The Forum | General Education

From the Bookshelf: Narrative Economics by Robert J. Shiller

February 28, 2020 by Erik Gross

In Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral & Drive Major Economic Events, Robert J. Shiller, Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University, engages in a quantitative analysis of how popular narratives have influenced economic phenomena. Narratives, the author argues, from Gold Standard-era bank runs in the 19th century to modern get-rich-quick Bitcoin investments, have been central to the economic history of America, and have been largely underappreciated by professional economists who favor hard measurables like interest and inflation rates. 

Whatever one thinks of his argument about economics, another interesting, and perhaps surprising, theme arises from his book: More economists should study the humanities. With higher education departments becoming more siloed, students specializing in narrow fields, and economics increasingly favoring hard quantitative analysis, Dr. Shiller argues against the “compartmentalization of intellectual life.” Moreover, he asserts, we need more English and history majors, and economists must collaborate with them. Can economists complete their research without being able to adequately analyze human emotion or the role of group-think in driving booms and busts? And can they accomplish their educational duties without the ability to write effectively and transmit their complex ideas to a lay audience? The author thereby provides one of the most unexpected endorsements of liberal arts education in the past few years.


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