Gary Saul Morson & Morton Schapiro: How the study of economics can benefit from the humanities

CentsEconomists often act as if their methods explain all human behavior. But in Cents and Sensibility, an eminent literary critic and a leading economist make the case that the humanities, especially the study of literature, offer economists ways to make their models more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just. Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro argue that economists need a richer appreciation of behavior, ethics, culture, and narrative—all of which the great writers teach better than anyone. Original, provocative, and inspiring, Cents and Sensibility brings economics back to its place in the human conversation. Read on to learn more about how the study of economics is lacking, the misreading of Adam Smith, and how the humanities can help.

You clearly think that economics as traditionally practiced is lacking in fundamental ways. Why?
We believe that economic models could be more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just, if economics opened itself up to learning from other fields.

But don’t economists already work on subjects within the typical domain of such disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history, among others?
It is true that economists apply their models very widely, but they often expropriate topics rather than sincerely engage with other fields. Too often economists act as if other disciplines have the questions, and economics has the answers. It is one thing to tread on the territory of another discipline; it is quite another to be willing to learn from it. Economists have often been imperialistic, presuming that the subject matter of other disciplines could be put on a “sound basis” if handled by economic models. They rarely ask whether the methods and assumptions of other disciplines might help economics. We need a dialogue, and a dialogue goes both ways.

You say that economics can be improved by interaction with the humanities, and especially the study of literature. In what ways does economics fall short so that an understanding of literature might help?
Economists have an especially hard time in three sorts of situations: when culture plays an important role, since one cannot mathematize culture; when contingency prevails and narrative explanation is required; and when ethical problems irreducible to economic models are important. For instance, whether to have a market in kidneys—one topic we address—is not a question that can be adequately addressed solely in economic terms. Economic thinking has something useful to say in many such cases, but not everything.  Great works of literature have offered the richest portraits of human beings we have. If social scientists understood as much about human beings as the great novelists, they could have produced pictures of human beings as believable as those of Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Leo Tolstoy, but none has even come close. The great novelists, who were often keen thinkers who discussed the complexities of human feeling and behavior, must have known something! They also produced the subtlest descriptions of ethical problems we have.

Isn’t economic imperialism the legacy of Adam Smith, the founder of the discipline?
Not at all. Economists, who seldom read The Wealth of Nations and rarely ask students to do so either, present a version of Adam Smith that is largely fictional. A thinker with an immensely complex sense of human nature, and who insisted that human beings care for others in ways that cannot be reduced to self-interest, is presented as a founder of rational choice theory, which presumes the opposite. What has happened is that a few Smithian ideas have been represented as the whole, and then a model based on them alone has been constructed and been attributed to him. While Adam Smith is often invoked to justify a simplistic view of human behavior guided by rational self-interest, and of economic policies that reject any interference with the free functioning of markets, his work was much more nuanced and sophisticated than that. To truly understand The Wealth of Nations, one must also read his complementary volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Together, they provide the kind of far-reaching, inclusive economics celebrated in this book—an economics that takes other subjects seriously and embraces narrative explanations.

Don’t those two books contradict each other?
The idea that they do, and the question how the same author could have written them both, is often called “the Adam Smith problem.” In fact, the problem arises only when one misreads Smith. We offer a solution to the Adam Smith problem, which also shows how his thought looks forward to the great novelists to come.

You believe that narratives could teach economics a great deal. Is that why you argue that the humanities could be so useful in making economics more relevant?  How exactly does narrative help?
Stories are important, especially those told by the great realist novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Austen. They help in at least two ways. First, in a world where genuine contingency exists, it is necessary to explain events narratively, and there are no better models for narratives about people in society than those in great novels. Second, novels foster empathy. Other disciplines may recommend empathy, but only novels provide constant practice in it. When you read a great novel, you identify with characters, inhabit their thought processes from within, and so learn experientially what it is to be someone else—a person of a different culture, class, gender, or personality. In a great novel you inhabit many points of view, and experience how each appears to the others. In this way, great novels are a source of wisdom. They appreciate people as being inherently cultural while embracing ethics in all its irreducible complexity.

That doesn’t sound like the way English courses are currently taught or accord with the currently predominant premises of literary theory.
Quite so. We are stressing a particular version of the humanities, what we think of as “the best of the humanities.” In a variety of ways, the humanities have been false to their core mission, which may be why so many students are fleeing them. In addition to the dominant trends of literary theory, we have witnessed a series of “spoof” disciplines, which purport to be humanistic but are actually something else. Sociobiological criticism, digital humanities, and other such trends proceed as if literature were too old fashioned to matter, and one has to somehow restore its importance by linking it—how doesn’t matter much—to whatever is fashionable. They all too often dehumanize the humanities, reducing their value not just to economics but to other fields as well. We celebrate, and recommend economists consider, the humanities at their best.

