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The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance
The MIT Press, 2002
282 pp., $26.95
The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values
The New Press, 2002
288 pp., $20.95
Andrew P. Morriss
Families and Economics
Two quite different books with similar titles bring economics to the subject of romance and the family. Russell Roberts continues his use of fiction to illustrate economics with The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance. He first used this approach in 1994's The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism (updated in a revised edition in 2000). And in a work of nonfiction, The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values, University of Massachusetts professor and MacArthur Fellow Nancy Folbre writes about the failure of mainstream economics to address what she considers to be the important issues surrounding families today.
Roberts' The Invisible Heart has a difficult task. It needs to hold its own as a novel while imparting economic concepts. There is some tension between the two missions. Fiction thrives on plot and character; economics articles, on the other hand, typically emphasize mathematical modeling and statistical analysis of data. To resolve this conflict, Roberts turns to an older tradition of economics: plain writing and clear reasoning. Adam Smith wrote in this style in his masterwork The Wealth of Nations (1776), and even into the late 1940s this remained the approach of most economists. With the rise of formalism after World War II, however, the economics profession turned to less accessible forms of communication. Roberts revives the earlier approach, partially reconciling the gap in form between novels and economics.
As a novel, Roberts' The Invisible Heart is good but not great. His prose is spare, hisplot has a nice twist, and the story is for the most part believable. Roberts not only writes better than most economists, he writes better than many novelists. There are two main story lines, which ultimately converge. Sam Gordon and Laura Silver are two teachers at an exclusive private school in Washington, D.C. Sam teaches economics; Laura teaches literature. Polar opposites, they are inevitably attracted to each other, and their debates over economics, ...