A romance from MIT Press? Yes, because it’s devoted to radical economic ideas delivered as marvelously inventive fiction. Business scholar and NPR commentator Roberts (The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism, 1993, not reviewed) hangs his debut novel on a trick, which of course we can’t give away, but think clever twists à la The Sixth Sense.
The story: Sam Gordon teaches high-school economics at the high-toned Edwards School in Washington, D.C. Sam’s pro-capitalist ideas about economics sound an outlandish drumbeat for $ucce$$ that would have Ayn Rand hauling him straight into the bedroom. Though at first blush his ideas sound immoral and unprincipled, they’re grounded in profound good sense. As Sam explains to unmarried English teacher Laura Silver, “There is an invisible heart at the core of the marketplace, serving the customer and doing it joyously.” A hundred years ago, he tells her, forty percent of the American population lived on farms; today only three percent do. What if, out of “compassion,” we’d passed laws against the improved technology that drove the kids off the farms, just as we might fetter today’s industries and keep them stateside? Our new technologies would not have arisen. Never regulate business!
Sam insists. Among his stunned students is Amy Hunt, daughter of powerful Senator Hunt (member of the school’s supervisory board), and her parroting of Sam’s radical capitalism around her house may get him in deep trouble. Meanwhile, a subplot goes forward as giant pharmaceuticals firm HealthNet moves to Mexico, causing a huge loss of jobs in an American factory town. Can watchdog Erica Baldwin’s Office of Corporate Responsibility bring HealthNet’s fanged CEO, Charles Krauss, to heel? There is actually a love story (largely unrequited) amid all this finagling, but it’s capitalism that charms you breathless.
"The students looked up from their conversations as Sam Gordon entered the classroom. He was tall and lanky. His walk was the unfolding of a marionette, all knees and elbows swinging briskly as he hurried into the room. His dark curly hair brought out the paleness of his skin. He wore khaki pants with a jacket and tie. The tie was a once-a-year ritual for the first day of class.
Before speaking, Sam looked heavenward. By the end of the year, having seen him look up so many times, his students assumed that the answers to all the questions in economics must be inscribed on the ceilings of the Edwards School. But Sam was only gathering his thoughts.
Sam wrote his name on the board, took a deep breath to still the butterflies, pushed his wire-rims up on the bridge of his nose and turned to face his students.
"My name is Sam Gordon. And this is Life Skills 101, he said.
A student giggled.
"Actually, this is the senior elective, 'The World of Economics.' There is no prerequisite for this class other than an exceedingly open mind. Quiz time!" Sam suddenly announced with delight. "Take out a piece of paper and put your name at the top."
A few quiet groans rose up from the students."
Russell Roberts is a professor of economics at the George Mason University Mercatus Center. Roberts founded and directed the Management Center (now the Center for Experiential Learning) at the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis. Roberts is a regular commentator on business and economics for National Public Radio's Morning Edition, and has written for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He focuses on communicating economics to non-economists, and to that end is the host of the award-winning podcast EconTalk (sponsored by the Library of Economics and Liberty).
He also blogs at Cafe Hayek with Donald J. Boudreaux at Washington University in St. Louis. He published the novel The Invisible Heart which conveys economic ideas in the context of a narrative. In 2008, Roberts released another novel, The Price of Everything, which addresses concepts such as spontaneous order, price gouging, and market economics in crisis situations. He is currently a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
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