This dazzling work in economic fiction is the third of Garet Garrett’s novel trilogy, written and first published in 1924. Like the others, Satan’s Bushel is a splendid book, not just from the point of view of economics but also as a piece of literature.
What is Satan’s Bushel? It is the last bushel that the farmer puts on the market that “breaks the price” — that is reduces it to the point that wheat farming is no longer profitable. The puzzle that afflicts the wheat farmers is that they sell their goods when the price is low and have no goods to sell when the price is high. Withholding goods from the market is one answer but why should any farmer do that?
What is the answer to this problem? Working from this premise, then, as implausible as it may sound, but the central figure in this book is the price of wheat. It is the main source of drama. The settings are the wheat pit at the Chicago exchange (circa 1915) and the Kansas wheat fields. Linking those two radically different universes is the mission of this book.
The action further explores the meaning, morality, and utility of wheat speculation. The plot is centered at the turn of the 20th century, a critical period when the agricultural economy was completely giving way to the fully industrialized one, and farmers were panicked about the alleged problem of falling prices. The allegory might equally apply to the computer industry today, so there is nothing lost in the passage of time.
It tells the story of one man’s discovery of a brilliant speculator and his relationship with an old and legendary farmer/mystic and his daughter. The mystic embodies both the highest wisdom and the greatest economic fallacies of the day. The question that must be confronted is how to make farms profitable in times of falling prices, and the novel shows that speculation, even with all its human foibles, makes a contribution to stabilizing the market.
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