Mihir Desai’s The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) takes “the unorthodox position that viewing finance through the prism of the humanities will help us restore humanity to finance.” This sentiment is actually becoming more mainstream. For instance, there’s the just published Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro. But Desai, a professor at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, outshines his competition in at least two respects: he distills finance down to a few key components, and not the usual suspects, and he brings to bear on them insights from a wide range of often unexpected sources. For instance, “the first chapter lays down the foundations of risk and insurance, with the help of Francis Galton’s quincunx, the author Dashiell Hammett, the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, and the poet Wallace Stevens.”
In subsequent chapters Desai deals with such topics as options and diversification, risk and return, asset pricing, the principal-agent problem, mergers, and debt and bankruptcy. Again, with exceedingly well chosen examples from the humanities.
Everyone hates finance, including novelists. From Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier to the increasingly less sympathetic main characters of Wall Street, American Psycho, and Cosmopolis, the theme is “the untrammeled desire for more.” And real life provides more than its fair share of these financial archetypes—for instance, Martin Shkreli. So is insatiable desire fundamental to finance? Desai argues that it’s not, that finance is primarily the story of risk, though he admits that “the asshole theory of finance” is powerful: that is, “it’s not the people who finance attracts who are bad. It’s just that finance fuels ego and ambition in an unusually powerful way.” To counter all the antiheroes in finance, real and fictional, he introduces the reader to Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, a “story that truly belongs in every finance textbook.”
Desai’s book is an eye-opening, wonderful read. I highly recommend it.