A Superficial Look at an Important Subject: ‘The Cartoon Introduction to Economics Volume Two’

If you’re in the market for a PowerPoint lecture, with cartoons, covering some of the basic concepts of macroeconomics, then The Cartoon Introduction to Economics Volume Two: Macroeconomics may be just the book for you. If you really want to learn something about macroeconomics, however, you would be better served by picking up a second-hand copy of one of the standard textbooks, which will contain far more information, or viewing some of the many slide presentations and videotaped lectures available on the internet, which will also contain more information and have the added advantage of being free.

It’s remarkable how closely this volume adheres to the style of a PowerPoint lecture, with all the strengths and limitations implied by that format. If you just want a fast overview of the material, you need only read the information presented boxed and in large print; with 3-6 boxes on a typical page, you’ll be done with this book in less than an hour. If you want to know about anything at a more than superficial level, however, you will need to look elsewhere.

If your knowledge of economics begins and ends with this book, you’ll have to accept a lot on faith, because the format lends itself to naming issues and points of view, but not explaining them in any depth. The illustrations sometimes illuminate the text, but at least as often are just decoration or jokes, so much of each page is taken up with content that does not add to anyone’s understanding of economics.

There’s nothing particularly controversial about the content of The Cartoon Introduction to Economics—it’s standard textbook stuff, presenting concepts such as the invisible hand and sticky wages briefly and efficiently. It’s organized around three large topics—a single macroeconomy, international trade, and global macroeconomics—while individual chapters cover standard topics such as money and inflation along with current concerns such as different economic viewpoints on poverty and environmental pollution. A glossary helpfully defines key terms and provides page references to discussion in the text.

Bauman does not avoid controversies, but presents them in the static, he said-she said format familiar from news coverage and secondary school textbooks. There must be something good about this method of presentation, because it certainly is used a lot these days, but I find it absolutely stultifying because it implies that there’s nothing to choose between the two sides (and often exactly two sides are presented, when a larger number might be more appropriate). Introductory books can serve a useful function by piquing the reader’s curiosity and motivating him or her to seek out more information about a topic, but the “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” attitude which seems to close every chapter of this book has the opposite effect, e.g., from Chapter 6: The Role of Government (p. 86):

“Economists don’t all see eye to eye about the role of government… but they tend to agree that MICROMANAGING the economy is a BAD IDEA. That’s because economists have more confidence that most people in THE BENEFITS OF TRADE.” Below this last boxed text, a character says “Individual optimization often leads to OUTCOMES THAT ARE GOOD FOR THE GROUP AS A WHOLE.” (Note: the original text is in all caps; the words in caps here are in bold type as well, to be sure you get the point.)

Particularly with an introductory text, one which will be read primarily by people who aren’t already experts in the field, you always want to consider the background of the author. Yoram Bauman has the standard academic qualification for his field, having received his PhD in Economics from the University of Washington in 2003, but his work record since then is patchy, to say the least. From what I can tell from his online CV, he’s worked only sporadically since graduation, holding part-time positions at a high school and several colleges, and has also worked on and off as a consultant.

This sets off warning bells—with so many texts and other books on the market, written by economists with far more distinguished careers, do you really want to buy one written by someone who seems to have little professional experience and is only partially engaged in his chosen field? To be fair, it may be the case that the market for economist-comedians is so hot that Dr. Bauman prefers to apply his efforts in that direction (on his CV he bills himself as “the world’s first and only stand-up economist”) rather than finding a full-time job in his field.

I’m a huge fan of Grady Klein’s art in his Lost Colony series, but his style works less well in The Cartoon Guide to Economics. The biggest difference is that the Lost Colony books were in color, while The Cartoon Guide to Economics is in black and white. Much of the effectiveness of Klein’s art is based on his use of color, and when he only has shades of gray to work with, it tends to look splotchy and incomplete, like preliminary sketches for a work to be completed later. His art also works best on a smaller scale, and benefits from being confined within frames, and is much less effective in the open layout and larger illustrations used through much of The Cartoon Guide to Economics.

Finally, one of the most attractive features of his work in the Lost Colony books is the detailed layering of scenes, a style he uses much less in The Cartoon Guide to Economics.

RATING 4 / 10