The Springfield School of Economics

Long ago, a favorite professor of mine told a story about one of his favorites. On the first day of class, this eminent scholar came in, distributed a dense list of “suggested readings,” and left. When the class met next, he entered and stood quietly by a window, his gaze wandering from his audience to the pleasant scenery outdoors. Finally the uncomfortable silence was broken by a courageous student who, raising his hand and eventually receiving a nod of acknowledgement, asked, “Excuse me, professor, but do you plan to deliver a lecture today?”

“No,” came the reply. After pausing to consider the puzzled looks on his students’ faces, the professor explained: “I consider that most of my work in this course has been done. I have identified what you will need to read and understand if you wish to master this subject. I am now making myself available for questions.”

I don’t recall, if I ever knew, how this experiment in higher education worked out. What I do know is that it would be a catastrophic failure today. Once upon a time, it may have been reasonable to assume that most students were so thirsty for knowledge, self-motivated, and focused that they would battle their way through primary texts and abstruse articles and need only an opportunity to chat with a mentor to clear up any remaining uncertainties.

Those are bygone days, if they ever existed at all. Today, a good deal of any educator’s job is not just to identify what is worthwhile to know and to guide students through the learning of it, but to persuade them of the material’s relevance and utility with ample illustrations—and the more entertaining are these illustrations, the better.

Complaining about this is a waste of breath. It is what it is, as the annoying catchphrase says. But at least this state of affairs is a job-saver for academics. If we didn’t have to motivate, inspire, cajole, entertain, or by various underhanded means trick our students into working more assiduously than they ordinarily would choose to do, then those vaunted Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are supposedly revolutionizing higher education would actually be doing so. As it is, I have it on good authority (a colleague in English Lit, though I admit empirical work is not her strong suit) that not a single student has yet completed a MOOC without cheating. At least in the U.S. of A.

It is in this milieu that editor Joshua Hall of West Virginia University and a worthy band of colleagues offer up Homer Economicus. Hall’s experience in the classroom has taught him that economics without copious illustrations really is a dismal science, and that the examples students find most motivating and provocative often may be found in the television city of Springfield, where Homer and Marge Simpson have been raising their cartoon family since 1987 among a cast of characters who regularly and humorously demonstrate the power of a great many economic laws—often by attempting to defy them.

When the sage economist Deirdre McCloskey learned that Hall was working on an article about using The Simpsons in the classroom, she remarked that his title, a play on the Latin phrase for economic man, was so good that it “deserves a book.” Indeed. This 16-chapter volume will prove valuable, not only to instructors seeking to make their economics principles classes livelier, but to general readers. Those who have long avoided the “Queen of the Social Sciences” will find Homer Economicus a stimulating and pleasurable introduction to the field. They may well lose any natural inhibitions about thinking like an economist—which is not, as popular prejudice would have it, thinking cold-bloodedly or relying excessively on mathematical or graphical tools to model and understand human behavior. In Springfield, these authors show us, profound economic insights can emerge from the most mundane human activities, and we can develop a powerful intuition about economic decision-making by studying even silly or hilarious scenarios.

In economically deconstructing The Simpsons, of course, Hall and his authors have taken two significant risks. The first is that since the people and actions they are using as “real-world examples” are fictitious—indeed, caricatures—the lessons they impart might be dismissed as unrealistic. On close inspection, however, this turns out not to be a problem. The Simpsons has been on for over a quarter century not just because it is consistently funny, but because the show’s characters are endearingly (indeed, excessively) human. Just because they’re cartoons does not mean that their most off-center traits or choices have nothing to do with us.

The second issue is potentially problematic, however. Yes, the show is a long-running smash, but it has never been as popular among the highbrowed and academic elite as it deserves to be. Probably most profs know too little about the show to make effective use of it with students who grew up watching it. And with over 550 episodes in the bank, there is no way even a dedicated fan will be able to recall all the scenes mentioned in Homer Economicus.

Accordingly, Hall and his team need to spend a little time assembling a companion website at which readers can click their way to the relevant snippets under discussion. The summaries of plot lines in the book are workmanlike enough to give even non-fans the flavor of these episodes, but reading about a TV show seems a poor substitute for actually viewing it. It might be laborious to obtain the necessary permission to post short clips on an Economicus page designed for educational use, but I suspect doing so would pay off for The Simpsons’ creators in extra sales of full episodes once viewers’ appetites are whetted in this way.

With its illustrative scenes readily accessible, the book would be much more useful and thought-provoking. If they use it as a companion reader in an introductory course, adopters will find that the chapter organization loosely tracks that of standard principles texts.

Three introductory chapters acquaint readers with some of the basic concepts and jargon they will use later. The next half-dozen chapters relate to some (though not all) of the “core” issues in microeconomics (but only one in macro): the nature of money and exchange, the role of competition and profit in society, monopolistic behavior, and both market and government failures. The final seven chapters hopscotch among current “hot topics” in the public policy sphere (such as immigration, and drug laws) or important new branches of the discipline (behavioral econ). Academic users can pick and choose among these and order them in ways appropriate to their courses. Other readers will find that proceeding through the chapters in order will give them a reasonably thorough grasp of the tools of microeconomic analysis, a heightened appreciation of the role of markets in enhancing their welfare, and plenty of useful suggestions about ways that the economic way of thinking can lead to better life decisions.

I found no weak chapters in Homer Economicus—though, as is inevitable when trying to make complex material accessible, some expositions are not as strong as others, and some applications of economic principles to the often-outlandish behavior of Springfield’s citizens seem a bit strained. Particularly strong are the chapters that deal with material that often gets short shrift in standard introductions to the field. For example, Jodi Beggs’s elucidation of the insights of the behavioral economists (Ch. 15) is masterful; Seth and Robert Gitter’s discussion of the key issues in immigration policy (Ch. 10) is brief but touches all the right bases; the primer on entrepreneurship by Per Bylund, Christopher Holbrook, and Peter Klein (Ch. 6) is thorough and contains many of the best links to the show.

So if you want a sneakily entertaining way to start thinking like an economist, grab a donut or a Duff, get comfortable on the living room sofa, and started reading about those two-dimensional but remarkably interesting creations of cartoonist Matt Groening. By the time you’re done you’re likely to have a pretty good grasp of the field’s key precepts—even without an expert willing to make himself or herself available for questions.