On Real and Fictional Economists


My own interactions with John Nash have been limited to invoking Nash equilibrium or Nash bargaining, and seeing the movie and reading the book A Beautiful Mind. But when I was at Princeton last week, I heard that John Nash still comes to economics seminars.

I also heard the story that when they were filming a part of the movie in his office, he was told along with everyone else that he needed to wait until they were done filming to go into that area, and he waited patiently, unrecognized. 

The movie “A Beautiful Mind” is unusual in having an economist as the hero–and one who really sounds like an economist. Of course John Nash was also a mathematician. I think there are more mathematician heroes in film than economist heroes. 

On TV, the most prominent economist character I can think of is President Jed Bartlett in “The West Wing,” who was played by Martin Sheen. Unfortunately, although Jed Bartlett is supposed to have a Nobel prize in economics, one doesn’t have to listen very long to realize that he doesn’t think like an economist. So while, depending on your politics, Jed Bartlett may be a good role model for US presidents, he is not a good role model for economists.  

I suspect that the most influential fictional economist is actually Hari Seldon, from Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. I think of Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory” as very much like macroeconomics at its best: using the law of averages to make aggregate predictions even where it is hard to predict the behavior of any one individual. Although other scientific disciplines beckoned me along the way, I credit reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series with doing a lot to dispose me toward becoming an economist. I am not the only one for whom this was a big influence. Paul Krugman also credits the Foundation series as an important influence. The current version of the Wikipedia article on Hari Seldon reports that link this way:

At the 67th World Science Fiction Convention in Montréal, QuébecCanadaPaul Krugman, the Nobel Laureate in Economics, mentioned Hari Seldon. According to Krugman, his interest in economics began with Asimov's Foundation novels, in which the social scientists of the future use “Psychohistory” to attempt to save civilization. Since “Psychohistory” in Asimov’s sense of the word does not exist, Krugman turned to economics, which he considered the next best thing.[3] In his column he considers Ibn Khaldun having done “a pretty good job” of setting himself up as the Hari Seldon of medieval Islam.[4]

I would love to hear about other fictional economists and the influence of fictional economists in the world. Overall, I think our discipline is represented fairly positively in popular culture, given the many controversial things we deal with.  

In the real world, I think that for anyone wanting to build a better world, as Hari Seldon tried to make a better galaxy, making one’s case to young economists is one of the most promising ways to make it happen. That is a theme I have returned to often:

I have even tried to put together a bit of a strategy manual for trying to change the world in this way:

As I said in my post “Prioritization,” I would be glad for any helpful hints to improve on the kind of strategy I am pursuing beyond “do more."