The Invisible Heart
By Russell Roberts
By Kate Jennings
The Way We Live Now
By Anthony Trollope
One of the ideas making the rounds
in economic education circles is the notion of fusion, or incorporating
economics into other disciplines. The trick is to describe a particular
economic concept during a math class, for example, that would do
two thingsit would provide a
real-world application of an otherwise abstract mathematical principle and it would
teach some economics to boot. If economics classes are getting squeezed
out of curricula by a focus on fundamentals, then put some economics
into the fundamentals.
It's relatively easy to imagine how this might work in
a math class, or a history or maybe even a science class, but what about
in an English or, more broadly, a literature class? There is at least
one inventive economics high school teacher in the Ninth Federal Reserve
District who works with the school's English teacher when he has students
prepare submissions to the Minneapolis Fed's annual essay contest. Perhaps
it's no coincidence that the essays coming from that school consistently
rank high. That's one way to fuse economics with English.
But the idea of joining these two seemingly disparate
disciplines is more than just getting students to write more clearly
about economic ideasit's about finding those ideas in literature
and applying the tools to analyze them or, more directly, using literature
to teach those economic principles in the first place.
And the latter is nothing new. Fiction has been used since the early
19th century to teach economics, when Harriet Martineau issued a series
of volumes that aimed to describe economic principles through storytelling.
Illustrations of Political Economy kicked off the series beginning
in 1832 (nine volumes), followed by Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated
(four volumes) and Illustrations of Taxation (five volumes).
According to one writer, the prose was as deadly as the titles imply.
But at least Martineau tried.
More recently, the mystery genre has been co-opted in the great cause
of economic literacy. Murder at the Margin, In the Long Run
We Are All Dead: A Macroeconomics Murder Mystery, The Fatal Equilibrium
and Death on Demand were written between the late 1970s and
mid-1980s with the beginning economics student in mind. In between Martineau
and the mysteries, it's safe to claim that all the great social and
realist novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, from Dickens
and Trollope and Eliot, to Hugo and Balzac and Zola, to Tolstoy and
Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, Dreiser and Sinclair and Lewis, and many others,
penned novels that servein their often journalistic description
of a particular time and placeas the basis for a discussion of
economic principles. As evidence for this and for the continued relevance
of those great works, a brief discussion of a Trollope novel occurs
But first, there are two current novels that follow in this literary
trendone aims to teach economics, the other has been billed as
a business novel that weaves financial ideas into its story. We will
start with Russell Roberts' novel, The Invisible Heart, which
is subtitled An Economic Romance (from MIT Press, no less). For
most people, pairing the words "economic" and "romance"
is a pretty good definition of oxymoron, but such a reaction would just
reinforce Roberts' point: Most people don't really understand economics
and they don't appreciate the role economic thought plays in society.
And he's right. Roberts, as careful Region readers know (because
he is quoted in this issue in an article about a recent economic
literacy conference, appropriately enough), is an economics professor
at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also a commentator for
National Public Radio, where his insight into issues and his ability
to tell a story are put to good use.
The hero of The Invisible Heart is Sam Gordon, a high school
economics teacher at a private school in Washington, D.C., who simply
cannot control the urge to wax rhapsodic about economics. The man is
a walking lectern. At one point, a fellow teacher and eventual love
interest, approaches Sam while he is sitting at a bench:
"May I join you?" Laura asked.
"Sure," Sam said, frantically searching his mind for a topic
of conversation other than economics or public policy. He drew a blank.
In another scene, Sam frets:
He decided it would be a good idea to chat with Laura about something
other than economics. But what could it possibly be?
For many Region readers these are laugh-out-loud linesthe
rest of you will have to take our word for itand Roberts is to
be commended for his sense of humor in these instances and throughout
the book. Of course, Sam has to go on and on about the efficacy of government
welfare vs. private charities during an otherwise romantic repast because
Roberts needs to teach some economics. That's the point of the book.
It's a pedagogical tool; similar, although much less ambitious, to the
1990s bestseller Sophie's World, a novelistic tour through the
history of philosophy written by Jostein Gaarder, who hails from Norway
and who is a former high school philosophy teacher (talk about a course
that has slipped from the core curriculum).
Roberts has an open, straightforward writing style that lends itself
to his task; high school and intro college students would have an easy
time moving through the story, and there is a clever sub-plot that allows
Roberts to elucidate important themes. But the writing can be overwrought
at times and, perhaps, careless.
Down the hall, Sam was pacing back and forth, eyeing the class mischievously.
He took a dollar bill from his pocket and put it on his desk.
"Let's play a game," he said, his eyes full of mischief.
