RIP Leonard Nimoy, economist

By Jim Tankersley

(Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

We still haven’t gotten to Star Trek, my 8-year-old and I. He is currently enchanted by lightsabers and Ewoks, practicing his Jedi mind tricks. Star Wars has zippier ships and bigger explosions. The one time we pulled up Captain Kirk and co. on Netflix, he was slightly bored.

That will change soon. Boys mature, attention spans lengthen. Someday soon I will sit him down and say, my boy, the time has come to meet Mr. Spock.

Let him teach you some economics.

In Spock’s embrace of logic, my son, like generations of sci-fi fans before him, will find the cold realities of economic theory laid bare. Spock eschews sunk costs. Spock maximizes utility. Spock shows, as FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman wrote so elegantly today, “that logic can point the way to morality, that evidence is the basis for truth, that curiosity matters more than dogma.”

As Austan Goolsbee, a former chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, said on Twitter this afternoon, “In many ways, he was the first economist on TV.”

And yet in Leonard Nimoy’s most famous scene as Spock – and that is why I’m writing this, because Leonard Nimoy has passed at age 83, and we who so enjoyed him are left to mourn and remember and celebrate – he expertly sketches the limits of economics, as they relate to the real world. He has sacrificed himself to save his ship. He waits behind glass for death to come. His friend Kirk stands outside the glass.

“Do not grieve, Admiral,” the dying Spock says. “It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…”

“The needs of the few,” Kirk says.

“Or,” Spock says, “the one.”

Logical, yes, but not economically rational. People in theoretical models don’t sacrifice …read more