The Icon

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.

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4 thoughts on “The Icon

  1. Rock’n’roll, TV shows and economics textbooks … what the hell of a post !!! I’m jealous.
    Seriously (but not too much), it is funny that there’s a kind of anachronism here. According to CBS web site, the action takes place in 1953 and the young man is supposed to be 18, so we can guess that her mother studied economics in the 1930s, so of course she couldn’t use Samuelson’s textbook. It is more likely that she studied Frank Taussig, Fairchild, Furniss & Buck or Garver and Hansen, like the Avis, Geneva and Eve of my first post !
    But besides, what is really interesting is why scenarists chose Samuelson’s textbook as what they thought to be a good example of women liberation in the early 20th century ? I’ve always seen Cold Case and those kinds of TV shows as products of some middle-of-the-road 40 something writers. There’s a left wing flavor (the fact that racial issues are very important, we’re in Philadelphia) and there’s also a right wing feeling – it’s about people who spend their lives arresting depressive 80 years old people, who spent their lives repenting a murder they committed 50 years ago, and at the end, they’re gonna spend the five last years of their lives in a jail. “Crime never pays”. It’s really the mild liberal, flavored with morality, that is characteristic of mainstream economics of the 1960s and 1970s. And you can easily imagine those scenarists as undergrads studying economics as a minor with Samuelson’s textbook in hands !

    Well, whether it’s the Samuelson of the 50s or the 70s that is represented here, the important thing is, as Loic said, that Economics was important, beyond its economic precepts. In Machine Dreams, Mirowki writes that the reason for which Samuelson has been distinguished as representative of mainstream neoclassical economics is surprising and that it’s probably related to the “fortuitous” success of his textbook. For me, this success is anything but fortuitous. And I would add than saying that, Mirowski stops being a historian, because “fortuitous” should not be in the historian’s dictionary. But it’s another debate.

  2. An aside:
    The scientific background to Krugman’s prize, developed in a 24-page note on the Nobel website, does not even mention in passing Samuelson’s earlier contributions in international trade. Things are moving fast …

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