Re-reading “Economics Explained”

Economics ExplainedI recently re-read Heilbroner and Thurow’s Economics Explained. I often look upon reading it in 1996 (my second year of high school) as the moment I realized I didn’t want to go into the natural sciences, but to do something in the social sciences or humanities (I don’t think I fully understood the distinction back then).

I later came to realize that people with a passion for natural sciences didn’t just excel in their classes–they were doing all kinds of additional stuff on their own. I spent a lot of time thinking about society, politics, philosophy. Social sciences fit my temperament better. It was a natural fit.

I also reasoned that what the world needs isn’t more and better technology, but to better use that technology to solve our problems–a social and political problem. Of course, we really need people doing both. As an aside, I recently heard Neil Armstrong make a good case for how technology plays a major role in making political change possible:

There are so many cliches about re-reading a book being like catching up with an old friend and all that. That was true, but I also re-read it with the knowledge of how it had given me an important nudge in the direction I’d ended up going. It was interesting to see which parts I remembered very well 18 years later, and which parts I didn’t remember at all. I think it attests to the impact that it had on me that I specifically remember reading it on the plane while visiting my dad in Alaska over spring break.

Even though there are more recent editions, I wanted to read the same copy of the 1994 edition. It was fun to return to this moment, again with the knowledge of what happened later. This was shortly after the collapse of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, so there’s speculation about where the world is heading. Anything written more than a few years after this would have had a discussion about how The Internet was changing the economy.  As it happened I lived in San Jose at the time. I remember The Internet–CompuServe, Prodigy, AOL and all that–being something some people (but not my family) had to go chat and such, but not The Thing That Was Revolutionizing Our Lives.

While re-reading it I market some great passages, thinking they’d be great to share on this blog from time to time. Today I’ll stick with this one:

This brief glance at economic history brings home an important point. The factors of production, without which a market society could not exist, are not eternal attributes of a natural order. They are the creations of a process of historic change, a change that divorced labor from social life, that created real estate out of ancestral land, and that made treasure into capital. Capitalism is the outcome of a revolutionary change–a change in laws, attitudes, and social relationships as deep and far-reaching as any in history (p. 16).

I think one of the greatest things authors can do is let someone see the world from a different perspective. Heilbroner and Thurow achieved that after a sixteen year-old stumbled across their book in a book store.