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Romantic Economics: The Best Laid Plans

Gie me ae spark o’Nature’s fire, That’s a’ the learning I desire.” ~ The First Epistle to J. Lapraik by Robert Burns (1786) “Do you enjoy makin’ shoes, Mr. Sanderson?” The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis p 206 The Best Laid Plans is a very funny novel that has very little to do with economics. Having said that, the little it does have  is bonny. In the novel, Daniel Addison, the head speech writer for the Liberal leader of the opposition quits politics for deeply personal reasons. He lands on his feet in the English department at the University of Ottawa. However,  the timing of his defection couldn’t be worse for the party because it happens just before the Conservatives call a federal election. Out of guilt, he agrees to find a Liberal candidate to run in a solidly Conservative riding which doesn’t have a hope of going Liberal– or even getting a Liberal candidate to run in it for that matter. Daniel agrees to fix this potentially embarrassing problem. His new landlord is the recently widowed Angus McLintock, a 60-year-old engineering prof who agrees to the nomination as part of a horse trade. Daniel will teach the dreaded English for Engineers at Ottawa U  in exchange for a nomination which Angus is sure will end in defeat. Needless to say, things go awry and Angus ends up winning. While in parliament Angus deals with 3 issues of economic importance.  They are 1) A failing company that wants federal subsidies in order to compete with cheap imports and save constituent jobs. 2) A crooked gravel company that secretly pollutes and commits health and safety violations but also employs local workers. 3) A community that wants to block the building of a halfway house for ex-cons even though it is in the public interest to locate the facility in this riding. Angus has the mind of an economist when he makes his choices. Furthermore, he argues why these choices are optimal – clearly and correctly. First, Angus says No to the subsidies of shoes because saving dying jobs doesn’t make long-run economic sense. Angus fast forwards the economic process when he arranges for the owners of the shoe factory to enter into a partnership withe a fellow engineering prof to make high-tech routers which is guaranteed to make lots of profits and keep all the jobs. (The plot is a bit too tidy because this salvation is unlikely to happen in the short run although it can happen in the long run.  In the real world, the factory owner and the employees would probably need some time to recover from the withdrawal of federal funds.) Second, the corrupt company is shut down causing job losses but because the shoeless router factory is now so successful they need a second shift. All the workers from the aggregate company shift over to safer, higher paying jobs. Again, no short-term losses. Furthermore, the Ottawa river is saved from the pollution externality even though it will cost the Liberal a hefty donation from the corrupt company. Both the environment and ethics win in the end. 3) The halfway house is built because of cost benefit analysis. Angus rejects the Not-In-My-Back-Yard way of thinking in favour of the collective good. In his mind, the costs to the constituents of the riding is less than the benefit to society of the facility. While the plot ties up too nicely, the economic arguments are rock solid. Throw into the mix a completely realistic romance between Daniel and woman named Lindsay, a fairly realistic sex scandal with political repercussion, and unrealistic, but truly lovely, letters written by a grieving widower to his departed wife and you have a terrific read. Others agree with me because this book is the CBC’s Canada Reads winner of 2011. Check it out. It is not only compelling fiction but also contains some solid economic non-fiction.

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