This month marks 116 years since Robert A. Heinlein’s birth. Called the “Dean of Science Fiction,” Heinlein brought two major contributions to the genre. First, he stressed scientific accuracy. Second, he used his stories as vessels not just for astronomy and physics, but also for another brand of science that was taking off in the 20th century.
Heinlein’s stories are social science fiction. Sometimes he played with the rise of “empirical” methods in political science and the consequences that could have for liberty (Starship Troopers and Tunnel in the Sky are good examples). Some of his stories focused on “new” psychology (see Life-Line and Blowups Happen). But the jewel in his crown is his novelette on statistics and economics – The Year of the Jackpot. It’s an example of important things we’re missing in modern economics communications, and it’s the reason I study economics to this day.
The main character of Jackpot is one Potiphar Breen, a mathematician and a statistician. Potiphar is a professional predictor, working in what he calls business consultation. “I can tell a rancher exactly how many of his Hereford bull calves will be sterile. Or I tell a motion picture producer how much rain insurance to carry on location. Or maybe how big a company in a particular line must be to carry its own risk in industrial accidents,” he says.
He’s taken a particular interest in cycles and the correlations between them. Potiphar thinks everything happens in cycles. Sun spots, wheat acreage, marriages, stock prices, even women’s skirts. He has charts all done up with the lines and curves of human society interwoven with the patterns of the natural world.
If that doesn’t add up for you, you’re not alone. Heinlein plays Potiphar’s mathematical dogmatism off his friend Meade. When he first shows her the charts, Meade challenges Potiphar’s assumptions. “I don’t like it.” she says. “‘I am the master of my fate’ and so forth. I’ve got free will, Potty. I know I have, I can feel it.” to which Potiphar replies “I imagine every little neutron in the atom bomb feels the same way. He can go spung or he can sit still, just as he pleases. But statistical mechanics work out” and then, “every morning three million ‘free wills’ flowed toward the center of the New York megapolis; every evening they flowed out again, all by ‘free will’, and on a smooth and predictable curve” and the traffic mechanics work out, every time.
That fundamental tension fascinates me. As individuals, we have free will. I cannot reliably tell you what decisions any individual is going to make on any given day. But if you give me a group of a thousand people, and a set of institutional rules, I can make statistical predictions about their behavior with high confidence. Businessmen maximize their profits. Politicians seek reelection. When we aggregate across a large enough number of individuals, the “randomness” of free will starts to look more and more predictable. But how far can we take it? How much of human nature can we reduce to lines on a chart?
I couldn’t answer the question when I read Year of the Jackpot. Shockingly, twelve-year old me wasn’t ready to resolve the driving tension of “soft” science methodologies. But the question made me curious. A year later, I heard about this social science called economics, where apparently, they study people’s decisions using graphs and charts. I jumped at the chance to learn more. I really wanted to be Potiphar Breen when I grew up.
It’s been years since I first cracked open Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics and started realizing the dream Heinlein gave me. And it didn’t take long to learn I was right to dream.
Economics opens up insight into the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. When I look at the world now, I see literally billions of people who have never met one another, who know nothing of one another, all working in pursuit of their own interests. But those billions of free wills are coordinated through the mechanism of prices to satisfy the needs and wants of just as many billions. Let me say that again. Billions of free wills, and you can predict their behavior with a couple of crossed supply and demand curves. Potiphar Breen would have been proud.
Economics is way cool, but we’re failing to get the word out. As it turns out, it’s difficult to get people interested in a science. Engaging students is hard, and most people just aren’t motivated by statistics. Heinlein knew that. He wanted to get kids into science, so he wrote stories. He brought the sciences to life. The cosmos of human behavior is right here. And it’s beautiful. We just need to tell more stories about it.