One of my favorite books is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. With simple comic art, McCloud presents the history of sequential comics, and how they work. It's as much about psychology as it is about the way comics use standard structural elements that work on a subconscious level to tell a story. A cartoon version of McCloud serves as the narrator of the book, speaking directly to the reader, which is very effective.
I'm also a big fan of Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, a series of comic books that, as the title suggests, presents the history of the universe from the big bang up to the present era. It combines factual history with a bit of humor (which is always appropriately in context).
Both McCloud and Gonick came to mind when I read Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work), by Michael Goodwin and by illustrated Dan E. Burr. Told as a history, it ties important world events (wars, revolutions, technological progress, resource depletion, pollution, etc.) to their economic consequences, and it explains the far-reaching (and often unintended effects) of economic policy decisions on people and the planet. Dan E. Burr's appealing illustrations add punch, humor, and clarity to Goodwin's already-excellent storytelling skills.
The first 20 pages or so are about the early history of economic policy (Jean-Baptiste's mercantilism and Francois Quesnay's laissez-faire ideas). It then spends some time examining Adam Smith's revolutionary book, Wealth of Nations. I've often heard people cite Smith's Invisible Hand as the reason why a laissez-faire free market is the best economic policy, but Smith actually warned that free markets were vulnerable. He believed that monopolies and cartels will always try to escape the market and undermine public interest by tricking and corrupting the government into doing favors for them. From the book:
Adam Smith was never dogmatic; he knew markets weren't perfect. Markets won't enforce laws, protect borders, or provide public goods, such as street cleaning, that everyone wants but nobody has much incentive to provide
For that matter, Smith thought government should favor war–related industries so they would be around if war came, protect wage workers (because they had less bargaining power than employers), keep banks honest, issue patents, protect new industries until they were on their feet, cap the interest rate, control disease, establish education standards (so brain–dead jobs like the one in the pin workshop didn't turn workers into brain–dead people), and even provide public amusements.
It becomes clear early on that Goodwin thinks laissez-faire capitalism leads to problems (like private affluence and public squalor) and that he favors a mixed economy (free enterprise combined with socialism). Since I'm basically a democrat (with a civil libertarian streak), I agreed with Goodwin's interpretations of historical events of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries -- the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the robber barons, World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, World War II, the permanent war economy, Reagan's disastrous reign, Alan Greenspan's creepy machinations, and George Bush Junior's wholesale looting of the economy by giving tax cuts to the rich (which doesn't work). Most presidents receive a failing grade from Goodwin. The exceptions are Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Bill Clinton. Most of the other presidents were in cahoots with the ultra rich, who will never be satisfied until they own every crumb of the economic pie.
Economics books usually bore me, but in the hands of Goodwin and Burr, the subject was engrossing (and like Gonick, often funny). Light switches flicked on in my mind every few pages or so, and after reading Economix I felt like I understood many fundamental aspects about the way the world works that I had been too lazy to learn about before.
On his website, Goodwin has a list of books he used as sources when writing Economix. He puts the books in order of how highly he recommends them. (Highly Recommended: "James Carroll, House of War. A stunning history of the Pentagon, the postwar military, and the economic institutions that feed it." Read but Not Recommended: "Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged. Porn for rich people. In Rand’s world, rich people are rich because they’re better than everyone else, and they’d be even richer except that nasty inferior people keep convincing them to give away their money.")
Economix is a book I'm going to buy and give to people.
Buy Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work) on Amazon
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.