Lucky Numbers?

In which the author envisions a historical meeting that should've produced the first great economics best seller before Freakonomics.

I first met Jim Keynes in the early 1920s when he ran over me on his bicycle outside the gates of King's College, Cambridge.

"I say, terribly sorry," he apologized while helping me to my feet. "Not at all," I replied, dusting myself off. "It will make an amusing anecdote: 'Future collaborators meet cute on the cobbles.'"

"I beg your pardon . . . ," he replied, a quizzical expression clouding his agreeably simian features. "Allow me to introduce myself," I said. "Steve Dubner: journalist, ghostwriter, literary soldier of fortune. And you are John Maynard Keynes: economist, bon vivant, inveterate quipster. John, let's you and me go somewhere for a drink and a little chat." I took his arm in the friendly vice grip of English gentlemen everywhere, homosexual or not. "I have a little proposition for you. John, can I call you Jim? Jim, I know you're well off; 'not hurting,' as we Americans say. But as an economist yourself, you have to admit in these uncertain times, everybody can use a little extra income, and the deal I'm proposing is a sure thing."

"Let go of me," he said plaintively, as I steered him across the street to the Rose and Crown. "I have no idea who you are!" "Ah," said I, "pushing him into a corner booth, "but I know who you are: the author of Indian Currency and Finance, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, A Treatise on Money. . . . "

It never fails; tell an ivory-tower academic you've heard of his stuff, and you're in. "You've read my Indian Currency?" he enquired shyly. "Not a chance," I said jovially; "and nobody else has, either. What did it sell, 85 copies hard cover?" He bridled visibly. "My book on the Peace Conference has done very well," he said. "I don't deny that," I said. "It was that book that made me determined to look you up. Anybody who can sell 18,000 copies with a crap title like that obviously has promise. But, Jim, Jim, why be satisfied with 18K units when you could have 180K, or even 10 times that? Look, I don't deny you write a good stick, but you don't know how to package your product. A bon mot on every page isn't enough to make a best seller."

"But I don't want to write a best seller," he squealed. And my name is not Jim!!" "OK, Keynes," I said. "And it's not 'Keenes,'" he shrieked, "it's 'Kaynes,' 'Maynard Kaynes'! Let me out of this booth immediately or I will call a con-stable!" "Keenes, Kaynes, whatever," I said; "You think the lending library ladies care? Look, you're clearly too upset to be able to think rationally. Look at this." I laid a copy of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (William Morrow, $25.95) in front of him. "See the name on the cover? Steven D. Levitt. You know who Steven D. Levitt is? Steven D. Levitt got the 2003 John Bates Clark Medal for best American economist under 40, and you know what? Nobody knew who he was. When I caught up with him, he was driving a beat-up Chevy Cavalier. One year later he's on The New York Times best-seller list."

Jim stared at the book as if it were a pit viper. "What a hideous dust jacket," he murmured. "What a hideous subtitle." Then I sprung the clincher. "Hideous, huh? Ten weeks on the list, one place down from Tom Friedman and ahead of Malcolm Gladwell. . . . "

That got him. "Ahead of Malcolm Gladwell," he whispered, his eyes getting a distant look. I patted my pocket, making sure the contract and fountain pen were there. "Jim," I breathed, "that's nothing. Malcolm is good, he's very good, but he's just a reporter. Jim, you're the real thing, a once in a century genius; all you need is someone to help you realize your potential. Tell me, Jim; what are you working on right now?" "A study of the causes and cures of business cycles," he answered. "Called?" I said. "I was thinking of calling it The General Theory of Interest, Employment, and Money," he said, looking to me as if for reassurance.

I confess, at that moment, my confidence almost failed me, but I pulled myself together. "Catchy," I said, "very catchy; but maybe a leetle arcane. How about something with just a little more zing to it, a little more hands-on and personal, something to get you on The Charlie Rose Show during the book tour. . . . Got it! What do you think of How YOU Can Profit From the Coming World Depression!

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