A bit too much mischievousness about the eyes, for my tastes. There
are other instances of word repetition, a phone number that changes
inexplicably, and such purplish prose as "lines of poetry coursing
through her with the rhythm of the waves," and "he could not
tear his glance away from the purity of her face as the words poured
out of her." I'd watch, too, with all that going on.
But this feels like nitpicking; this is a romance, after all, so some
florid prose is probably in order, and heaven knows a good editor is
hard to find. So let's talk about comparative advantage here: Roberts
is an economist and a teacher and, if his book and his recent talk before
the National Summit on Economic Literacy are any indication, he's good
at both. The book is full of clear descriptions of key economic conceptsfrom
that old "no free lunch" war horse (first appearance is on
page 23) to trade and the market value of labor, among many others.
The opening classroom scene has Sam telling the class that there is
no such thing as an oil shortage, and he has the economic principles
to prove it.
Sam is an unabashed conservative economist who dwells in that swamp
of left-leaning politicsWashington, D.C.and this makes him
a marked man. His teaching style and the philosophy he imparts (an economic
way of thinking too radical for the school) get him in trouble with
the school board and the administration. Sam is persecuted for his beliefs,
but remains stoic throughout his trials. As he says early on: "And
if you had my views, you would be lonely and embattled, but you could
take solace in being right."
Way right, that is; Laura, on the other hand, is decidedly left-leaning
in her world view, as are her family and friends, which makes for explosive
dinner conversation. For Laura and her ilk, Sam is practically from
another planet. The trouble for the Lauras of the world may be that
they view economists, at least those of the Smithian stripe personified
by Sam, as specialists with a narrow view who have little to offer when
it comes to making complex policy. This recalls a passage from Louis
Menand's recent book, The Metaphysical Club, when describing
the ideas embroiling America circa 1900 and the frustration that some
felt about the influence of the economics profession: Economists provided
little expertise if their answer to every question was, "Let the
Of course, markets are more complicated than that; but even so, the
beauty of markets, properly understood, is that they often provide little
gratification to the special interest group or the politician who wants
something done now, and not at some theoretical clearing point, and
who espouses certain values, not just those of efficiency, and who wants
something done by someone, and not some inanimate, amorphous idea. You
can't hold an idea accountable. You can't vote against the market, and
you can't force it to testify before a congressional committee.
Damn the unexpected consequences, in other words, full regulation ahead!
Of course, if one is so inclined to tinker with the economy, unexpected
consequences are not necessarily a problem, rather they are an opportunity
to fine tune and make things even better; in that regard they're not
even unexpected, they're a part of the system.
As Laura might tell Sam: It is in human beings' nature to try to fix
things; and Sam might say OK, that may be true, but let them fix them
on their own, not by government directive; and Laura might say that
the government is the people and people get the government they want;
and Sam might say no they don't, they often get the government that
they don't intend, and besides ... and then they kiss.
Or do they? Being an economic romance, the main plot of Roberts' book
is the intellectual tete-a-tete between Sam and Laura. Is there more
going on here than the mere exchange of ideas? Does love, on the margin,
make economic sense to Sam? Can Laura even bear the thought of a relationship
with a guy who would ask such a question? In truth, Sam doesn't ask
that question, and this review won't spoil the fun and divulge the outcome
of their romance; suffice to say that they're an engaging couple, despite
that the main purpose of their relationship is to serve as a springboard
for Sam's lectures.
True to the purpose of the book, Roberts provides a list of sources
and further readings, helpfully arranged by chapter and in the order
in which the ideas appear. So, for example, if the reader wants to further
pursue Sam's line of reasoning regarding airbags, the environment, moving
workers to Mexico, the social responsibility of business and many more
topics, it's easy to flip back and find further discussion on the subject.
Contrast Roberts' annotated section with the note provided at the end
of Moral Hazard, a novel by Kate Jennings; her reading list is
all of one sentence long and aims to help "readers unfamiliar with
finance" by recommending five books (including Roger Lowenstein's
When Genius Failed, reviewed
in the December 2000 Region), and offering no other explanation
or description for the subjects described in the book. The difference
is telling, and appropriate: Roberts is out to teach, Jennings to tell
But this contrast also reveals itself in Jennings' writing: spare, stylish
and, for all its sarcastic asides, surprisingly shallow in its description
of the world of finance. As a novel, this may be art, but as a novel
about business, it's artifice.
The novel tells the story of Cath, an "unreconstructed left-winger"
well-versed in literature who must stoop to peddle her writing skills
on Wall Streetas a speechwriter for capitalist plutocratsto
support her ailing husband, who is suffering from Alzheimer's. The novel's
title refers to that phenomenon in the insurance industry wherein peopleonce
they have insurancetake on more risk than they otherwise would.
