It's been an odd couple of weeks for freebie books here at Casa Comics Bulletin, as a series of graphic novels have showed up that all kind of coalesce around a theme: educational comics. And they've been a fascinating collection of material — as each one explores either history or its designated topic from its own unique angle. Each book is didactic and provides a survey on the topic that it explores, whether that topic is early American history, philosophy, a specific historical event… or the topic of today's book, the history of economics.
"The dismal science" of economics is also a complicated science. It's a word of obscure terminology, complex equations and convoluted theories. Economics is an often impenetrable world for people who know little of the field, which is part of why Michael Goodwin decided to produce a history and analysis of world economics in graphic novel form.
Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work) turns out to be a surprisingly absorbing work. When this book showed up at my doorstep, I had no idea how Goodwin and Burr would explore such complex ideas — economic textbooks are often bizarrely byzantine and extraordinarily difficult for those without Master's Degrees to parse — but Goodwin addresses those concerns directly in his book, using quotes from the original texts and the sheer simple joy of cartooning to present complex ideas in interesting ways.
For example, the book spends the bulk of its early section exploring the ideas of the great Adam Smith, whose The Wealth of Nations (published 1776) is a fundamental work in the exploration of how markets work. Goodwin quite a bit about common misconceptions about Smith's philosophy; for instance, while Goodwin spends a great deal of time discussing Smith's argumentss for the famous "invisible hand" of markets that would drive prices, Goodwin also argues that Smith wasn't dogmatic in his beliefs. Far from conservative claims that Smith advocated for a pure free market in his great work, Goodwin takes pains to explain that Smith was a realist who saw government as a necessary check on big business and the power of the markets.
Goodwin returns to Smith's ideas throughout the book, in quite insightful ways, in the same way he also treats the works other noted economic philosophers from the 18th and 19th centuries. This group included British scholar Thomas Malthus, who had a pessimistic view was that progress and growth would inevitably bring starvation, and David Ricardo, who posited a rational market of pure decision making, a concept that would presage a massive and, in Goodwin's mind, unfortunate tendency to remove human decision-making from economic choices.
Goodwin's tendency to return again and again to ideas expressed earlier in this book serves him well in the way that he builds his points. As Goodwin explores the vicissitudes of history, he returns again and again to these philosophers' key points as a way of presenting their views in new and often extremely revealing lights.
Economix is, in some respects, a history of economics, but in others it's very much a polemical book. Goodwin is a proud liberal, and he wears his liberalism on his sleeve in many sections of the book. Essentially once the book moves into the Reagan era (with a chapter that's tellingly titled "Revolt of the Rich"), Goodwin switches from a somewhat neutral tone to a much more strident tone, taking time to condemn both Democratic and Republican administrations for policies that Goodwin believes have endangered America's economic future, not to mention the future of our planet. Goodwin repeats tropes like the $643 hammer sold to the Defense Department as part of his discussion of how Ronald Reagan's tax cuts helped to explode the national debt at the same time that America fought the Cold War.
These chapters that explore modern economics are fascinating reading but they're also depressing as hell. In Goodwin's world, little good and tremendous evil have been visited on the world as our economic debates have ossified into endless justifications for the rich, particularly Wall Street, to grab every last dollar that they can possibly take. Goodwin presents an America, and often a world, that is completely in the sway of big business, in which the ordinary person sees his real wages dropping like a stone while the top 1% sees their incomes explode. Goodwin argues in this book that the combined threats of a race-to-the-bottom wage movement and global environmental catastrophe are leading our world to a place of tremendous destruction.
Because Goodwin is such a pessimist, it makes this book a bit less useful as a textbook than he'd probably like. There's a bit of a dual nature expressed in this book; in the first half Goodwin seems a relatively dispassionate truth-seeker, while in the latter sections, he takes on much more of an advocacy role — particularly in his exploration of the ever-increasing economic imbalance in the world.
It's a long book at nearly 300 pages, but more than that Economix is a very dense book, full of complex and often quite abstract ideas that must take their time on stage but which also give the reader a lot to consider. This book is the equivalent of an Econ 101 class from a somewhat left-leaning professor: you will come out of this reading more educated about the world but also somewhat overwhelmed. There were a few places where I wished that Goodwin had given Conservative economists more time to explain their views rather than dismiss them all out of hand. I may also be a liberal, but I don't mind hearing opposing viewpoints from mine.
Like the nonfiction graphic novel I reviewed yesterday, Taxes, Tea Party and Those Revolting Rebels, Economix uses the comics page as a kind of counterpoint for the large blobs of text that Goodwin presents. Dan Burr, artist of the amazing and unfortunately mostly long-forgotten '80s classic Kings in Disguise, delivers the art in this book. Burr doesn't have a lot of room to show off his skills in this book since it's so strongly devoted to text and graphs, but when he gets to cut loose — for instance, with depictions of ideal cities versus their squalid re
alities — Burr's work is interesting and well-done. I found myself coming out of this book wishing I could read a book that features Burr's art more than this one does; hey Dan, can you do a narrative graphic novel next?
In the end, it's a little hard to declare whether this book is a success or failure. I guess a lot of that will depend on the specific reader. I enjoyed Goodwin's explorations of the history of finance and economics, and I learned a lot from the way he presented his complex ideas. Burr and Goodwin use the two-dimensional space of the comics page effectively to build their case and tell their story.
I also consider myself a liberal, and really appreciated Goodwin's take on the belief system that he and I share. Despite my obviously mixed feelings about the content in this book, I'd have absolutely no problem giving this book to my college-age kids to help them learn how the world has gotten into the state that it's in. But if you have differing views from me or from Goodwin, this book might infuriate rather than delight you.