Jazzy Primers On The Dismal Science


By Herbert Stein and Murray Foss

AEI Press 273pp $39.95


By Nancy Folbre and the Center for Popular Economics

New Press unnumbered $12.95

Economists have a well-deserved reputation for murky writing. So it's a relief to have not one but two books that can be safely recommended to anyone interested in an economics primer. The two editions come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both are fair, informative, and--what's better--enjoyable to browse.

The New Illustrated Guide to the American Economy by Herbert Stein and Murray Foss is published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank--although Stein himself, a senior fellow at the AEI and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Richard Nixon, has a reputation as an economic moderate. The New Field Guide to the U.S. Economy comes from the respected Center for Popular Economics (CPE), a progressive economics group based at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Both books combine loads of intriguing charts and graphs with short, punchy explanations of economic trends.

Despite their differing political orientations, there's a healthy overlap in the topics the two books cover. Although they disagree less than might be expected, there are significant differences. The AEI book shines in its plethora of charts giving a long-term perspective on the U.S. economy. That's extremely useful at a time when economic-policy debates often treat last year as ancient history. For example, one chart illustrates the surprising fact that individuals now pay only about 30% of the cost of health care out of their own pockets, down from 60% in 1960.

The CPE book, by contrast, excels in its coverage of such topics as families, the environment, and minorities. A chart showing the rising percentage of membership in employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) is combined with a skeptical analysis of the benefits of ESOPs. Another chart shows how working mothers still do far more housework than working fathers.

Unfortunately, both books fall short in their treatment of the international economy. The AEI book, which by design focuses primarily on the U.S., relegates global issues to its last chapter. CPE's offering spends more time on international issues but doesn't really help people understand how, for example, the astounding economic boom in East Asia will affect U.S. workers and companies.

These books will never replace newspaper funny pages or MTV for entertainment value. But for those seeking enlightenment, they make the dismal science less of a swamp.

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