An Interview with Economics Professor Russell Roberts

Posted: April 22, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Russell Roberts
Russell Roberts
Photo courtesy of Russell Roberts

The latest book by Mason economics professor Russell Roberts is “The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity” (Princeton University Press, 2008).

Told in the form of a novel, it is the story of how prosperity is created and sustained, and the unseen order and harmony that shape people’s lives.

This book is Roberts’ third journey into didactic fiction in which he blends storytelling with economics. His other novels are “The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance” (MIT Press, 2001) and “The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism” (Prentice Hall, 2006), which was named a best book of the year by Business Week and the Financial Times.

Roberts is also the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Distinguished Scholar at Mason’s Mercatus Center and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Why novels? Are you really aiming to educate people about economic principles as your reviews suggest?

Humans like stories. We like to read them, tell them and listen to them. And for most people, stories are more memorable than a graph or an equation. My novels are a way to communicate economics in what I hope is a more memorable medium than the standard textbook approach. The narratives in my novels also let me show how economics affects our everyday lives.

What comes first? The story or the economics?

Usually the economics comes first. I have an idea or a concept I want to convey. In my last book, I started with a character talking and another character listening. I wasn’t sure who they were. Were they friends? A parent and a child? Either way, they were in a conversation.

As I started to flesh out the conversation, I figured out who they were. One was an economics professor, interested in understanding and explaining the prosperity of our economic system. The other was a student, a tennis prodigy who came from Cuba as a little boy, who is skeptical about the virtues of our economic system.

The more they talked, the more I figured out who they were. Then it turned out the economics professor had other things she wanted the student to understand, so the economics grew more complicated and branched out. Their lives intertwined. Why was she so interested in talking to him? Why was he interested in learning from her even though he wasn’t in her class? I kept listening to them talk, and eventually it all came together.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2009 Mason Spirit in a slightly different form.

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