The Price of Everything

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I just finished reading The Price of Everything, a novel by the economist Russ Roberts, and it is an unusual and wildly enjoyable book.

Do not read it expecting to find a classic, well-made novel: in that regard, it is awkward and misshapen. But it has a different purpose.

As the subtitle promises, it is “a parable of possibility and prosperity,” which is to say a passionate argument in favor of using the economic approach to look at the world.

The main characters are a late-middle-aged economics professor at Stanford (a woman, as it happens, in a nice break with stereotype) and a student who is a Cuban immigrant, a tennis champ, and extraordinarily attuned to how the world works (or how he thinks it should work). Suffice it to say that the teacher does a lot of teaching and the student does a lot of learning in the course of the book.

The plot itself is rarely satisfying, but the lessons learned along the way are extremely well-drawn. There is the familiar but always charming tale of how no one person knows how to make a pencil, but how it somehow gets made. There is a compelling explanation for why it might be good for stores to raise prices on certain items — flashlights, say — during a storm. (A higher price acts as a brake for those who might be tempted to grab five flashlights they don’t need, which means that the store doesn’t run out for the people who really need one flashlight.)

Roberts has written two earlier economics-lesson novels, which I now look forward to reading.

To my mind, his writing bests the Marshall Jevons economics-lesson mysteries, and there’s a lot more economics to be learned along the way.

Although nothing, sadly, about financial-services meltdowns.

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  1. Lee says:

    We are watching an economic train wreck in progress right now and the really scary part is that we are the passengers. The engineers in charge of the train are not texting but even screaming that it will get worse so everyone must empty their wallets to save ourselves. We also have so-called “leaders” trying to wrest control when they don’t even know which buttons or levers to push or pull.

    I have just finished reading “Conspiracy of Fools” by Kurt Eichenwald about the collapse of Enron which was not too long ago. People never learn and the current financial crisis is a fitting bookend to the fear, greed and ignorance espoused since the beginning of this millenium. I can’t wait for the next book which will be an autopsy of these events.

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  2. Doug Nelson says:

    So, aside from the writing and the plot, it’s a good novel?

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  3. Speedmaster says:

    I’m a big fan and read his last two books, really looking forward to this one.

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  4. Arlen says:

    I love the Marshall Jevons (if that is his real name) books! I think they’re great beach-reading for economists and their loved ones.

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  5. BSK says:

    Does it bother anyone else that the “late middle-aged, female economics professor” does a lot of teaching and the stubborn, Cuban immigrant athlete does a lot of learning? Based on the need to identify the student as Cuban and to only identify the teacher by age and gender (and insists this is a break from stereotypes) indicates the teacher is white. Why is this the way that these characters are portrayed? Does the student of color have nothing to offer to the teacher except “how he thinks the world works”? Does the teacher have nothing to learn from her student? I definitely will not be adding this book to my reading list, especially if the viewpoint it advocates is what helped get us into the mess we are in.

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  6. adm says:

    Russ also hosts an economics podcast @ econtalk.org which I’m addicted to. I haven’t read his book yet though.

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  7. Craig says:

    Sounds rather like the Libertarian-themed SciFi novels that L. Neil Smith writes — a good idea that is frequently too preachy to make a good story. I’m all in favor of using stories to change minds, but it’s got to be a good story first, or there’s no point to the exercise.

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  8. O says:

    no ayn rand?

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