Bryan Caplan  

What's Wrong With the Cartoon Guide to American History

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Despite my admiration for Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe series (which includes his Cartoon History of the Modern World), I can't recommend his Cartoon Guide to American History.  It's good on the Indians and slavery, but the rest is tired social democratic platitudes.

Part of the reason, no doubt, is that excessive attachment is the enemy of good history.  Ever notice how wretched historical surveys become in their closing chapter on "recent events"?  By itself, first-hand experience is good; but first-hand experience also leads most people to "take a side."  Gonick's social democratic sympathies don't mar his analysis of the Protestant Reformation, but his U.S. history is another story.

Gonick's main problem, though, isn't politics; it's economics.  Before 1800 or so, human beings were basically fighting over a fixed pie of resources.  As a result, the story of mankind really was a record of personalities punctuated by mass murder. 

Since 1800, or so, though, per-capita output has grown at a mind-boggling rate.  Whether you're a social democrat or a libertarian, this is a radical change.  For practical purposes, prosperity now depends on economic growth, not successful inter-group conflict.  In fact, inter-group conflict - most obviously warfare - has become little more than an obstacle to economic growth.

Unfortunately, Gonick writes the history of the U.S. as if this sea change never happened.  Sure, he mentions technological and industrial progress, but he spends about as many pages talking about labor unions.  What's wrong with that?  Simple: Economic growth, not changes in income distribution, explains virtually all of the rise in our standard of living since 1800.  Before the modern economy, it was impossible for most people to enjoy a high standard of living.  In many ways, it was impossible for anyone to do so - Genghis Khan himself didn't have basic cable or a low-speed modem.  Whenever a modern economy exists, in contrast, almost everyone does ridiculously well by pre-modern standards - whether or not they've got unions, or Social Security, or safety regulation.

If you're not convinced, consider: Unions and/or government have never managed to completely equalize incomes without affecting incentives to produce.  They've never done either, actually.  But if they did achieve this incredible feat, people would still only receive the per-capita income for their society!  And by modern standards, the per-capita income of 1850 or 1900 was a pittance.  Struggles over income distribution might still be an interesting historical footnote; but these days the main reason to study these struggles is that they retard economic growth.

Gonick's a good enough historian to know a few counter-examples.  But my basic point is sound: Economic growth isn't just one of many things that happened in the last two centuries.  It's the key difference between the Bad Old Days and today.  Consider: What would Genghis Khan have thought if you told him that the Germans became incredibly rich after their abject military defeat in World War II?


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Zac writes:

So what are the really good resources for children to learn history? I see an opportunity for an enterprising historian/author: an economically literate (and not too serious) history text.

burger flipper writes:

Good to know.
I checked out a couple of these from the library after you recommended them, thinking ahead to building a library for my kiddo-to-be.
Going to buy these, because I would have loved them as a youngster.

adrian writes:

Bryan,
I picked up the cartoon history of the universe the other day because of your recommendation. I guess it was okay except that Gonick seems to be obsessed with women's breasts and sex in the book. Half the women in the book were topless, and don't get me started on the section with greek men and little boys. I know sex and sexual behaviors are a part of history and everyday life but I felt like they were overemphasized in the book, especially since it appears to be a book for young adults. I couldn't finish the book, it was way too creepy. I think I'll stick with traditional history books.

ThaddeusMcMonster writes:

It would have been much quicker to simply state that in his other histories, Gonick agrees with you, in this one, he doesn't.

John Maxwell writes:

Have you looked at the Biblical Economics in Comics by Vic Lockman? Don't let the "Biblical" part put you off -- it is a great introduction to economics for children.

Gary Rogers writes:

I would also like to add that there is too little credit given to energy use in freeing us from the pre-eighteen hundred's misery. The steam engine led to the internal combustion engine, which replaced human and animal power with much more productive ways to accomplish work. This all started around 1800 and today has evolved into electricity, computers and the productive society we enjoy today. Sorry for getting off the subject, but energy use IS productivity and those that tell our history need to recognize it for what it is.

David R. Henderson writes:

Outstanding post, Bryan. The two great sentences:

1. If you're not convinced, consider: Unions and/or government have never managed to completely equalize incomes without affecting incentives to produce. They've never done either, actually. But if they did achieve this incredible feat, people would still only receive the per-capita income for their society! And by modern standards, the per-capita income of 1850 or 1900 was a pittance.

2. Consider: What would Genghis Khan have thought if you told him that the Germans became incredibly rich after their abject military defeat in World War II?

dearieme writes:

Yup, human history has two eras - before Adam Smith and James Watt, and afterwards. On which note, this might interest you.
http://www.riley-smith.com/hamish/document_view.php?cat=1&doc=16

Andrew writes:

"Since 1800, or so, though, per-capita output has grown at a mind-boggling rate. Whether you're a social democrat or a libertarian, this is a radical change."

Tom Palmer made this point brilliantly at a recent lecture I attended (online here), using this graph.

William Newman writes:

"Economic growth isn't just one of many things that happened in the last two centuries. It's the key difference between the Bad Old Days and today."

I'd quibble with that; I'd say something like "it's one of a handful of key differences between the Bad Old Days and today, and almost certainly the biggest." And I'd nominate change in knowledge as a contender.

1775-1875 brought not only a radical change in economic growth, but a radical change in how much stuff was understood --- not just tricky mysterious stuff like thermodynamics and electromagnetism and the periodic table, but simple-in-retrospect stuff like marginal utility, no spontaneous generation, germ theory of disease, and natural selection. (And Mendelian genetics arguably sneaks in before the cutoff too.) That understanding is strongly coupled with economic growth, of course, but it is not identical with economic growth.

Even if unhappy cosmic accidents (a new Ice Age or something) had largely cancelled the wealth increase, don't you think the new understanding would have changed society profoundly? I think liberal societies would still have looked profoundly different from more traditional societies. (Probably still with a huge productivity advantage, too. If that growth had been cancelled by global problems that impoverished everyone, it would have still been clearly visible, very likely by other societies drowning while the liberal societies were treading water.)

Dave writes:

It's not true that the world economy was a fixed pie until 1800. AFAIK, there was constant economic growth, but in most times and places, people mainly spent their new wealth on larger families, so per capita income was constant. But even that fluctuated--apparently around 1000 AD (see the book 1000 AD) Britain at least was relatively wealthy, with peasants being tall and in good health--more so than the urban poor in the 1800s. Similarly, China had lots of technological progress through most of history, which has to count for something.

Arthur B. writes:

"Before 1800 or so, human beings were basically fighting over a fixed pie of resources. As a result, the story of mankind really was a record of personalities punctuated by mass murder."

Whereas mass murder is totally unheard off after 1800.

And of course, before 1800 technological progress was unknown, trade nonexistent, and economics principles didn't apply.

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