The Critic

Book Review: Homer Economicus: The Simpsons and Economics by Joshua Hall


Remember the episode of The Simpsons in which Homer gets fired from the nuclear plant and becomes an economist? His harebrained scheme is to write a book about the economic wisdom contained in his favorite television show. He dreams up a great title, but he’s too lazy to write the actual words, so he gets his friends to do it for him.

That episode doesn’t actually exist, though the plot describes the origins of a new book, Homer Economicus: The Simpsons and Economics, as long as you take out “nuclear plant,” “fired,” “harebrained,” and “lazy,” and substitute West Virginia University economist Joshua Hall for Homer. On second thought, let’s keep “harebrained” in.

Homer Economicus is a craptacularly clever title, playing neatly on economists’ concept of the perfectly rational and foresighted individual, Homo economicus. But Hall, who has an “edited by” credit on the book, has overlooked one key concept of his field: diminishing returns. The idea seems to have been that if folding one or two Simpsons jokes into a freshman econ lecture was a good idea, then mining hundreds of episodes over 16 chapters and 189 pages would be much, much better. By the end of the last chapter (“From Rabbit Ears to Flat Screen: It’s Getting Better All the Time”), you kind of want to burp.

Doughnut Illustration by Sam Island

The book has an oddly strong libertarian tinge. Many of the 22 writers Hall recruited are admirers of the late Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises. Samford University professor Art Carden, for example, dislikes the fire code that prevents Homer from sitting in the aisle of a movie theater because he’s too fat for a seat. After all, some people might be willing to take their chances in a jampacked theater if crowding lowered ticket prices. “The assumption that there is One Right Way for theater patrons to be organized—and that One Right Way means no one sitting in the aisles—reduces gains from trade and limits innovation,” Carden writes.

Homer Economicus is being pitched to two audiences: people who can’t get enough of pop economics books and professors who assign it as a textbook supplement. There may be a third market of fans who’ll buy anything connected to the show, even a book that throws around terms like “time inconsistency” and “reference-dependent utility.”

Hall isn’t the first person to exploit Springfield’s first family for profit. There’s The Psychology of the Simpsons, The Simpsons and Philosophy, and The Gospel According to the Simpsons, which detects insights from “literature, composition, linguistics, cultural studies, gender studies, and media appreciation.” There’s even a smart new book about algebra by Simon Singh called The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets.

The key problem with any product related to America’s longest-running sitcom is that it’s bound to pale next to the source material. As the essayist E.B. White once wrote, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.” After the 11th or 12th mention of how Homer’s behavior illustrates the power of incentives, readers may sense their skin turning yellow.

And the language. “Consider the case of beer,” one author earnestly writes. Sorry, but Homer Simpson never once “considered” the case of beer. He just picked it up and lugged it to the parking lot.

Coy_190
Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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