Another take on classics for economists

The admirable Noah Smith responded to my list of suggested classics for economists with a list of science fiction novels for economists. It’s an excellent list, and Paul Krugman responded enthusiastically – he says Isaac Asimov’s 

novels set him on the path to becoming an economist.

[amazon_image id=”0586010807″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Foundation (The Foundation Series)[/amazon_image]

Some years ago, I wrote a column in the Independent arguing that economics sees humans as either Star Trek’s Mr Spock or deductive geniuses like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes.

So the challenge now is for somebody to do the detective fiction for economists list.

[amazon_image id=”B00AHEMYEY” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Complete Sherlock Holmes[/amazon_image]

Interestingly, Benedict Cumberbatch has become a common thread between Sherlock and science fiction, with his role in the new Star Trek movie Into Darkness, which as an old Trekkie I can’t wait to see.

Natural born economist


14 thoughts on “Another take on classics for economists

  1. By mentioning Asimov you crossed the line to not-out-of-print books and entered the realm of modern classics. This gives me the liberty to mention China Mieville (Perdido Street Station) and most of the other books that are discussed on the Crooked Timber weblog. All very much recommended.

  2. Not a real detective story, but the analysis by Fernand Braudel of why the influx of New-World silver to Spain and Portugal did not benefit these countries, reads like one. The same applies to Niall Ferguson’s “The pity of war”.
    And the metophor of the detective story is very much evident in Tim Harfords “The undercover economist”.
    Some of the Nero Wolf detective stories capture the business atmosphere of post-war US very well, for example:
    But there are no direct economic motifs. I hope someone will point to a real economic detective story.

  3. What is a ‘real economic detective story’? I would count Emma Lathen’s excellent detective novels, smart and funny, with a banker detective and plots based on economics and finance.

    Emma Lathen’s was a double act, two writers with business and economics backgrounds.

  4. Ok, my previous comment on classics for economists hinted it was a list of works of literature for people who don’t really like literature. I’ll take that back.

    But why do economists (OK, Krugman and Noahsmith) like science fiction? Is it being interested in things other than character and plot, or am I just odd/wrong in being utterly uninterested in SF?

    • Krugman says it’s because of the way SF projects forwards social and technological trends, and it got him interested in understanding society. There’s probably a good psychological/sociological study of economists’ character traits and reading habits to be done! Liking SF absolutely not compulsory – isn’t it rather encouraging to find economists debating the merits of Jane Austen?

  5. Such a great idea! Will you also accept film / drama recommendations as well?
    If so, then under SF PD James ‘Children of Men’ (though arguably, 1992 book better than 2006 film) portrays a society undergoing a conservative, authoritarian and xenophobic response to an exogneous shock of terminal demographic decline. Credibly rational expectations feature strongly….
    Not SF, but a Christmas parable, ‘Millions’ (2004), (, the film by Danny Boyle written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, is premised on an unanticipated drop of money from the skies, albeit not by helicopter, and the behavioural responses to that in a sequence of inter-connected economies, beginning with the school playground. With one notable exception, and all the more watchable for the tension that this induces, the characters are generally lacking in rational expectations… (It also assumes an unlikely mode of implementation of a UK membership of the euro…)
    For, let’s call this a challenge, to ‘big corporations bad / small family businesses good’, or indeed to the dark side of informal non-market economic relationships and to ‘know your customer’ as an ethical business norm, then you surely can’t do better than ‘The Godfather’ series…
    Money and lending, and the enforcement of contracts, come up a lot in Shakespeare, usually as bad things. Why…?
    For a genuine classic, ‘What a Wonderful Life’ (1946) ( has: financial sector market abuse; the virtues of mutual institutions and of the public sector; and a bank run…
    The Odyssey – the one with Odysseus strapping himself to the mast – is the font of a thousand policy regimes. Or a single regime replicated a thousand times. (All the crew perish, sadly, but perhaps that’s austerity for you.)
    And finally – Dr Pangloss, from Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ – as an antidote to the presumption of neutrality as a basis for policy norms?

  6. Janet Neel is another author who wrote crime stories with a business angle, though now almost completely out of print (and the one still available at is the least best fit with the category). Her protagonist is a civil servant in the DTI, with industrial policy and business economics providing context and motives.

    She is also a former governor of the BBC, though alas I cannot remember any tales of blood and mayhem in that most respectable of groups.

  7. The fictional detective Henry Spearman uses his economics knowledge to solve his mysteries…created by two economics professors, and, though it’s ages since I read these books, I remember they were rather fun!

    • I wonder if you mean the books by ‘Marshall Jevons’? It’s years since I read them but the name of the detective rings a faint bell. There are also the two very good novels by Russ Roberts, The Invisible Heart, and The Price of Everything.

      • That’s the one, or rather, the two. I’ve just ordered a second-hand copy of one to see whether it stands the test of time. And will try the other two you mention! xx

  8. Pingback: Economics, Star Trek and me | The Enlightened Economist

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