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Steve Horwitz on his upcoming visit to discuss the Netflix hit and public choice economics

Photo by Marta Kierkus

House of Cards is one of the most popular series on Netflix—and one professor believes the show hits closer to home than most realize.

The Fulcrum caught up with Steve Horwitz to talk about his upcoming visit to the University of Ottawa. He speaks with a bold and confident demeanour, much like many of the show’s characters.

“You can draw the nicest looking political policy or solution you want on a blackboard,” he says. “You can’t just assume that politicians will do what they say is the thing to do.”

Horwitz, a prominent professor of economics at St. Lawrence University in New York state, will host a discussion with the Institute of Liberal Studies titled “House of Cards: Politics without Romance” on campus next week.

Horwitz will illustrate the theory of public choice economics with examples from the first season of House of Cards. Much like Frank Underwood, the show’s main anti-hero portrayed by Kevin Spacey, Horwitz hopes students will recognize the fact that real-life politicians have self-interested incentives too.

If you’ve worked in politics, there’s a good chance you have met someone as ruthless as Underwood, he says. Horwitz aims to engage the audience with the hard truth about real-life politicians climbing the political ladder.

Underwood is a great character, Horwitz says, but one stands above the rest. He says the lobbyist Remy, played by Mahershala Ali, has to be the “most realistic character in the show.”

He explains: “Frank is a little bit over-the-top but the point gets made. But Remy, there’s millions of Remys out there. They are a big part of the problem. He’s a mercenary, and he doesn’t much give a damn whether the things he’s supporting do any good.”

Horwitz says he doesn’t really care who runs for president in 2016—but what really matters are the ideas and institutions that arise during an election. If you don’t have the right political foundation, you won’t find much of a difference in the result either way.

“Worrying about who the next congressman, president, or prime minster is going to be is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” he says.

Horwitz’s travelling lecture originated as a series of YouTube videos he made for the Institute of Humane Studies at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. What made his videos so popular (with more than a million hits each) was his use of House of Cards scenarios to help viewers understand contemporary politics.

Public choice economics applies the basic ideas of economics in order to understand how politics operates. “For example,” Horwitz explains, “we oftentimes assume that people in politics are completely public-spirited, while people in markets are completely self-interested. What public choice says is, ‘Let’s assume people are the same.’”

“Once you apply that notion of seeing politics as a form of exchange for people to achieve their goals, suddenly politics looks very different.”

The Institute for Liberal Studies, an Ottawa-based non-profit educational organization, is the group responsible for bringing the lecture to the city. Executive director Matt Bufton expects students to enjoy a talk that’s as entertaining as it is educational.

“Steve Horwitz is both a highly regarded economist and very in tune with popular culture,” said Bufton. “When I heard that he’d designed a talk that used House of Cards as a way of teaching some economic principles, I thought it would be perfect for students at the University of Ottawa, since so many of them are involved with the political scene in Ottawa and love the series.”

Horwitz will give his lecture Oct. 8 at 6pm in FTX 135.


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