Fall 2017

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A More Humanistic Economics

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Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. His many books include Narrative and Freedom: the Shadows of Time, Anna Karenina in Our Time and The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture. Read more about Morson in our profile, "Russian Lit — Live."

Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University and a professor of economics. His many books include The Student Aid Game (Princeton University Press). Morson and Schapiro are also the editors of The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040.

Tell us what you think. E-mail comments or questions to the editors at letters@northwestern.edu.

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Northwestern’s economist president and a popular literature professor penned a new book that explores the benefits of combining a deep study of the humanities — especially literature — with the real-world applications of economics.

Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and Gary Saul Morson, the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities, recently co-authored a new book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities (Princeton University Press). The two have co-taught a class, Humanities 260, Alternatives: Modeling Choice Across the Disciplines, in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences for the past seven years. Following is an interview with the authors in which they detail the genesis of the book and some of its key points. (The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

What prompted the book in general, and what prompted it in terms of your class?

Gary Saul Morson: The class prompted the book. We kept talking about these things in class.

Morton Schapiro: It’s a tribute to the undergrads at Northwestern. Ninety percent of this book is just our class notes. The course really evolved. The first time we taught it, maybe a quarter of the book’s contents was in there. Based on CTECs [student class evaluation forms] and the dinners we have for students at my house, where we go from table to table and ask for advice, we improved the course. This is my ninth book and it is Saul’s 19th book. We’ve never just written up class notes and come up with a book before.

In your book, you argue that both economics and the humanities could learn from the other discipline. How?

MS: I’m proud to be an economist, but after almost 40 years of teaching economics and publishing in this area, I have come to believe that we could be a lot more effective field. And then working with Saul, the great humanist that he is, I’ve come to understand that not just other social sciences can improve economics but the humanities can as well. Our course has evolved into addressing the subject of what economics can learn from the humanities.

GSM: And I’m not hostile to economics. I think we have a lot to learn from it. I just think sometimes it makes claims it can’t sustain and goes too far. But humanists could often do well to imitate some of the rigor and respect for evidence [of economics].

It sounds like you’re arguing that economists need to be a bit more modest and a bit more willing to accept their own ignorance in these areas, but are you saying that if they went off and read novels, they might offer better advice?

MS: There’s a certain hubris within my field. Economists cannot just learn from great literature, they can also learn from a range of other fields, including psychology, sociology, anthropology and philosophy. Economics centers on understanding human behavior, but economists approach that question very narrowly. In the book we try to make the case that if economists learned from the best of the humanities, their models would be more realistic, their predictions more accurate and their policies more effective and most just.

GSM: I couldn’t believe that [economists] think people are always rationally pursuing their own best interests. ‘Could someone who at all [has a sense of] perspective actually believe this?’ I thought to myself. That’s when I realized that you really have two cultures — not just that they believe different things, but that each culture can’t believe the other actually believes what they do. 

[For example], we put sanctions on the Russians, and how did they change their behavior, and what did Putin do? He added more sanctions. Now this is not what a normal model would predict, but if you know Russian culture, you would at least not be surprised, even if you wouldn’t predict it.

MS: There are many examples of failed economic policies because our models tend to ignore culture. Economics majors regularly tell me that they want to work in countries outside the U.S., and they wonder how best to prepare themselves for that future. I tell them that instead of still another economics, statistics or mathematics course, try the humanities and the qualitative social sciences. In other words, gain an appreciation of a nation’s literature, art, music, politics, religion and history before you move there.

Schapiro and Morson
Morton Schapiro, left, and Gary Saul Morson chat during a radio interview.

What is your students’ favorite reading?

MS: It’s probably Borges, which is one of the few things that’s not in this book. “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” they love that. They like “Enemies” by Chekhov. They get excited about Gary Becker [a noted economist who posits that people make decisions based on rational self-interest]. They love to argue about his ideas. They like the discussion of why the whole world is not developed. That used to be one class. Now it’s more than two weeks.

Is it an economics course or a humanities course?

MS: Many students take it to fulfill one of the ethics and values distribution requirements. Whatever the topic, we explore its ethical dimensions.

President Schapiro, what have you learned from teaching with Professor Morson?

MS: I’ve learned that economists are more naïve than I had imagined. And I learned that if you are going to teach a course that covers multiple disciplines, pick a co-teacher who is brilliant.

Professor Morson, what have you learned from teaching with Professor Schapiro?

GSM: I’ve learned a lot about economics that I didn’t know. And I bet we humanists are just as naïve, only in a different way!

Was writing the book fun?

MS: It was a joy. We hope our readers can tell how much fun we had writing it. We dedicated [the book] to our families and our students. I hope people find it an engaging read.

GSM: Morty knows how to write so it doesn’t sound like writing. It sounds like talking. That wins the reader over enormously.

MS: And Saul knows just about everything, and he presents it in a very clever way. Did you know that Saul teaches more undergraduates here than anyone else on the faculty? That is a true blessing for Northwestern.