EYE ON THE PIE: Author’s work may go unfinished-WEB ONLY

“How is your unwritten book coming along?” Myra Mariachi asks.

“How do you know I have an unwritten book?” I respond.

“Because you’re the type of person who might write a book but not the type who is writing a book,” Myra says. “A genuine author is secluded for hours at a time, doesn’t answer the phone, stays off e-mail, and often is deep in thought. The only thing you have in common with an authentic author is that you are crabby.

“The last time we talked, you were going to write about the current economic crisis. By the time you get anything ready to read, we’ll be coming out of the next recession.”

I tell her, “So much has been written about the origins of our economic distress that I may have nothing fresh to say.

“There are four main points I want to cover directly and simply: oil prices, the obsession with homeownership, the usual desire for more, and the need to understand economic history.”

“That covers a lot of ground,” Myra says. “Each could be a book in itself and the research, if it is done right, would require more effort than you give to anything other than watching the Cubs.”

“The part on oil prices means delving into consumer spending and debt, the role of oil in manufacturing and distribution, and the dispersion of economic activities (urban sprawl). You would have to discuss how dramatic changes in petroleum prices have been related to other economic downturns. Plus, you would want to discuss the part played by speculation and politics in oil prices.”

“That may be too much,” I whisper.

Myra responds, “Well, how could you do right and do less?

“That part about the obsession with homeownership is going to be tough. There are many people who think homeownership is an American right. Others say it’s a privilege, whatever that means. In any case, it has been sold to us as the centerpiece of ‘the American dream’ and there are strong forces that sustain the underlying mythology.

“Are you willing to go on record challenging developers, home builders, real estate brokers, mortgage lenders, title companies, quasi-government agencies and professional investors who reap vast rewards from the institution of homeownership?”

“I have been saying just that for years,” I assert.

“So you say,” Myra laughs and continues. “Do you really think you can dismiss greed as nothing more than an ordinary extension of the desire for self-improvement? Isn’t that intellectually dishonest or, at minimum, naïve?”

“Well, put that way,” I start to respond, but she interrupts.

“And history? Where do you begin and where do you end?” she asks. “Are you going back to the 1980s or the 1930s? Wouldn’t you want to cover the banking panics, recessions, deflations and economic traumas of the 19th century?”

“Actually,” I say, “I had thought of going back to Alexander Hamilton and the problems of the debt arising from the Revolutionary War.”

“Would this be an extended dissertation or a shallow diatribe about money, banking and financial markets?” she asks.

“Neither,” I object. “All I want to do is demonstrate how knowing about yesterday helps us anticipate tomorrow.”

“All very noble,” Myra says, “but it is no wonder you don’t have anything written yet.” •

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@IBJ.com.

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