the economic theorist must try to strip away thousands of the insignificant details that crowd into our daily lives and focus on the key causes and effects of what people do.
Unlike economic theorists, however, literary authors write poetry, dialogue, or rich and emotionally evocative prose. The theorists use mathematics to formalize their models of human behavior and rigorously establish consistent behaviors and equilibrium outcomes, subject to such constraints as limited incomes and the costs of purchasing or producing different products. Then, to communicate clearly and convincingly with other economists, theoretical and empirical economists write articles for academic journals, or sometimes books, featuring formulas, graphs, tables of data and statistics, and simple declarative sentences. There is a premium on the efficient and economical use of language in these articles. Still, economists like good stories and examples, too, and frequently tell them in establishing the motivation for the topics of their articles and books, or in explaining the intuition behind their methods of analysis or results. Academic economists especially like to tell stories in the classes they teach, partly because those who aren't good storytellers and opt instead to use exclusively math and graphs usually get poor teaching evaluations from students, at least at the undergraduate level.
One final similarity helps to explain some of the ways and reasons economists have occasionally used literature and drama in their own professional writings, and qualifies the assertion that literary authors are not bound by some of the disciplinary restrictions economists have adopted. The similarity is simply that once a literary author has established a character or situation, in order to make characters, situations, and dialogue believable the author is inexorably bound by many of the same restrictions that confront economists: Do characters understand the incentives and tradeoffs they face? Is their behavior understandable (or in other words, is it rational)? Can it be explained by what has been said or shown in the rest of the work, or by what readers can be assumed to know from their own experience? Are the situations and actions depicted consistent with what people do, or at least with what they believe happens, "in the real word"? Are the situations and the overall work interesting and important?
All of these questions are asked by both literary authors and economists. And the more successful a literary author who chooses to write about an economic concept, issue, or theme is in answering these questions, the easier it is for an economist to recognize and use that author's work to illustrate or even analyze economic behavior-albeit often recast in specialized terms that the literary author would either not know or not use in the same way. Literary authors have the further advantage of being able to show why characters develop the beliefs and preferences that motivate them, and how and why those values and tastes change as a character ages and grows. In this sense, the literary author gets to create and "mine" his or her own data. And readers evaluate literary works based in part on whether that is done well or poorly, which in turn affects authors' reputations and their popularity in the marketplace.
Of course, some literary authors and critics are not particularly successful or perhaps even interested in recognizing economic incentives, or the way in which competitive markets work to channel self-interest into socially useful outcomes and to automatically and impersonally establish a new equilibrium when something changes in the economy. Some literary authors accept (or at least some of the characters in some of their writings accept, which is an important distinction to make) ideas that a majority of the public and political leaders may also espouse, but a majority of economists do not-for example, restrictions on international trade in the belief that such policies will increase employment, production, and standards of living for everyone in the economy, not just for workers and firms in the sectors protected from foreign competition. Finally, like economists, some literary writers and critics are political liberals, while others are political conservatives. Not surprisingly, conservative economists are more likely to criticize liberal literary authors, and vice versa.
All of these factors have played a part in establishing the long-standing distrust between economists and literary authors and critics, a distrust that occasionally breaks out into open hostility. It was, after all, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Dickens who were most responsible for hanging the "dismal science" tag on economics, although not for the reasons most people now believe. Partly because of that, and because of literary depictions casting business and economic activities in a negative light, economists, historians, and other social scientists have not infrequently claimed that literary authors are either ignorant of, or biased against, business, economics, and markets.
If such a pervasive bias really does exist-not just in writings by a few writers and not only in literary works narrowly defined, but also in movies, television programs, magazines, and other media outlets-that is a very serious matter for economists, for there is some evidence that these cultural sources are more influential in shaping public opinion about economic issues than are economists. Frankly, given the discrepancy between the sales figures for leading works of fiction and periodicals and the best-selling works of economists, that difference in influence is not especially surprising. And to the extent that the reading public-that is, the more articulate and influential citizenry-is strongly influenced by what literary and journalistic writers and teachers say about economics, there is even more reason for economists to learn what literary authors and those who study, interpret, and teach literary works are saying about economic ideas.
Excerpted from The Literary Book of Economics Copyright © 2007 by Michael Watts. Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction: The Inevitable but Uneasy Relationship between Economics and Literature and Drama|
|"The Road Not Taken"||7|
|"The Grumbling Hive"||9|
|The Book of Merlyn||24|
|"The Parable of the Water Tank"||28|
|The Perfect Storm||42|
|Ride With Me, Mariah Montana||44|
|God's Little Acre||50|
|The Grapes of Wrath||52|
|East of Eden||59|
|Spoon River Anthology||61|
|Travels with Charley||69|
|The Merchant of Venice||76|
|"Prince of Peace"||82|
|All My Sons||97|
|Songs of a Savoyard||105|
|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 Robber Bride||138|
|Into Thin Air||143|
|Imitations of Horace||145|
|Travels with Charley||147|
|Gargantua and Pantagruel||148|
|Into Thin Air||152|
|The God of Small Things||153|
|The Merchant of Venice||156|
|The Cancer Ward||169|
|Good As Gold||183|
|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|
|The Road to Wigan Pier||246|
|A Moveable Feast||253|
|The Black Obelisk||267|
|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|
|Epilogue: Mutual Gains from Exchange between Economics and Literature and Drama, or Mutual Neglect through Academic Protectionism?||307|
|App. A||How Economists Have Used Literature and Drama||317|
|App. B||How Literary Critics and Historians Have Used Economics||327|