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Good drama = good economics

Drama is truly compelling when it exposes the raw, painful trade-offs its characters face

When the term economics is used in relation to drama, what springs to mind is the financing and the box office takings of a film, or the sale of broadcasting rights for television series. There are also a few movies in which economics itself features, like Margin Call or The Big Short, with a cameo appearance of Richard Thaler, the behavioural economist and 2017 Nobel laureate.

But last week I realized there is much more to it. I was watching the Saturday night slot on BBC Four, a special treat for a European expat in the UK, with super shows like The Bridge, Inspector Montalbano and I know who you are. (It even broadcast a Belgian crime series, Salamander, some time back.) The current series is a French crime drama, Spiral (Engrenages in French), and watching the trials and tribulations of the characters, it suddenly hit me.

Economics is essentially about making choices, not just for central bankers setting base rates, or chief executives approving an investment proposal. If we could have our cake and eat it, if resources like time and money were plentiful and inexhaustible, if having one thing did not necessarily imply not having another, there would be no such thing as economics. But we need to make trade-offs, we need to weigh up the upsides and downsides of the options ahead of us, under uncertainty, under pressure, and burdened with an array of cognitive biases.

And, goodness me, don’t the people in this drama face tough choices.

The central character is Laure Berthaud, a captain in the Paris judicial police, a serious crime unit. She leads a small team of detectives currently investigating the brutal murder of a policeman. A first source of tension for her is the split allegiance to her job and to her prematurely born daughter Romy, who is still in intensive care. But in her work too she continually faces the choice between sticking to the rules, and bending or even breaking them; between obeying orders and disregarding the instructions of her superiors. Search warrants? No time for them!

Facing trade-offs (can’t you tell?)

As the investigation progresses, they uncover a child prostitution ring run by a couple of corrupt policemen in a neighbouring suburb. Was their murdered colleague implicated in this activity, or was he on the contrary on their tail? Some people in Berthaud’s team made up their mind early on that he was victim rather than perpetrator, and the cognitive dissonance they experience rises as the connections he had with people in criminal network emerge. Their belief he was a good guy inevitably influences their developing theories and their choices in the investigation.

The mayor of the municipality where all this is happening has her own dilemmas to deal with. There is a large group of volatile African youngsters, always just one minor incident away from rioting. In order to keep the peace after the brother of the charismatic leader of the ethnic youths is shot dead by the local police, she tries desperately to keep the peace. Her choice? To engage (or not) in a shady deal with him, which involves the laundering of the proceeds of a series of robberies.

One of captain Berthaud’s team, facing financial pressure in his personal life, gives in to temptation and actually pockets some stolen gold he finds during a search operation in the house of a criminal — a nice example of the struggle between Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2. But he has second thoughts, confesses to his boss, and finds a way to return the gold.

Unfortunately, as becomes clear in the middle of an operation where they are hot on the heels of the ring leaders, there are CCTV images that show him actually taking the gold. Berthaud faces yet another tough call: if she pursues the operation the footage will be made public, and that will mean the end of her colleague’s career. Loyalty or catching the criminals?

And there is more. The examining magistrate in the case, a highly experienced and dedicated judge who takes pride in his integrity, is accused of perverting the course of justice to protect a prosecutor, and is forced to lie to a tribunal to save his skin. An ambitious lawyer is drugged, raped and dumped under a railway bridge. The rapist turns out to be her boss, who is also being accused of unfairly dismissing another female employee who refused to give in to his advances. Should she expose him, or go along with his request for her to defend him before a disciplinary hearing at the bar?

Once you’re primed to look for the signs, they’re everywhere.

And it is precisely these decisions, these choices, these trade-offs that truly bring the characters to life. Going for immediate gain rather than thinking more strategically, placing friendship or collegiality over adherence to rules and laws, letting the end dominate the means however questionable, giving up principles and values to save our ass… in one way or other, we can empathize with the moral difficulties protagonists in good drama have to deal with.

We are all economists, I wrote in one of my earliest posts hereabouts — not just because we have to manage scarce money and time, but also because of the choices we need to make between much more ethereal matters. And so it is not surprising that drama that portrays such deeply human predicaments in a way that makes our own trade-offs resonate in sympathy is the most absorbing.

And perhaps it is also not surprising that probably the most famous utterance in all of literature expresses the ultimate choice: “to be, or not to be”.

Good drama is, very much, good economics.

Originally published at on February 2, 2018.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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