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December 2, 2003

Economist's book uses literature to illuminate 'dismal science'

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – While analytical, mathematically driven economists don't seem to have much in common with their abstract literary colleagues, a Purdue University professor's new book contends economics teachers can use examples from classic literature to bring economic principles to life for students.

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In "The Literary Book of Economics," Michael Watts, a Krannert School of Management economics professor, uses literary passages from William Shakespeare to Kurt Vonnegut to illustrate economic concepts. Watts illustrates, for example, the concepts of income inequality, poverty and income redistribution policies with passages from Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Journals," Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," and others.

Watts writes that while economics and literary study often haven't found much common ground, "… for better or worse – or both – economics, literature, and literary criticism and history are constantly being pushed together because of their strong mutual interests in fundamental ideas and topics."

The structure of Watts' book is to present an economic concept followed by a literary passage with a short explanation to guide the reader. In all, Watts uses 78 passages to illustrate 21 essential economic concepts, beginning with scarcity, wants and resources (and a passage from John Milton's "Comus"), and ending with cost-benefit analysis (and passages from Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and Par Lagerkvist's "A Hero's Death"). In between, Watts covers the basic economic undergraduate curriculum. The approach also could be adapted to high school use, Watts says.

Students reading Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," can bring examples from their own experience to understand the economic concepts of choice and opportunity cost. Watts' description of the concepts illustrated in the poem is: "Every choice has a cost because choosing to do one thing entails giving up the opportunity to do something else. Faced with the same option, different people often make different choices because they place different values on each alternative's cost and expected outcome."

In the poem, the speaker famously takes the road "less traveled by." And, to him or her, that choice "has made all the difference."

Alternatively, those who have chosen the other road have made another choice that also "has made all the difference." So, perhaps the speaker has chosen to invest in a high-flying startup company and has gotten rich. On the other hand, those who took the other road may have chosen a slow-but-sure investment strategy so they can sleep without worry. Each choice has led to something the consumer wanted (a scarce resource) and sacrificed something (opportunity cost), Watts says.

Watts, who is director of the Purdue Center for Economic Education, is not advocating replacing the economist's empiricism and numerical analysis with literature. But he writes that "literary works often describe human behavior and motivations more eloquently, powerfully, or humorously than economists do, even when dealing with economic subjects." This, Watts says, allows economics teachers to use literature "to help teach economics more effectively at the secondary and college level."

Watts once taught a class on economics and literature to a class that included both secondary economics and English teachers "… who loved the material and enjoyed being brought together to work on a common set of material as allies, for once – not something that happens often for economics and English teachers at any level."

Watts, while not telling English teachers how to teach their classes, suggests that infusing some economic thought into the study of literature could be healthy, adding "just a bit more breadth and variety, in exactly the same way these passages [in "The Literary Book of Economics"] can be used to add variety to typical economics courses."

Watts does not claim to be the inventor of the concept of using literature to illustrate and explain economic principles. Good economists and good teachers have always known that stories help drive home complex ideas.

Rather, Watts' ultimate goal is the education of a more "articulate citizenry" whose greater understanding will lead both to better personal economics and public economic policy.

"The Literary Book of Economics" has been reviewed in "The Wall Street Journal" and "The Boston Globe."

Writer: Mike Lillich, (765) 494-2077,

Source: Michael Watts, (920) 232-6799, (765) 494-8543,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Note to Journalists: Review copies of "The Literary Book of Economics" are available by calling ISI Books at (800) 526-7022. A publication-quality photograph Michael Watts, the book's author, is available at

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