Last night, I was watching TV with my beloved wife. It was one of these police procedural TV shows I like to watch although they kind of all look alike. This time it was the one called “Cold case”. It is made on the idea of a special team from the Philadelphia police department who specialized in investigating unsolved murders (cold cases). The plot is usually constructed on murders which epitomized moments or eras of American or Philadephian history. This time it was about a young guy, about to begin a career in rock’n’roll music in the second part of the 1950s, who got murdered while he was recording his first song. The historical moment referred to in the episode is the end of Eisenhower era, when the craze about rock’n’roll music was signalling the coming liberation of women and sexuality, the end of segregation, in a way the advent of a major revolution in social and moral values in the US (at least this is the interpretation the plot suggests).
However, the character that is the purpose of this post is not the young rocker, but the mother of the family he lives with. “An intelligent and beautiful woman” (says a character in the show) in her mid-30s, she is the image of the perfect Eisenhower-era mother: she cooks, she takes great care of the house and her husband, she has a lot of social activities but do not work, she is beautiful and bright but discreet, in a word she has sacrified the best of her for her family and in particular her husband success. The climax is reached when the would-be rocker goes back home the night he will be murdered to find this perfect mother sad and moody: her husband is not home, he is having sex with his lover, an african-american girl (by the way have I said to you that he was a gross racist?). During the scene, she is restlessly turning the pages of what we can guess was her favorite university book (she had been an under-grad, but then quit to get married), a memory of a time and possible independent life forever gone, now that she is caught up in a lousy life with a lousy husband. And guess what is the book that epitomizes the opportunity of an independent life for the post-1945 war generation of women? Yes, none other than Samuelson’s Economics!
And then the story moves on (I skip the details, you will have to see the episode to know who was the murderer…) to one of the final scene after the crime has been resolved and the mother, who is now something like 80, is relieved because the murderer has been caught (and besides the lousy husband has been dead for 12 years). We now see her in her contemporary home taking the same book, the one she has saved from the other life she never lived, and she turns the page over and over (the scene has a flashback when you see people in the same scene as they were at the time of the murder and now – this is the visual gimmick of “cold cases”) with a nostalgic smile on her face.
The show made me realize that Samuelson’s Economics is not only part of the culture and history of the economist’s profession, but may or should be seen as a piece of American popular culture and history. We should treat economics not only as an intellectual endeavour, a discipline, but as a part of our past and contemporary culture.