Science Fiction Made Paul Krugman Become An Economist, Or, the Case for Caring About Culture

One of the things that irritates me most is people — progressives in particular, because conservatives tend to be more vigilant on this score — who dismiss culture as if it’s unimportant, or as if people aren’t influenced by it. And my favorite counterargument of the moment comes from Paul Krugman, who went into economics because he wanted to be Hari Seldon when he grew up:

The background story is, I read Foundation back when I was in high school, when I was a teenager, and thought about the psychohistorians, who save galactic civilization through their understanding of the laws of society, and said “I want to be one of those guys.” And economics was as close as I could get. Those are pretty unique novels — they really are structured nothing like even the great bulk of science fiction, because they are about how social science can be used to save humanity…, we don’t exactly have the laws of psychohistory, but we do have some pretty good guidelines. The other thing, of course, is in Foundation, Hari Seldon is able to put together his long term plan and actually nudge history in the direction he wants it to go, and so far I’m feeling not like Hari Seldon but like Cassandra. I keep on predicting bad things, no one will believe me, and then they happen…Not everyone, obviously, but social scientists in general … I have friends, political scientists, sociologists, who all share an interest at least in certain kinds of science fiction. It’s speculative, we’re thinking about what society could be like. Never mind the gadgets, although they create the alternative worlds, but a lot of it is thinking about society.

Fiction is about defining the outer limits of possibility: you show a kid a world where economists can shape the fate of humanity, and he’ll embrace realistic possibilities for social science he might never have been attracted to in the first place. Show girls superheroines and master archers as well as princesses and maybe some activity will catch a spark. I sometimes write that a movie or television show feels surprising because I didn’t think it was something that could exist. What really ends excites me about those pieces of art is that they’re times when popular entertainment is matching what’s truly possible in the world, and occasionally exceeding it. It’s artistically and societally depressing when media rooted in imagination turns out images and societies that are vastly more crabbed than our world actually is.

By that I don’t mean that we can’t explore oppression, or myopic people. But when books, or music, or movies fall into replicating the same old character tropes, or means of interactions between people, or possibilities for science and technology without acknowledging that society’s moved on around them, there’s something sad about that, both as a failure of art, and of excitement for the future. Or, as D.H. Lawrence put it, in a marvelous line cited by Austin Allen in an essay on the power of literature, fiction “Changes the blood first. The mind follows later, in the wake.”