Books in the Background 10: Economics and Literature

Ron Berman


Cents and Sensibility examines ethics in fiction.  It refers constantly to the work of Gary Becker who in 1992 won the Nobel Prize for extending the methods of economic research to "nonmarket" behavior. Becker's work assumes that we bring to human relationships the same kind of reasoning that we bring to transactions. Literature, then, is a guide to the daily decisions of life and should, the authors state, be combined with the study of Economics because that it presents a personal analysis of different outcomes. Literary situations as they are shown in Jane Austen, Balzac, and Tolstoy involve choosing a career, deciding on marriage, educating children.  They become case-studies of actual human problems; and novels become useful illustrations of solving such problems. The book is so centered on right and wrong choice that other aspects of literature get less attention than they require. To be fair, it admits that "human intentions are much more complex than behavioral economics allows . . . we often do things without deciding at all" (285).  However, reading this book is a long exercise in accepting the idea that texts essentially convey information.  Someone once said that you must get to know the values, but he didn't have that in mind.


Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities. By Gary Saul Morson and Morton O. Schapiro. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017. 307 pp. $29.95.

At the center is the grand "problem" of the Humanities: "For the past decade or so, a flood of books, articles, and op-eds, along with statements by educators, universities, and professional organizations, have described and regretted a sharp decline in the humanities, by which is meant a sharp decrease in the number of students taking humanities courses. . . by 2010 this number had shrunk to 8 percent. . . . These numbers will surely give pause to economists, who love market tests.  If the product is so good, they say, why aren't consumers buying it?" (201). So in certain respects the book is about meeting marketplace expectations at a time when social science seems to have more answers to the problems of human life than does literature. One additional difficulty: "Humanist attempts to defend their disciplines have proven less than impressive. . . . when a business blames its customers for not appreciating what it has to offer, the business is in real trouble" (205-06).

            The book follows up some current arguments against assigning older texts (books like War and Peace)). When does the effort to read them outweigh the benefits?  It has endless straw men: if you find it inconvenient to deal with the heft of 19th century novels why not just read SparkNotes?  After all, summaries discuss values. The authors point out that reducing texts to "messages" has its own consequences: Hamlet can be shrunk to "Stop moping and do something?!” while Moby Dick concludes that "Obsessions can be dangerous."  The book does get a bit giddy, when stating that the distilled message of Crime and Punishment is "Do not kill old ladies, even really mean ones" (213). However, it doggedly pursues the important subjects of why people read and how books discuss personal values. It also possibly overlooks the attraction of other cultural forces.

            Expectations are decidedly social. "It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: by identifying with a character, one learns from within what it feels like to be someone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character's thoughts. . . . If we are to understand how people make moral decisions, and how we could make better ones, what knowledge could be more important?" (227). That is a small part of reading. And there have been shifts in economics as well as in literature: the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics for 2017, Richard Thaler, has pointed out that even economic decisions are only partly rational.  Therefore we shouldn’t expect literature to accomplish what economics (and philosophy) have modified or abandoned. Not all readers have moral utility on their minds. Since mass publication began, they have wanted both style and story, a private fascination.

            The authors recognize more than ethics: "Economists could learn from humanists the complexity of ethical issues, the need for stories, the importance of empathy, and the value of unformalizable good judgment.  But humanities could also learn from economists how to think about scarce resources, about the nature of efficiency, and the importance of rational decision-making"(261) Yet the rationality of decision-making has always been doubtful and Thaler, the current Nobel laureate in Economics, has openly discussed his reliance on psychology.

            The book closely follows both current and historical opposition to education budgets. Cents and Sensibility does not allow itself to forget that the liberal arts exist within a society that believes education leads to vocation. So, there is a fundamental sense of balance, with citation of economists, politicians, and boards of trustees who express their anxiety about spending more money on fewer enrollments.  But reading is finally about the individual mind and I'm not sure it knows what to do about Baudelaire or the Earl of Rochester or the last pages of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place."  After a week at a Chattauqua, William James wrote that all its sweet reasonableness made him think of  having to spend eternity at a soda-fountain.


Ron Berman 12/04/2017

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