Steinbeck Makes Microeconomics Real

"Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange

Following up on yesterday’s post on The Grapes of Wrath, I’ve just learned about a microeconomics course that uses Steinbeck’s novel as one of its textbooks.  I wrote last January about how Stephen Ziliak of Roosevelt University-Chicago believes that literature can infuse life into the discipline’s bloodless abstractions. Here’s his explanation of why Steinbeck appears in his microeconomics syllabus:

(T]he economic conversation is shaped by many different texts and experiences, from novels to music and media. It’s important for economists to learn how to speak to the humanistic sides of the conversation, and, likewise, it’s crucial that humanists speak intelligently about economic theory and facts, and not be bamboozled. To this end and others, we’ll read and analyze the most famous protest novel in American literature, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Set in and written during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is a bluesy road-novel with a lot of economic theory and analysis. It follows homeless and landless tenant farmers from Oklahoma who have been pushed off of foreclosed farms. Forced by large and foreign banks to leave their rented shacks and lean-tos, the Midwestern farmers with little education and no income join other displaced on the road to California in search of jobs, food, and housing—a piece of the American Dream.

We’ll read this highly relevant novel using in part the lens of economic theory and facts, and likewise we’ll critically analyze economic theory and facts using concepts and insights we discover in The Grapes of Wrath.

You can find the entire syllabus here. Make sure you check out the last page, where there is a wonderful sample set of homework questions that are designed to get students to apply economic principles to passages in the book.  Here are a couple:

1. Identifications. Identify the speaker of each passage, supply the page number, and briefly describe the economic significance of the passage to the novel.

a. Then, with time, the squatters were no longer squatters, but owners . . . They arose in the dark no more to hear the sleepy birds’ first chittering and the morning wind around the house while they waited for the first light to go out to the dear acres. These things were lost, and crops were reckoned in dollars, and land was valued by principal plus interest, and crops were bought and sold before they were planted.

b. Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce. Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten.

c. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours.. . . This is the beginning—from “I” to “we.”

2. Here is an economics question posed by The Grapes of Wrath:

Your father got a han’bill on yella paper, tellin’ how they need folks to work. They wouldn’t go to that trouble if they wasn’t plenty work. Costs ’em good money to get them han’bills out. What’d they want ta lie for, an’ costin’ ’em money to lie?

a. Draw the California supply and demand for fruit pickers, before and after migration.

b.  What do you predict will happen to the equilibrium wages of fruit pickers?

c.  Name two scenes in the novel indicating just how low wages can go.

An interview with Ziliak can be found here. His explanation for why he uses Grapes of Wrath to teach microeconomics indicates, in the best liberal arts tradition, that knowledge cannot be confined to a single discipline:

I guess my first response is that I eschewed in my own research the one-voiced, monological approach of conventional neoclassical economics. Trained as an economic historian, I’m an amateur poet who has also worked as a welfare and food stamp caseworker in the county welfare department, going door-to-door in the poorest neighborhoods of Indianapolis. When I became an Assistant Professor of Economics in 1996, I was searching for a teaching method that would open up the conversation to a wider, more realistic set of issues. It only seemed fair to me: given that I myself had philosophical objections to the conventional approach to teaching utilitarian economics, it hardly seemed right to force-feed my students. Plus, many of my students came from working class families but they’d never experienced a recession. I wanted them to know that growth and bubbles do not last forever.

When asked about how students respond, Ziliak acknowledges that they are initially skeptical:

Some are defensive at first, being trained to believe that stories are for novelists and theory for scientists. Still others have been so deeply entrenched with what I call the banking approach to learning—regurgitating facts and equations—they’re afraid of dialogue and a plurality of voices and interpretation. But students tell me it’s one of those life-changing courses.

That an economist could use literature to change lives is, of course, something that I have no difficulty believing.

As he notes in the interview, Ziliak is a poet as well as a teacher and, in addition to the economics haikus that I wrote about last January, he has written some enjoyable economics limericks.  Here are a couple.  The first, in the Edward Lear style (with a sly wink at the John Irving novel), ends the first and last lines with the same word. The other two, making great use of female rhymes, are in the limerick style as we have come to know it.

There is a new plan called TARP,
Which reeks of capers and carp;
It floats toxic assets,
Ignores moral facets,
The world according to TARP!

To solve his financial liquidity trap
The Minister sings this austerity rap:
“I help debtor banks,
For which they give thanks,
And save for you workers, my dirty crap.”

A hedge-fund trader from Nannatuck
Was fond of sad women and making a buck;
He bought them bad wine,
He sold them sub-prime,
And said that he didn’t quite give a f*ck.

If you want to read more of Steve’s limericks, you can go here.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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