Book club: The Cartoon Introduction to Economics Volume Two: Macroeconomics

Will Hodges enjoys a light-hearted look at the “dismal science"

The Cartoon Introduction to Economics Volume Two: Macroeconomics

Yoram Bauman and Grady Klein

Hill and Wang, 2011

First we had the Undercover Economist, then the Armchair Economist; now The Cartoon Introduction to Economics is the latest tongue-in-cheek look at the intricacies of economic theory.

Despite my long-standing fascination with the world of economics, as an arts graduate I have often struggled to get my head around some of trickier aspects of the subject. I have therefore been a keen recipient of much of the "dumbed down" publications on offer. I have found that previous attempts to make bedtime reading of the dismal science tend to fall into one of two categories: entertaining, but little use as an academic reference (like the Undercover Economist); or informative, but hardly something you would choose to read for pleasure (Economics for Dummies, for example).

Uniquely, The Cartoon Introduction to Economics attempts to fulfil both these criteria and to strike a balance between being informative and entertaining. The premise of the books rests of combining the talents of cartoonist Grady Klein and self proclaimed "stand-up economist" Yoram Bauman, who first joined forces for the duo's previous volume, which focused on microeconomics. The result is a journey, comic book-style, through the major issues surrounding macroeconomics, from the formation of the two main schools of thought (the classical and the Keynesian) to the future of the global economy, including the problems of global warming and ageing populations.

The book is comprised of three main sections, which span the main components of macroeconomic thought: the macroeconomy, international trade and global macroeconomics. The individual chapters, of which there are 16, each tackle a different economic issue or concept. In each case, the core arguments are dissected using a combination of plain explanations and illustrations. The tension between classical and Keynesian theory appears as a recurring theme throughout. For the record, the writers remain firmly on the fence on the question of which is superior.

There was always a risk that the format could have turned the book into a novelty read. But luckily the book is underpinned by the writers' firm grasp of economic theory, meaning that it never loses sight of its main aim, which is to provide information in an easy digestible format. Given the complexity of the subject matter, doing so is no mean feat and the writers manage to portray well some of the greyer areas of macroeconomic theory, for example trade between countries and the debate over workers' rights.

In most cases the explanations offered are kept short and sweet, and the trickier theory is handled with a light touch so that things never get too heavy for the reader. As such, I found I was able to make my way to the end of the book in just a couple of sittings, all the while quietly confident that I would be able to regurgitate what I had learnt with a relative degree of accuracy if called to do so.

Aside from the use of cartoons, the main weapon in Klein and Bauman's armoury is humour. Within every explanation or use of jargon lies an excuse for a joke or a pun, no mean feat considering that issues such as money supply, to name but one, don't lend themselves easily to comedy. Whether the writers try too hard to be funny is open to debate, and the constant barrage of jokes perhaps wears a little thin as you approach the final chapters. After all, there is a limit to how funny you can actually make global warming or poverty. There is also a mildly risqué cancer joke that is certain to raise a few eyebrows.

A few crude gags aside, however, there is really very little not to enjoy about Klein and Bauman's efforts. Even the drawings themselves are to be admired and are rather beautiful in their own way. There are plenty of alternatives on offer, but The Cartoon Guide should definitely be the first port of call for any amateur macroeconomists, whether they're arts students or social scientists.