The Cartoon Introduction to Economics: Nice, but Short on Ridicule
By Bryan Caplan
There’s a lot to like in Klein and Bauman’s The Cartoon Introduction to Economics. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it teaches a lot of economics. But although I’m a huge fan of economics, comedy, and graphic novels, I can only give it a B+. It’s good, but the more I read, the more I felt like the book was a missed opportunity.
The fundamental problem with CIE is that the authors act like economics is just another tough subject in need of a little levity. It’s not. There’s a key difference between econ, and say, physics: While they’re both perceived as hard and boring, few laymen have passionate opinions about physics.
Economics is another story. The man in the street can’t draw supply-and-demand diagrams, but when the price of gas goes up, he blames business conspiracies. He knows nothing about comparative advantage, but he’s an avid protectionist. He can’t define marginal productivity, but he’s sure that downsizing is bad for the world. If you tell him that we’re far richer in 2010 than we were in 1990, he’ll roll his eyes.
In The Myth of the Rational Voter, I call these four popular prejudices anti-market, anti-foreign, make-work, and pessimistic bias. While I certainly don’t expect Klein and Bauman to follow my typology, I don’t see how any introduction to economics can tiptoe around the primordial fact that non-economists’ beliefs about economics are predictably wrong. But a cartoon introduction? It is the perfect medium for ridiculing popular misconceptions about economics. Alas, the chief targets of ridicule in CIE are not economically illiterate laymen, but Nobel laureates. (I LOLd at every panel with the king of Sweden, but still).
Taken in isolation, each chapter in CIE is admirable and accurate. But when you step back, the book is a strange blend of major omissions and needless detail. There’s a whole chapter on auctions, but nothing on public choice. There’s a whole chapter on Pareto efficiency, but nothing on the cost-benefit standard that policy economists actually use. There are two separate chapters on taxes and elasticities, but nothing on price controls. I don’t expect Klein and Bauman to cover everything. But think about how fun and enlightening cartoons about price controls and public choice would have been!
One last complaint: Klein and Bauman shouldn’t have run away from self-interest in chapter 1. Yes, I know that textbooks love to claim that economics assumes “optimizing behavior,” not “self-interest.” But whenever economists do applied work, they quickly slide to self-interest. You know why? Because although people aren’t perfectly selfish, they’re shockingly close. That’s why economics tells us so much about the world. A few pages of sequential art on human selfishness would have been lovely.
If you’re an econ geek with a sense of humor, you’ll definitely want to read The Cartoon Introduction to Economics. The world would be a better place if everyone read this book. But I’m sad to say that econ has not yet found its Larry Gonick.
P.S. Ben Southwood recommends this graphic novel about economic growth in the comments. I second his recommendation.