It is not at all amazing to claim that August Wilson is one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. This fact is as interesting as the fact that it rains a lot in Seattle, Wilson's third and last city. (His first was Pittsburg, his next was Minneapolis—he died in Seattle in 2005.) The more amazing thing to say about Wilson is this: He was the greatest black American economist of the 20th century.

Some might first think this to be a bit of a stretch. Wilson did not study economics, and the profession is never mentioned in his plays. Fair enough. But Wilson also never officially studied theater. He learned his art pretty much on his own. So if you can claim he was a playwright, despite having no formal training in this discipline, I can just as fairly claim he was an economist.

Indeed, Wilson's first play, Jitney, which was completed in 1979 and is set in 1971, is not only a masterpiece of 1970s economics, it also predicted the rideshare economy of our times.

The play, which Seattle Rep is staging under the direction of the talented Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is about black cab drivers who informally serve Pittsburgh's black community because white-owned cabs will not. The business is owned by the play's key character, Jim Becker, a man in his 60s who retired after devoting decades of his life to a Pittsburgh steel plant. His employees are war veterans and retired men trying to make some extra scratch on the side.

This is how Wilson described the real jitney drivers who inspired his play: "There were a lot of jitney stations in Pittsburgh, located in storefronts with a pay phone... They [were] generally older men who had jobs working in the steel mills and on the railroad. If they were lucky enough to have a pension, there was a need to supplement with additional income, so they drove jitneys. And I think they do it because they enjoy the company of each other; they have something to do and it's a place to belong. They are a microcosm of the community at large."

That description of jitney drivers in the early 1970s can easily be applied to the lives of a large number of Uber drivers of the present gig economy. But I think that this match is not a mere coincidence or an accident. It is a consequence of the fact that Wilson was also a brilliant economist. You can read Jitney and other plays in the Century Cycle (each play is set in a decade of the 20th century) as economic texts that have the same depth, academic integrity, and predictive power as those by John Maynard Keynes, or Joan Robinson, or Hyman Minsky.

In our day, of course, economics is mostly about mathematics and models. But this was not always the case. Before the 1870s, it was concerned with how wealth is distributed in a given society, a matter not for math but moral philosophy.

In 2014, the young French economist Thomas Piketty revived political economy in a spectacular way. Though trained as a mathematician, he questioned its usefulness for his field and instead boldly claimed that the novels of 19th-century authors like Honoré de Balzac and Jane Austen provide excellent materials for economic analysis. The fictional works by these authors contain lots of information about the value of money, the modes of occupation and production, and the top financial instruments of the times. The exact same thing can be said about August Wilson's plays.

However, what we see in Wilson's works is not the economy as a whole, but rather that which black Americans experienced in the 20th century. In Jitney, we see the capital- starved working conditions for black men who have pensions or served in the army. They do whatever they can to make ends meet. But no matter how much time and innovation they invest in their economy, which is much smaller and less profitable than the mainstream and white economy, the returns (in the form of wages or a fee from a hustle) always fall short of settling real needs: food, housing, transportation. The terrible fate of Jitney's main character, Becker, who is not even poor (he is lower middle-class), shows that dream deferment is not the exception but the law of the black economy.

For example, this is how Rena, a jitney driver's girlfriend, describes her tight situation: "I'm doing everything I can to try to make this work. I'm working my little job down there at the restaurant... going to school... trying to take care of [son] Jesse... trying to keep the house together... trying to make everything better. Now I come home from work, and I got to go to the store. I go upstairs and look in the drawer, and the food money is gone. Now you explain that to me. There was eighty dollars in the drawer that ain't in there now. What you need it for? You tell me. What's more important than me and Jesse eating?" The money was used by the jitney driver to pay a debt.

One of the key pieces of economic information in this monologue, however, is the dollar amount that was taken from the drawer. It is $80. Why is it important to know this? In his best-selling 2014 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty makes the thought-provoking claim that the novels of the 19th century never failed to pin on their sentences, passages, and pages the real cost of things. Rent is this much, bread is that much, and so on. Piketty added that this literary realism (the pricing of everyday life) disappeared from the fiction of the 20th century. Here, Piketty was wrong. What he exposed by this assertion was his ignorance of Wilson's plays. In all of these works we find dollar amounts for food, real-estate deals, informal and formal wages, and, of course, the money that was taken from Rena's drawer (exactly $80).

The mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: "The tool required for philosophy is language." Because economics is first and foremost a branch of moral philosophy, its required tool is also language. You can send a human to the moon with mathematics. But you can understand the reality of being a black working-class human in the Hill District of Pittsburgh only with words—especially the beautiful words of the economist August Wilson.