Yoram Bauman on Cartoon Economics, Climate Change & Krugman

Two years ago, when I sat down to talk with upbeat, stand-up, environmental economist Yoram Bauman, PhD, about his cartoon introduction to microeconomics, he promised me that a cartoon tome on macroeconomics was indeed on the way, even though his heart remained wedded always to the accuracy and precision of microeconomics. (Writing about the macro view was much more nerve-wracking, he admits.)

Happily, The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume Two: Macroeconomics, is now on bookstore shelves, and Bauman and illustrator Grady Klein have once again succeeded in telling economics stories in entertaining and informative ways, even if it’s not laugh-a-panel stuff. It’s just that cartoons turn out to be a great way of showing you economic activity without the obscurantist jargon.

You do not have to take solely my word on this. Kirkus is pleased to report:

…Bauman hits his targets with pleasing accuracy. For example, he and Klein get, in just a few pages, what it has taken other writers whole volumes to express on the matter of the Keynesian view of the causes of cyclical unemployment.

And Publisher’s Weekly seconds the motion:

The two basic theories for explaining economics, the classical view and the Keynesian view, become a lot clearer when explained with illustrations rather than with dry charts and graphs; so do unemployment, inflation, the Gross Domestic Product, fiscal policy, international trade, foreign aid, and global macroeconomics.

Thirdly, Volume One is very big in Japan, Bauman tells me, where of course they have a much more extensive history of illustrated books. (I’ve tried to confirm this popularity but can’t find the book’s rating on Amazon Japan. On Amazon.com, it’s #15,943 in Books, and #9 in Microeconomics.)

Bauman says this illustrated discourse is a response to all the “counterintuitive” economics going around these days. “Ultimately, people will rely on their intuitions,” he says, “so I’d rather work with intuitions than against them.” If intuition is a kind of automatic visualization that sometimes goes wrong, drawing the argument seems to help correct us when we go off the rails of our mind’s eye.

In today’s modern world, macroeconomic concerns saturate the news, from the front to the opinion page, and let’s face it, most of us are faking our understanding of the underlying economic tenets. The ratio of fiercely-argued blog comments on policy to actual economics majors is tremendously skewed. So a book like this, which bothers to dig a little deeper than David Brooks, embiggens your economic soul, in addition to informing you.

Cartoon Krugman from The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume Two (Illus. Grady Klein)

A kind of blind-men-and-elephant argument rages in macroeconomics, for instance, where classical economists argue that, as a whole, you’d do best to organize your economy like you would your family. This is where all those appeals to “belt-tightening” and “budget balancing” come from. But Keynesians claim that, in certain circumstances, the economy acts like a dysfunctional family, and in those moments, you have to use new rules.

This is the thought at the heart of Paul Krugman’s Return of Depression Era Economics, where he explains how a valorized, public-spirited thriftiness can prolong and even deepen a depression. If you want to see the cartoon version, try Bauman & Klein, who not only distinguish between the classical and Keynesian positions, but define types of unemployment, explain the effects of inflation versus deflation, and examine monetary policy and fiscal policy.

Speaking of policy, how about the Fed? I ask, referencing this Atlantic story. Bauman shrugs. “Ben Bernanke is a rocket scientist,” he says. “I’m not a rocket scientist, so I’m not going to judge him.” He points out that the Fed’s performance, as rated by the public, tends to correlate with the health of the economy. While Greenspan sat astride a bull market, he was rarely anything but praised.

“The sad truth,” postulates Bauman, “is that there aren’t easy answers. If you think free markets never work, you need to take an economics class. If you think free markets always work, you need to take another economics class.”

In the book, he’s fondest of his “awesome hypothetical” of free trade with aliens, explaining that there’s nothing quite like discussions of free trade for losing the forest for the trees. Once you start addressing free trade between two actual countries, people produce a stream of “Yeah, buts.” So Bauman and Klein parachute in aliens to keep the conversation focused purely on the mechanics of trade, and on their two-part dictum: 1) in the short terms, trade creates winners and losers, and b) in the longer term, trade is awesome. (This is perhaps reassuring to people who worry about The Wisdom Theory, presuming they are not short-term losers.)

Further, the effects of trade and technological progress are “virtually indistinguishable,” claims Bauman. Is that because technological progress is just trade with the future (a temporal rather than a geographic location)? I ask, feeling half-insightful and half-sure I’m stealing this from someone else. Bauman considers this. “Okay!” he says.

The part of the book he got the most pushback on, from other economists, was the chapter on climate change (“The End of Planet Earth?”), but as an environmental economist, Bauman wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip by. Besides, if he cut it, he’d have to give himself a terrible grade on his assessment of economics textbooks next year. (For the record, in 2010 Paul Krugman and Robin Wells got an A, and Robert Frank and rocket scientist Ben Bernanke got a C for their consideration of climate change’s impact on economics. The lone F went to a book that opposed linking carbon dioxide and global warming and warned darkly of a climate “conspiracy.” UPDATE: New report cards are out!)

That said, Bauman realizes a chapter doesn’t quite do climate change justice. His dream is to turn the IPCC report into a cartoon book that everyone could look at, instead of flee from. (Just the physical sciences IPCC report on climate change runs 996 pages.) And the one thing he’d hope that everyone came to understand clearly is the benefits of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. It’s one of Bauman’s stated goals in life actually: “to implement carbon pricing, preferably through a revenue-neutral tax shift involving lower taxes on things we like (working, saving, investing) and higher taxes on things we don’t like (e.g., carbon).”