The Invisible Heart
by David R. Henderson
by David R. Henderson
Are you ready for a novel that appeals to your intellect and your heart at the same time? Have I got a book for you. It's The Invisible Heart (MIT Press, 271 pages, $22.95) by economist Russell Roberts. Yes, it's an economics novel. In other words, when you read this novel, you will learn a lot of economics, in a very pleasant, philosophical way. On top of all that, the one romantic scene, even though it reveals no skin, is a real turn on.
Until recently, the main economics novels in existence were written by economists William Breit and Kenneth Elzinga under the pseudonym Marshall Jevons. The Marshall was for Alfred Marshall and the Jevons was for William Stanley Jevons, both prominent British economists in the late 19th century. The Marshall Jevons novels are mysteries that the reader can solve if he pays attention to detail, the typical requirement for solving a mystery, and, furthermore, understands a key principle or two of economics. In one of their novels, for example, you can spot a lie by knowing the answer to the joint supply problem in economics, which says that when the demand for, say, beef goes up, the price of leather falls. But no one has attempted to write an economics novel about a love story.
Until now. The Invisible Heart, is a love story about two young teachers in a pricey Washington, D.C. high school. Sam is a free-market economics teacher and Laura is a liberal English teacher. The love develops between these two in a very natural way, but a way that almost never happens in a novel: they actually get to know each other by talking — about abstract issues and about their own experiences. Roughly 100 pages of the 256-page book are their conversations; of these, 5 pages are of Laura reciting and explaining her favorite poem, Tennyson's Ulysses, to Sam, and 81 pages are of them discussing various controversial issues, mainly in economics and somewhat in political philosophy.
Of course, Sam has a monopoly, or at least a large market share, in the conversations about economics. When Laura casually remarks, for example, that teachers are overworked and underpaid, Sam explains why that can't be true. His completely conversational explanation of what economists call "relative wages" is better than any I have read in any economics book and better than any lecture I have ever given on the topic in my economics classes. How's this for summing up the reason for one basketball star's awesome pay: "Not everyone can mix basketball and ballet like a Michael Jordan." In fact, even though I already agreed with Sam about virtually everything he said, he still said things in surprising and refreshing ways, and I always wondered what was next. For that reason, and also because I wanted to see whether Sam got the girl and/or lost his job (the latter a sub-plot through the whole novel), I read the whole book in one evening.
You might expect that Invisible Heart, with Sam's argumentative pro-market conversations, is a knock-off of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. It's not. Whereas Rand's heroes often don't seem real and they project a moral superiority over those they argue with, Sam is much humbler and talks as if he's in a conversation, which he is, rather than on stage. It makes sense that he would be this way; Sam wants to get the girl and the girl doesn't already agree with him. But also it's his nature. Sam is a normal human who, somehow, has an incredibly deep understanding of economics and a large ability to relate it to normal humans and everyday life. Could you imagine being fascinated by an explanation for why dry cleaning for women's blouses costs more than for men's shirts? I couldn't either. But I was.
Sam is also a very different character from Ayn Rand's heroes. He celebrates free markets every bit as much as Rand's characters do, and understands as well as they do that the major favor rich industrialists do for humanity is produce increasingly high-quality products for lower and lower prices and, in that way, become rich industrialists. Roberts' discussion of how a dynamic economy is constantly improving even simple items and giving more and more choices to people to satisfy their wants is outstanding. "You can no more stop the marketplace from filling every obscure niche of consumer desire," he tells Laura, "than you can stop the rain forest from blossoming in every direction." Also like Rand's heroes, he dislikes government welfare because it is financed by taxes on those who have earned their income. But Sam goes further, putting a high value on compassion, charity, and benevolence. He thinks that's what government welfare discourages. Great line: "If we want to make the world a better place, I much prefer to work on creating compassion in selfish people rather than using the Internal Revenue Service to force them to give." In fact, the discussion of benevolence and charity is better than any I have ever read in any book, fiction or non.
While the plot is engaging, a lot of other things are happening too. 19th century economist Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of man going about the ordinary business of life. In The Invisible Heart, we see man and woman actually doing that. Sam and Laura, after all, have to make a living and, every once in a while we get glimpses of what they, especially Sam, do and say in the classroom. Of course I, being an economics teacher myself, found Sam's classroom economics lessons fascinating. Most people, economically literate or not, would also. In one class, Sam wants to impress on his students the key role of incentives in getting things done and so he tells a true story about the shipping of prisoners to Australia over 200 years earlier. Captains of ships were allocated a certain amount of money for each prisoner they took on board. The result was that many of the prisoners died en route. In fact, some completely unscrupulous captains threw the prisoners overboard, thus saving the funds allocated for their care. Then someone had the bright idea of paying for every prisoner who showed up in Australia alive. Suddenly, each ship captain had an incentive to care for prisoners and in a cost-effective manner. The death rate of prisoners plummeted, from 12% to less than 0.25%.
Sam, like Laura, is also somewhat of a philosopher and one of his most effective lessons to his class involves something he calls the "Dream Machine." His idea is based on one laid out by libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Sam asks the class to imagine that they can be hooked up to a machine that will let them imagine any life they want and feel as if they are living it. So, for example, if someone wants to surpass the Beatles in popularity or win the Nobel Peace prize, or both, she can imagine she is doing so. The imagination will be so vivid that the person is absolutely convinced she is doing it. Moreover, it's not just a moment in time that the person imagines. She can also imagine growing old gracefully, with perfect health, and with all the accolades she wants. Most of the class say they would do it. But then Sam introduces the hitch. Whoever agrees to be hooked up to the Dream Machine, even though he will feel as if he's lived a long, rich life, will actually experience all that in under 5 minutes and will then die. Suddenly, none of the students wants it. The reason is that the Dream Machine strips life of everything that makes life worth living — the striving, the seeking, and the finding, in words he borrows from Laura's favorite poem.
I said earlier that the way we see the romance develop is in Sam's and Laura's conversations. In one scene, the conversation smoothly segues into touching in a completely natural way that was, for me, a turn on. Roberts did not have to resort to the stock line of the modern American romance novelist: "he caressed her perky, pouty breast." The tone of this scene reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in the Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn classic, The Philadelphia Story, that also succeeds in creating arousal from conversation in context rather than from baring of skin.
I have only two criticisms of the book, one of which is of the economics and is, in context, fairly picky. In discussing the economics of the drug war, Sam argues that making cocaine illegal has made it more profitable. In fact, when any activity is made illegal, it becomes less profitable, causing firms to exit. Once they exit, the risk-adjusted profits are competitive with those in other industries but are a good deal for people with "criminal skills." My other criticism, though, is of the book as a novel. In his earlier book, The Choice, which has become a modern classic, a kind of a "It's a Wonderful Life" applied to free trade, Roberts mainly uses conversation. Invisible Heart leans heavily on conversation also. The conversations are better, more real, and more human in Invisible Heart, making it a book I enjoyed reading twice. The problem is that the conversation is one-sided, too much of Sam telling Laura how it is. Early in the novel, Laura thinks to herself: "His perspective on the world turned a wait for a subway train into an intellectual tennis match. And it always seemed to be his serve." I don't know how to fix that when one person understands economics and the other doesn't, and the author's goal is to get across some important ideas in economics. But maybe Roberts will figure that out when he writes his next novel.
July 21, 2007
David R. Henderson [send him mail] is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of economics at the Graduate School of Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California. His latest book, co-authored with Charles L. Hooper, is Making Great Decisions in Business and Life (Chicago Park Press, 2006.)
Copyright © 2007 by David R. Henderson