Are there any particular subjects within economics where engagement with the “best” of the humanities would be especially worthwhile?
There is a wide range of areas covered in the book—from economic development, to the economics of higher education, to the economics of the family—for which we believe a genuine dialogue between the humanities and economics is useful. We offer case studies in each of these areas, with some unanticipated results. We don’t pretend to conclude that dialogue in our book; we instead seek to get it started in a serious way.

Where do you see the dialogue of the two cultures leading?
The point of a real dialogue is that it is open-ended, that you don’t know where it will lead. It is surprising, and that is what makes it both stimulating and creative.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. His many books include Narrative and Freedom, “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, and The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture. Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University and a professor of economics. His many books include The Student Aid Game. Morson and Schapiro are also the editors of The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040.

Try your hand at solving an L.A. Math mystery

If you caught the rather incredible trailer for L.A. Math, you know it’s not your typical scholarly math book. Romance, crime, and mathematics don’t often go hand in hand, but emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University Jim Stein cooked up the idea for an unconventional literary math book that would speak to students in his liberal arts math class. The end result is an entertaining, backdoor approach to practical mathematics knowledge, ranging from percentages and probability to set theory, statistics, and the mathematics of elections. Recently, Stein spoke to us about writing L.A. Math. Not only that, he left us with a mathematical mystery to solve.

L.A. Math is definitely an unusual book.  Brian Clegg described it by saying “It’s as if Ellery Queen, with the help of P. G. Wodehouse, spiced up a collection of detective tales with a generous handful of practical mathematics.”  How did you happen to write it?

JS: I absolutely loved it when he described it that way, because I was brought up on Ellery Queen.  For younger readers, Ellery Queen was one of the greatest literary detectives of the first half of the twentieth century, specializing in classic Sherlock Holmes type cases.  The Ellery Queen stories were written by the team of Manfred Dannay and Frederick Lee — and my mother actually dated one of them!

LA MathThe two other mystery writers who influenced me were Agatha Christie and Rex Stout.  Rex Stout wrote a series featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin; the books are presumably written by Archie Goodwin describing their cases, so I used that as the model for Freddy Carmichael.  The relationship between Archie and Nero also served, somewhat, as a parallel for the relationship between Freddy and Pete.  Nero and Pete both have addictions — Nero wants to spend his time eating elaborate cuisine and raising orchids, and Pete wants to spend his time watching and betting on sports.  It’s up to Archie and Freddy to prod them into taking cases.

How does Agatha Christie enter the picture?

JS: I’d taught liberal arts mathematics — math for poets — maybe ten times with temporary success but no retention.  Students would learn what was necessary to pass the course, and a year later they’d forgotten all of it.  That’s not surprising, because the typical liberal arts math course has no context that’s relevant for them.  They’re not math-oriented.  I know I had several history courses discussing the Battle of Azincourt, but I don’t remember anything about it because it has no context for me.

Agatha Christie’s best-known detective is Hercule Poirot, and one day I was in a library reading a collection of short stories she had written entitled The Labors of Hercules.  Christie had a background in the classics, and did something absolutely brilliant — she constructed a series of twelve detective stories featuring Hercule Poirot, each of which was modeled, in one way or another, around the Twelve Labors of Hercules in classical mythology.  I thought to myself — why don’t I do something like that for topics in liberal arts math?  Maybe the students would remember a few of the ideas because they’d have the context of a story from which to remember it.

Could you give an example?

JS: How about this?  Why don’t we take a story from the book, and present it the way Ellery Queen would have.  Ellery Queen always played fair with the reader, giving him or her all the clues, and after all the clues had been presented, EQ would write a paragraph entitled “Challenge to the Reader”.  EQ would tell the reader “Now you have all the clues.  Can you figure out whodunit?” — or words to that effect.

OK, here’s what we’ll do.  We’ll take The Case of the Vanishing Greenbacks, Chapter 2 in L.A. Math, and present the story up to the crucial point.  Then we’ll let the reader try to figure out whodunit, and finish the story next week.

Chapter 2 – The Case of the Vanishing Greenbacks

   The phone rang just as I stepped out of the shower. It was Allen.

“Freddy, are you available for an embezzlement case?”

