Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What I've Been Reading - Part I

Followers of this blog know it's been an interesting summer. Despite everything, I always find time to read. I just haven't been able to put down my thoughts on the books I've read that I want to recommend. So I've got three to bring to your attention.

I finished the first book back in June. It's Saving Adam Smith by Dr. Jonathan Wight, an economics professor at the University of Richmond. I've gotten to know Dr. Wight through a number of different avenues. I'm glad that I have. His views on economics are stimulating and interesting - not always descriptors that go together.

Saving Adam Smith is a novel about economics and moral philosophy. And while you may initially wonder what the connection is, I direct you to the title. Most people know that Adam Smith is the father of modern economics. Most of them may even know the title of the work that earned him that title, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN). Fewer of that group may know that he was also a professor of philosophy; and that his major work in that field, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), was the work in which Smith took the most pride. But how does that work to make a novel? I can say "wonderfully."

The two main characters are an economics teacher at a small college, working to finish his dissertation; and an immigrant truck mechanic in Virginia who channels Adam Smith. They work their way cross country with some interesting experiences. But the value of the book lies less in the plot than in the way Wight brings together the ideas in Smith's two great works. The result is that we begin to see the popular view of Smith's capitalism for what it is - incomplete. By treating Smith's works as complements, Wight shows us what capitalism can be when tempered with moral understanding. And at various points, we see how the larger Smith - the Smith not bound by one work - offered insights into "new" areas of economic research.

I was particularly struck by this quote from WN, which seems to presage much of current happiness research:
Every man is rich or poor according to the degree to which he can afford the necessities, conveniences, and amusements of life. But that same richness, that same poverty has no essential corollary with his happiness.
Combine it with this passage from TMS and we have a foundation for classroom discussion about a variety of economic topics from choice and consequences to utility to income distribution to the role of government and policy:
Happiness consists in tranquility...What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience? To one in this situation, all accessions of fortune may properly be said to be superfluous...Do they imagine that their stomach is better, or their sleep sounder in a palace than in a cottage? The contrary has been so often observed, and, indeed, is so very obvious...
The book is full of such opportunities, each presented in a context that clarifies Smith's meaning.

This is worth your effort if, for no other reason, you would like to deepen your understanding of Smith. But if you are seeking a text to augment your regular class readings in an enjoyable way while providing a platform for discussion through the semester, you may want to consider it. Additionally, if you're looking for a foundation for a summer reading list for next year's students, this would be a light and yet thought-provoking addition.

I welcome your comments.

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