Essay 38: Movies as a Backdoor Into Economics

We argue that one can only “parachute” in and out of a knowledge field by means of an “enchanting backdoor” and not by grim wrestling with a gigantic textbook alone. A textbook should be seen as a “dictionary” or reference book for a field and you dip into when needed as opposed to being oppressed by it.

Here’s a simple illustration of this:

There’s a classic British movie, The Stars Look Down from the forties starring Michael Redgrave. The movie tells the story of a poor boy from a Northern depressed coal-mining town who survives the downward drag of his bleak circumstances and winds up at a university based on his intelligence.

One scene in the movie shows him at a university debate where resources are a point of contention. He mentions the classic book by Jevons called The Coal Question (how much coal is there geologically and economically, given costs and prices). Jevons was a great 19th century mathematical economist. A would-be “parachutist” in economics reads this and then wonders how it might be applied to oil today factoring all costs, including ecological costs, costs of oil spills (i.e., the Exxon Valdez, etc.) and then looks up relevant pages if any in the textbook. This gives economics a context, a time, a place, a question, a “shape.” The student studies up on Jevons, say, using all this as a “backdoor” into both field and textbook.

William Stanley Jevons FRS (1835-1882) was an English economist and logician. Irving Fisher described Jevons’s book, A General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy (1862), as the start of the mathematical method in economics.

The Jevons Paradox

The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines is a book that economist William Stanley Jevons wrote in 1865 to explore the implications of Britain’s reliance on coal.

There’s more to be uncovered:

In the classic book on urban economics, Triumph of the City, by Glaeser of Harvard, the author says:

“The nineteenth-century English economist William Stanley Jevons noted that more-fuel efficient steam engines didn’t lead to less coal consumption. Better engines made energy use effectively less expensive, and helped move the world to an industrial era powered by coal. The term, Jevons paradox, has come to refer to any situation in which efficiency improvements lead to more, not less, consumption—one reason why fuel-efficient cars can end up consuming more gas. Jevons paradox applied to information processing means that as we acquire more efficient means of transmitting information, like e-mail or Skype, we spend more, not less, time in transmitting information.”

(Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City, Penguin Books, 2011, page 37)

Adding more roads to a road system can add to the congestion one expected to relive by attracting even more cars, a Jevons-type phenomenon.

It’s only by “going off” on a direction originating from outside the field (from movies to classic names and analyses to traffic other “congestion” phenomena, can one then “charge up the hill” of a field like economics, where you start with a kind of sense of enchantment and harbor such questions as raised by the movie, The Stars Look Down.

One “sneaks up on” a field one’s own way and sooner or later goes beyond the field asking how does this kind of thinking relate to other parts of a university…enchantment and more holism carry the student forward. Without these “twin engines,”” one is being processed by the grim “the knowledge factory” as opposed to becoming a processor and not just a processee.