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.


Jay

Roberts's Invisible Heart is also excellent economics, and has the advantage of being a compelling story -- mostly by virtue of good character development and an unexpected, clever plot twist.

Joel Leonard

What bothers me about most business books and MBA programs is that they focus on costs and not the value contribution provided by service groups that are essential to the long term sustainability and profitability of business. It as if the hedonistic views of the 60s have penetrated our executive world and everything is now, now, now and thinking about tomorrow is deferred.

Perhaps you may enjoy reading the Council on Competitiveness recent report

http://www.compete.org/publications/detail/472/thrive

If we are going to have a tomorrow, we must make plans today.

Joel@Skilltv.net

Corey S.

"By that logic, no single person knows entirely about anything. What a crock."

You're an awfully good example of one person who knows nothing about entirely everything.

Question: can you name the socialist country in closest proximity to the U.S.? That might be your answer as to why the student is who he is. Or, Professor Roberts is a racist. One of the two.

"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."

So you're admitting that you haven't read this book, yet you're eager to accuse the author and review of racism. And you claim this mess was caused by free markets. It is usually not appropriate to make wide generalizations about people based on comments on the internet, but I will make one here:

You are dumb.

flix

No Rothbard?

Stephen

BSK,

In the immortal quote (attributed to Frued often) goes: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"

The book is about contrasts. Old vs young, woman vs male, and here American vs non-American (American being the "typical American" way of refering to "Citizen of the United States of America"). The book could have had a female foreign teacher (in say... Egypt for a setting you don't often see) and an American male athletic student going there, except then learning the lessons of "American capitalism" aren't quite the same. Also some would intepret the book as "How stupid average Americans are" not "learning first-hand economic lessons"

The professor could have been an African American and the white student could have come from Australia, but that would spur "Why are you making fun of Australia? We have a more stable economy than you guys do now" from someone.

Cuba represents one of the few non-capitalistic countries still around. That's all, another contrast in lifestyles. No matter what any author writes about SOMEONE gets upset, this someone is you. If he made it about an Irish immigrant, it would be someone else. Sorry you drew the short straw here.

Read more...

Paul

Russ Roberts is awesome!!!!

Daniel Reeves

@BSK:

That is correct. Not one person knows everything about something. That's why people trade.

The pencil bit comes from an essay called "I, Pencil," which demonstrates how dependent we are on trade with the rest of the world. It's a wonderful essay. You should read it.

Sam Grove

I can get a pencil at the store for a few coins.

Thoreau may have been able to make a pencil, but how long did it take him to make it?

Was it painted to keep the wood from getting grungy?

Did it have a brass ferrule?

Did it have an eraser?

Could he make two or more pencils virtually identical?

What was the "lead" made of?

If you were to make pencils by hand, would you be able to sell them profitably for 25¢?

Did Thoreau fell and cut the trees, mine the brass and graphite, collect the rubber sap for the eraser, etc.?

Doug Nelson

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

Speedmaster

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

Grant

#5 - extremely excellent points.

In general: So basically this is a bad-plot, poorly-characterized, stilted piece of propaganda? If it was about the power of communism we'd probably laugh it off.

BSK

Anon-

Give me a reason to calm down and maybe I will. Being dismissive is not much of an argument. I am incredibly calm and simply pointing out what I see to be glaringly obvious bias in the book and/or in the review here. Intellectual debate generally requires discussing the merits of an argument as opposed to ad hoc attacks.

By the way, I'm sure you assumed I am a person of color, but I am very much white, so don't try veiled attempts at painting me as the "angry dark man".

BSK

By the way, that pencil bit is ridiculous. By that logic, no single person knows entirely about anything. What a crock.

Ray G

BSK:

I didn't see where anyone even vaguely implied that you were any particular color, white or otherwise.

The admonition to calm down is only meant to point out that you are being hypersensitive. That you completely missed the parable of the pencil only makes matters worse. The point is that there is no pencil tsar to ensure the timely production and perfect distribution of pencils.

The parable itself is a old, and a classic, and most people with even a casual knowledge of economics knows of this story. Google "I pencil."

And Robert's book is a good story. Good stories only seem preachy when one doesn't agree with the lesson. Upton Sinclair seems overbearing and preachy to me, but hey, art is in the eye of the beholder right?

liberalarts

The Marshall Jevons books are pretty strained; if anyone has read this book, I would be interested to know if it would be a productive side reader for a principles of economics class. Every couple of years a bit of econ fiction emerges (recently "Saving Adam Smith" which looked pretty bad), but I am looking for one that would be a good fit.

O

no ayn rand?

Rich

"By the way, that pencil bit is ridiculous. By that logic, no single person knows entirely about anything."

By Jove, I think he's got it!

Craig

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.

adm

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

Sanjiv

"By the way, that pencil bit is ridiculous. By that logic, no single person knows entirely about anything. What a crock."

@BSK:

I think you are on to something. Keep thinking along those lines.