Yeah, it probably belongs in with the real economics books… but I bought this for our adult graphic novel collection, just figuring more people would see it.
Economix by Michael Goodwin. Illustrated by Dan E. Burr. This is a graphic novel/comic retelling of economic history and theory, from the time people first started thinking about it as such, through 2011. It’s in the graphic novel collection here at the library, but this really isn’t a novel and, while on a serious topic, is has a lot of jokes in it, so calling it a comic is more accurate. It starts with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776). All I could recall of Adam Smith’s theories was the bit about the “invisible hand”, and it turns out both that I’m not alone in remembering just that part, but also that remembering just that part is a radical simplification of his theories. Ideas like overlarge companies stifling the natural competition and too much profit being bad for the markets seem just as relevant now as they were 300 years ago. The graphic format makes it easier to keep track of the multiple dead white guys and their various theories, as their caricatures are all very distinct. Goodwin is scholarly enough to put actual quotes in quotes and italics, making it easy to distinguish what someone actually said from Goodwin’s paraphrasing of their ideas. Complicated ideas like derivatives are also easier to understand with pictures. In addition to economists, Goodwin looks at the effect on the economy of things like government policy (especially since the turn of the last century), wars, and international bodies like the World Bank. He notes truthfully that his writing gets more controversial as he gets into present-day debates because the score isn’t settled yet: plenty of people used to be convinced that the economy would collapse if slavery was illegal. Similarly, he thinks that big business saying that paying for the environmental cost of doing business isn’t supportable, or Wal-Mart deliberately relying on the government to subsidize the wages of its lower-tier workers, are ideas that will fall out of fashion. Another interesting idea: from the 1930s through the 60s (I’m forgetting the end date here), government policy was designed to increase the size and wealth of the middle class. Since then, politicians of both parties have made and supported policies to funnel wealth to the wealthy and to large corporations. These policies also have been very successful. He also says that our current economic debate in the political arena is stuck in the 1970s. Many of these theories are no longer supported by economic scholars, but they are still cited as proven facts by politicians, and by extension, by people who pay more attention to what politicians say than what economic scholars say. That would be most of us, and even though I often disagree with politicians, it’s nice to know that there are other accepted theories out there. Interesting, controversial, yet definitely approachable.
My librarian self was very impressed by Goodwin’s work, researching so many texts and lots of history, in such a way that it would be easy to follow up with the originals if I wanted to. Major credit goes to the artist, Burr, as well, though. This isn’t an easy topic, and his pictures illuminate tough ideas, keep a vast array of characters distinct, and do so while being funny. Funny enough and clear enough that my eight-year-old was able to understand the bits of it that I read to him. As the history ends on something of a downer if one is neither wealthy nor a corporation, he includes some of his thoughts on the future and what someone interested in a more level economic playing field might do. Well, it’s nice, but I wish there were more. I appreciated his annotated bibliography at the end, too. I’ll confess that I had to renew it from the library once before I worked up the courage to tackle it, and it was definitely something to read with brain cells turned on. Once I got started, I had a very hard time putting it down. Anyone looking to understand economics, whether for the first time or as a refresher, would be well served by reading this book.