Generally speaking, economics books are not meant to make for pleasant reading.
During my time in business school, I encountered plenty of econ books and they are, by their nature, dense, detailed, incredibly boring affairs that only a small percentage of people can understand and an even smaller percentage actually enjoys.
These books attempt to explain lofty, often abstract concepts like inelastic demand, deadweight loss, production probabilities, and the free-rider problem with piles of dry, academic language and mounds of incredibly detailed data. It can often feel like trying to learn math in another language while hanging upside down.
All of which makes J. Brian O’Roark’s Why Superman Doesn’t Take Over the World (Oxford University Press) all the more impressive.
Though a latecomer to the world created by the likes of Stan Lee and Frank Miller, O’Roark is nonetheless a comic book head. But he’s also professor of Economics at Robert Morris University who previously co-edited the essay collection Superheroes and Economics: The Shadowy World of Capes, Masks and Invisible Hands. In this book, he returns to those two subjects and how they can inform one another.
I admit that I’m an easier convert than most because I, too, love the world of superheroes and have spent my career in the world of business so, like Hamilton, this is a merging of two important things in my life. Still, the fact that O’Roark even attempted this, let alone succeeded, is worthy of attention and praise.
As far as academic works go, Why Superman Doesn’t Take Over the World is nice and short – just under 200 pages – but it is still an academic work, so the words are densely packed, the font is small, and there are tables and charts helping to illustrate the points.
Yet, unlike the vast majority of academic tomes, the writing is fluid and fun, with O’Roark’s approach being a delicate tongue-in-cheek balance between knowing how ridiculous this all is while taking the material – both sets, comics and economics – absolutely serious, employing Deadpool and Green Arrow as examples of economic theory at work. Nowhere is this more clear than in the list of references at the end of each chapter where academic papers like Ronald Coase’s “The Lighthouse in Economics” and Adam Smith’s classic The Wealth of Nations is joined by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League #6 and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s The Amazing Spider-Man #1.
Each chapter asks a question – “Why Do Superheroes Team Up?”; “Who’s Going to Clean Up This Mess?” – and then uses economics to answer it – comparative advantage and insurance, respectively – while weaving the storylines of various characters throughout to add color to the explanation.
For instance, in the chapter, “Why Do Superheroes Fight Each Other?” O’Roark uses Game Theory to explain why, although they’re both superheroes dedicated to the betterment of humanity, it is more beneficial for Captain America and Iron Man to fight it out in a civil war than it is to try to talk it out:
“Following the logic of the prisoner’s dilemma, each party has a dominant strategy. No matter what the other hero chooses, the largest payoff for both heroes individually is to fight…What we have here is not only a failure to communicate, but also a prisoner’s dilemma, not between thieves but between heroes.”
I learned all of these terms in school and have heard them used sporadically in meetings or presentations, but there are several that I never fully grasped until I read this book. That may sound hyperbolic, but it’s true. Using characters we all know as an easily accessible entry point to the world of economics is a brilliant concept and one that cannot be easy to pull off. Some chapters are stronger than others, but all of them include some sort of perspicacity to bring economics down to a digestible level without having to dumb it down.
In fact, there is only one unintelligent thing in the whole book: his assertion that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a bad movie. That’s okay – even the smartest of people can have blind spots.
This is one of those books that will fall outside of most curricula, but I believe it will be more helpful and informative than anything that is actually assigned in Economics 101.
In fact, I wish my Econ professor had been able to assign this book to us when I was in school.
I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.