Magazine article The Spectator

It Isn't Such a Dismal Science

Magazine article The Spectator

It Isn't Such a Dismal Science

Article excerpt

FOR Thomas Carlyle, economics was not just `the dismal science', but `a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one . . . which finds the secret of this universe in "supply and demand" '. Sentiments no doubt shared by many.

Sadly, it is true that the writing, if not the science, of economics has often been dismal. Indeed, as the discipline has become more scientific, the life in the prose has ebbed away. The classics remain. There are few more readable descriptions of a market economy than Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776. And the case for stable prices was put with more force and passion by Keynes in his Tract on Monetary Reform than by any central banker. Nevertheless, with few exceptions, books on economics have become either specialised monography or are to be found in the how-to-become-rich sections of bookshops in American airports. They are rarely written to satisfy a lay reader's intellectual curiosity.

In many ways the absence of accessible yet serious writing on economics is surprising. Newspapers are full of stories about economics. But in the bookshops it is popular science that has flourished, with rising sales and special offers (three for the price of two in one of my local retail chains) of books explaining recent discoveries to the general reader. Both the National Gallery and the Royal Society can fill their lecture halls. Audiences are eager and willing to learn about art and science, but not, it would seem, economics. Has economics run out of new ideas? Is that why there are so few books that explain economic ideas to the general reader?

There is no shortage of suitable subjects. The explanation of why some countries grow rapidly and others remain in poverty is surely no less exciting than recent developments in cosmology. Yet Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time remains, more than a decade after publication, at 203 in amazon.co.uk's league table of sales, whereas Peter Jay's recently published Road to Riches languishes in 1985th position, and that in spite of a companion television series. Moreover, Hawking's book is, to say the least, difficult to follow while Jay's is both accessible and readable.

Perhaps the explanation is that economics appears too close to our everyday concerns. It lacks the magic and mystery of the origins of the universe or the creation of a great painting. It does not lift our spirits or expand our horizons. Indeed, in practice one of the contributions of economics is to bring people down to earth, to cut through fanciful speculation with logic and facts. If economics is the science of everyday life, it is understandable that some of the best writing on the subject is to be found not in treatises but in novels.

So it is to fiction that we turn for economic insight. Almost all of Balzac's prolific output concerned the power of money, inspired in large part by the author's lack of it. Not even the Financial Services Authority could warn investors of the need to manage their personal finances as effectively as Dickens's portrait of Mr Micawber. In Dreiser's great American business novel, The Financier, the intimate relationship between power and finance first creates and then destroys the wealth of Frank Cowperwood, who ends up in prison. …

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