My biggest success had been in an embezzlement case involving a Wall Street firm specializing in bond trading. Allen had given me a whopping bonus for that one, which was one of the reasons I could afford to take it easy in L.A. I had done well in a couple of other similar cases, and had gotten the reputation of being the go-to guy in embezzlement cases. It never hurts to have a reputation for being good at something. Besides, you don’t see many guys in my line of work who can read balance sheets.

I’ve always felt it’s important to keep the cash flow positive, and the truth was that I was available for a jaywalking case if it would help the aforementioned cash flow. But it never hurts to play a little hard-to-get.

“I can probably clear my calendar if it looks interesting.”

Allen paused for a moment, either to collect his thoughts or to take a bite of one of those big greasy pastrami sandwiches he loves. “I’m pretty sure you’ll find it interesting. It’s stumped some people in L.A., and I told them I had a good man out there. BTW, that’s you.”

It’s nice to be well thought of – especially by someone in a position to send you business. I knew that Allen’s firm, though headquartered in New York, had arrangements with other firms in other cities. I didn’t really care about the details as long as the check cleared – which it always had.

“I’m certainly willing to listen. What’s the arrangement?”

“Consulting and contingency fee. Fifty‑fifty split.”

That was our usual arrangement. Burkitt Investigations got a guaranteed fee, plus a bonus for solving the case. Allen and I split it down the middle.

“OK, Allen, fill me in.”

“Ever heard of Linda Vista, Freddy?”

Temporary blank. Movie star? Socialite? Then I had it. Linda Vista was a town somewhere in Orange County with a big art community.

For those of you not up on California politics, Orange County is a bastion of conservatism. You have Orange County to thank, or blame, for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But Linda Vista, which my fragmentary Spanish translates as “pretty view”, was different from your basic Orange County bastion.

The vista in Linda Vista was sufficiently linda that it had attracted a thriving artistic community.   There were plenty of artists in Linda Vista, and most of them were liberals.

As a result, Linda Vista was highly polarized. The moderates were few and far between. On the left, you had the artists, with their funky bungalows and workshops. On the right, you had the stockbrokers and real-estate moguls, living in gated communities so they wouldn’t have to have any contact with the riff-raff, except for the tradesmen delivering or repairing stuff. However, there were enough artists and hangers-on to acquire political clout – after all, it’s still one man-one vote in a democracy, rather than one dollar-one vote. Pitched battles had raged over practically every issue from A (abortion) to Z (zoning), and many of these battles had made state and even national news.

That’s all I knew about Linda Vista, other than not to try to drive down there at rush hour, which turned one hour on the 405 to more than twice that. The obvious question was: what kind of a contingency case had they got? So I asked it.

Allen filled me in. “The city is out a bunch of bucks, and each side is accusing the other of fraud and embezzlement. Because of the split in the political situation, the City Manager gave half the budget to the conservatives, and the other half to the liberals, letting each determine how to spend its half. Both sides claim to have been shortchanged.”

Allen paused to catch his breath. “I’ve got a friend who works in the City Manager’s office. I told him I had a good man out there who’d done a lot of first‑class work in embezzlement cases. Want to take a look at it?”

“Sure. How much time should I put in before I throw in the towel?” In other words, how much is the consulting fee?

“As much as you like.” In other words, since Allen’s meter wasn’t running, feel free to burn some midnight oil. “The consulting fee is $3,000, upped to ten if you figure it out and get proof.” You don’t have to be an expert at division to realize that I was guaranteed a minimum of $1,500 for the time I put in, and $5,000 if I doped it out. You also don’t have to be an expert at division to realize that Allen was getting the same amount for making a phone call. I decided to be reincarnated as an employer rather than an employee.

Allen gave me a brief description of the protagonists, and I spent a good portion of the evening with a pot of coffee and my computer, getting some background information on them. I’ll say one thing for the Information Age; it’s a lot easier to run a background check on people than it used to be. What with search engines and social networks, you save a lot on gas money and shoe leather.

The next morning I waited until after rush hour, and made the trek to Linda Vista. The City Hall was located in a section of town where the vista was a long way from linda, unless strip malls filled with 7‑11s and fast-food stores constitute your idea of attractive scenery. I found a place to park, straightened my coat and tie, and prepared for the interviews.

I was scheduled to have three of them. I had been hoping to arrange for longer interviews, but everyone’s in a rush nowadays, and I was getting a quarter-hour with each, tops. They’d all been interviewed previously – Allen had mentioned that this case had stumped others – and people are generally less than enthusiastic about being asked the same questions again. And again. The first interview was with Everett Blaisdell, conservative city councilman, who would explain why the conservatives happened to be short. The next was with Melanie Stevens, liberal city councilwoman, ditto. The last interview would be with Garrett Ryan, City Manager.