(When we use the term here at the Minneapolis Fed, we usually mean the
risks that banks might take because the deposits they hold are insured
by the government, and we eagerly await Jennings' follow-up: Too
Big To Fail.) This moral hazard theme, which explicitly fits the
Wall Street world wherein Cath works, seems strained when implicitly
applied to her personal affairs.
But again, as we absolve Roberts of literary sins, we must forgive Jennings
for not upholding the standards of economic literacy. She is out to
write a novel of literary design, after all, and the contrast between
the greed and ego of Wall Street and the love and despair at home is
lucidly, if not expansively, described. Here is Cath, who narrates the
novel, on Alzheimer's:
I learned the obvious: Without memory, we are nothing. I also learned
that the disease wasn't a slow slide, a long good-bye into nothingness,
but more like descending in a malfunctioning, bumpy elevator into something
else approximating childhood. [...] the disease affects people differently,
some pacing and cursing as if the hounds of hell were after them, others
sinking into immobility and sweetnessbut he would, as they all
do, forget to remember. Bailey would erode like a sandstone statue,
becoming formless and vague, reduced to a nub. This would take, oh,
about seven years.
This is a nice bit of writingdescriptive in an evocative, not
literal, waymade more powerful by the matter-of-fact last sentence
that reminds us of the narrator's direct, almost acerbic, character.
But this same type of evocation, when used to describe financial instruments
such as derivatives, can leave the reader wanting more:
... So I ventured a last offhand question. "What do you really
think of derivatives?" Worth a try.
He quickened. "The mathematics can be awesome. You have to admire
the mathematics. And they can be an excellent risk-management tool ..."
He trailed off, obviously wondering whether he should continue. "Well
it helps to look at derivatives like atoms. Split them one way and you
have heat and energyuseful stuff. Split them another way, and
you have a bomb. You have to understand the subtleties."
Understand the subtleties. God is in the details. Cracks me up.
Right. Well, it may be true that you have to understand
the subtleties, but before you can do that, you have to get a better
handle on those nasty details. Derivatives and other Wall Street arcana
are much-discussed in this short novel, but rarely with more depth than
illustrated above. Granted, we don't want a textbook definition of derivatives
in this book (the publishers hope to sell more than a few, after all),
but the persistent hip wisecracking from Cath makes one wonder if she
really understands what she's writing about in her speeches, or if she
just tries to sound like it.
One thing's for sure, Cath does not like bankers, conservatives or,
for that matter, is not particularly enthused with markets of any kind.
She makes The Invisible Heart's Laura look like a moderate Republican.
Suffice to say that if Sam from The Invisible Heart and Cath
ever crossed paths, the book that would ensue would most certainly not
be a romancebut more likely a murder mystery.
Finally, Moral Hazard tries to be a commentary on the ageit
begins in the winter of 1993-94: "financial services companies
were shrugging off the recession induced by the excesses of the eighties
and ramping up for excesses of the nineties"but it is much
too slim, in length and depth, for the job (just 175 well-aired pages).
Instead, for the best commentary on the late 1990s, or for almost any
boom-bust period in economic history, there is really only one novelAnthony
Trollope's The Way We Live Now, first published in 1875.
Trollope wrote this novel following a return to England from a trip
to the colonies. The London to which he returned appalled him: Greed
ruled the city's financial institutions and unabashed social climbing
marked its inhabitants. This was an era of great speculations gone bad
and big bubbles that burst. There was, Trollope writes, "a certain
class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and
climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and
so splendid that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty,
if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable."
Hmmm, sounds familiar. But the novel is no rant. It's a precise delineation
of a particular age and a class of people that clocks in at 767 pages,
Trollope's longest and, critics contend, his best. It also has the merit
of describing a railroad swindle, perhaps the best historical allusion
to the current troubles in U.S. corporate governance. In addition, the
board of directors described in The Way We Live Now is a perfect
send-up for the "yes man" boards of today. As Frank Kermode
describes the era in his Penguin introduction, it was a time when money
begat money without the production of actual goods; which so excited
people that they decided to forgo money and create wealth through issuing
paper; which meant that promises, or words, became the hottest currency.
And with promises as bargaining chips, dishonesty soon attained splendor.
The con was on.
But there is no cause here to review The Way We Live Now. You
don't stay in print for over 125 years and need another glowing review
(although, like so many great works, the novel was not appreciated in
its day). It was chided by some for its presumptuous title when first
published, but it has proven prescient for many a succeeding generation,
and likely will remain so.
Bottom line: Roberts for economics, Jennings for prose and Trollope
for all that and a whole lot more.