Regular ecolog reader Kevin Corcoran sent me an interesting article about finding economic ideas in fiction. I edit it a little. Here it is:
Occasionally, while watching a show or movie, I would notice scenes that beautifully illustrate the concepts of economics. My ability to identify and describe such moments is, without a doubt, one of the reasons I am so popular at parties. [DRH note: ha ha.]
Recently, a thought came to mind that made me think about Brian Kaplan’s idea of rational irrationality. The show is called House, MD, And its title character is Dr. Gregory House, a doctor who specializes in diagnosing difficult diseases but is addicted to painkillers due to arrogant, antisocial and semi-crippled legs. The second season had an ongoing story for several episodes where House was temporarily removed as department head while being investigated for his various animosities. During the investigation, one of his subordinates said. Foreman was put in charge. Dr. Foreman was generally presented as the most intelligent doctor on the team (excluding House), and the one who was most willing and pushed against House.
In the episode Communication failure, Other physicians have noticed that the foreman, although he is now technically in charge, is suddenly pushing back less against the House, and seems less confident about making his own decision. This led to this bit of conversation between him and Dr. Chase:
Foreman: Do you have a point? Or have you felt like giving a long unnecessary explanation for something medically irrelevant?
Chase: What happened to the foreman who always had the answer? The guy who actually wears a sign says, “I’m as good as the house, but I’m more beautiful.”
Foreman: I never said.
Chase: I think it’s safe to be confident when the House ignores you. Now it’s all up to you …
Foreman: (pauses, laughs) It’s different. Yes.
This scene summarizes how logical irrationality begins. The foreman, of course, cares about the outcome – he wants to make an accurate diagnosis. But he also knows that his voice is not less than decisive when it comes to choosing the path of action. And the knowledge of that background led him to express his ideas with more confidence than to fully justify them without realizing it before this point. Now that his choices are authoritative, he suddenly becomes less sure of how right he is and becomes more concerned about whether he missed something or could be wrong. Like all good fiction, this is completely believable writing. Anyone who watches this episode won’t think “The way Foreman is acting is so unrealistic.” We can all see how this kind of behavior makes sense and how we would almost certainly do the same thing if we were in the same position.
Irrational irrationality extends this idea. As voters, there are far fewer reasons for people to assume themselves second than foreman. Even before he was temporarily in charge of the team, Foreman’s voice still had some influence and some influence and it gave him extra motivation to fix things. But in all cases except the smallest election, voters come nowhere near having this kind of influence on the results and you don’t have enough strength to overcome the ideological commitment to enforce intellectual discipline to make sure things are right, tribal loyalty, biased expression, and so on. There is not much to assume your decisions will be different when you make a different decision. As a result, voters’ behavior is almost entirely driven by knee-jerking, with no reason to re-evaluate them.
This is one of the few examples of finding the nugget of economic thought in fiction.
Kevin and I think it would be interesting for Econlog readers to cite examples where they also saw the concepts of economics in fiction. Get it here.