I have a bad habit. My opinion of members of groups tends to be formed by the members of those groups that I have seen before. Consequently, I was expecting the conservative Everett Blaisdell to look like a typical paunchy southern senator with big jowls. So I was a little surprised to discover that Everett Blaisdell was a forty-ish African-American who looked like he had spent years twenty through thirty as an NBA point guard.

He got right down to business. “I want you to know,” he barked, “that everything that we have done with our budget allocation has been strictly by the book. Our expenses have been completely documented.” He handed me a folder full of ledger sheets and photos of checks, which I glanced at and stashed in my briefcase.

Blaisdell was clearly angry. “The business community is the heart of Linda Vista, and it is ridiculous to suggest that it would act in a manner detrimental to its citizens. We are $198,000 short in our budget.”

You don’t expect NBA point guards to get out of breath too easily, considering the time they have to go up and down the court, but maybe Blaisdell wasn’t in shape. He paused, giving me a chance to get a question in edgewise. “Just what do you think has happened, Mr. Blaisdell?” I inquired mildly.

“I know what has happened. Melanie Stevens and her radical crowd have managed to get hold of that money. They want $200,000 to fund a work of so‑called art which I, and every right‑thinking citizen of Linda Vista, find totally offensive. It’s mighty suspicious that the missing funds, $198,000, almost precisely cover the projected cost of the statue.”

I was curious. “If you don’t mind my asking, exactly what is this statue?”

Blaisdell’s blood pressure was going up. “They are going to build a scale replica of the Statue of Liberty and submerge it in Coca‑Cola. You may know that Coca‑Cola is acidic, and it will eventually dissolve metal. They say that this so‑called dynamic representational art represents the destruction of our civil liberties by over‑commercialization. Well, let me tell you, we’ll fight it.”

He looked at his watch. “Sorry, I’ve got another appointment. When you find out what those scum have done with the money, let me know.” He walked me to his door.

It took a few minutes to locate Melanie Stevens’ office, as it was in a different wing of the building, possibly to minimize confrontations between her and Blaisdell. It was a bad day for stereotypes. My mental picture of Melanie Stevens, ultra‑liberal, was that of a long-haired hippie refugee from the ’60s. The real Melanie Stevens was a pert gray‑haired grandmother who looked like she had been interrupted while baking cookies for her grandchildren. She, too, was evidently on a tight schedule, for she said, “Sorry, I can only give you about ten minutes, but I’ve made copies of all our expenses.” More ledger sheets and photos of checks went into my briefcase.

“Let me tell you, Mr. Carmichael, that we could have used that $198,000. We planned to use it for a free clinic. I know exactly what has happened. Blaisdell has doctored the books. I’m sure glad that Ryan had the guts to ask you to look into it.”

“Blaisdell seems to think that your people are responsible for the missing funds,” I observed.

She snorted. “That’s just typical of what they do. Whenever they’re in the wrong, they lie and accuse the other side of lying. They rip off the community, and channel money into PACs. Political action committees. Or worse. Blaisdell knows he faces a stiff battle for re-election, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find that money turning up in his campaign fund.”

“He seems to think that you are going to use the funds for an art project, rather than a free clinic,” I remarked.

“He’s just blowing smoke. He knows quite well that the statue will be funded through private subscription.” She looked at her watch. “Let me know when you pin the loss on them.”

I left Stevens’ office for the last interview, with Garrett Ryan, whose anxious expression made it clear that he was not a happy camper. “Have you got any ideas yet?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I’ve just talked to Blaisdell and Stevens. They’ve each handed me files containing what they consider to be complete documentation. They’ve each given me a story asserting their own innocence, and blaming the other. I take it that the missing amount is $198,000?”

Now it was Ryan’s turn to shake his head. “No, each side says that it is missing $198,000. Quite a coincidence. And I’ll tell you, Mr. Carmichael, despite the animosity between them, I think that they are both honorable individuals. I find it difficult to believe that either would rip the city off.”

I focused on Ryan’s coincidence. “It’s funny that they are both short exactly the same amount. Perhaps you could tell me a little more about the budgetary process.”

“It’s really quite simple. Each resident of Linda Vista is taxed a fixed amount. Any complicated tax scheme would just result in a full employment act for accountants. The previous census resulted in a $100 assessment per individual. The population of Linda Vista increased by 20% since the last census. We didn’t need any increase in operating expenditures; under my guidance we’ve done a fiscally conservative and frugal job of running the city. As a result, the Council voted to reduce everybody’s taxes by 20%. Needless to say, this was a very popular move.”

“I’ll bet it was. Did everyone pay their taxes, Mr. Ryan?”

“Everybody. We’re very proud of that ‑‑ a 100% collection rate. Despite what you may have heard, the citizens of Linda Vista are very civic‑minded. Liberals and conservatives alike.”

I’ve spent enough time with balance sheets to know that accuracy is extremely important. “Was this population increase exactly 20%, or is that merely an approximate figure?”

Ryan consulted a sheet of paper. “Exactly 20%. I have a sheet of printout that gives information to four decimal places, so I can be quite sure of that.”

Just then a phone rang. Ryan picked it up, and engaged in some political doubletalk. After a few minutes he replaced the receiver. “Sorry, Mr. Carmichael. I’m behind schedule. Let me know if you make any progress.”   We shook hands, and I left.

A couple of hours later, I got home, having stopped for a bite but still avoiding rush-hour traffic. Pete noticed my presence, and asked, “So how’d things go in Linda Vista, Freddy?”

“I had a pretty interesting day. Want to hear about it?”

He nodded. I took about fifteen minutes to describe the problem and the cast of characters. “It looks like I’ll have to spend a day or so looking over the books.”

Pete shook his head. “It seems pretty clear to me.”

I’d seen it before — everybody’s a detective. Amateurs always think they know who the guilty party is, because it fits in with their preconceptions. I didn’t know whether Pete had cast Blaisdell in the role of a political fat-cat out to line his campaign war chest, or whether he was a conservative who saw Melanie Stevens as a radical troublemaker. Anyway, you’ve got to learn not to jump to conclusions in my line of work.

“You can’t do it like that, Pete. You’ve got to trace down the paper trails. I’ve done this lots of times.”

Pete grabbed a piece of paper, scribbled something on it, and sealed it in an envelope. “Five dollars will get you twenty that the name of the guilty party is inside this envelope.”

Pete needed taking down a peg. Maybe two pegs. Besides, I liked getting four‑to‑one odds on what was obviously an even‑ money proposition. “You’ve got a bet,” I said. We wrote our names on the envelope, and Pete put it on the table next to the HDTV.

“Whenever you’re ready, we’ll unseal the envelope.” I headed back to the guesthouse for a session with the books.

Challenge to the Reader: You have all the clues. Can you name the party responsible for the missing greenbacks? We’ll give you until the next blog to figure it out, when we’ll present the conclusion to the story.

(Stanley) Fish Food for Thought, Part 2: Reflections on Liberal Arts Education

Welcome to Part 2 of PUP’s Stanley Fish series, Fish Food for Thought. All selections are excerpted from Fish’s new book, Think Again.

 


Fish Food for Thought

Part 2: Reflections on Liberal Arts Education


7.1 Why We Built the Ivory Tower

May 1, 2006

Fish on the difference between the academic and advocacy worlds.

In short, don’t cross the boundary between academic work and partisan advocacy, whether the advocacy is yours or someone else’s. Marx famously said that our job is not to interpret the world, but to change it. In the academy, however, it is exactly the reverse: our job is not to change the world, but to interpret it. (301)

7.4 Devoid of Content

May 31, 2005

Fish on teaching language structure, not content, in the classroom.

Students who take so-called courses in writing . . . are learning how to marshal arguments in ways that will improve their compositional skills. In fact, they will be learning nothing they couldn’t have learned better by sitting around in a dorm room. . . . They will certainly not be learning anything about how language works; and without a knowledge of how language works, they will be unable to either spot the formal breakdown of someone else’s language or to prevent the formal breakdown of their own. (313)

7.6 Will the Humanities Save Us?

January 6, 2008

Fish on the purpose of humanities courses.

To the question, ‘Of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said . . . diminishes the object of its supposed praise.(323)

7.7 The Uses of the Humanities

January 13, 2008

Fish on why he teaches humanities subjects.

Why do I do it? . . . I don’t do it because it inspires me to do other things, like change my religion or go out and work for the poor. If I had to say, I’d say that I do it because I get something like an athletic satisfaction from the experience of trying to figure out how a remarkable verbal feat has been achieved. . . . [I]t is like solving a puzzle—but the greater satisfaction is the opportunity to marvel at what a few people are able to do with the language we all use. (324325)

7.10 Deep in the Heart of TexasThink Again jacket

June 21, 2010

Fish on recognizing a quality education.

But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers. . . . And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades. (340)