Beautiful Economics

The title of this book, Beautiful Economics, is an oxymoron. The two words are uncomfortable with each other. That’s one of author Howard Collinge’s favorite tricks: He likes to put opposites together, like Andy Warhol and Adam Smith, to shock and delight with cross-cultural references, to stimulate cognitive growth with exposure to unfamiliar combinations. It all adds up to beautiful, not so much economics.

Collinge is a New York based creative director who has put considerable effort and expense into studying the principles of economics and displaying them in artistic and creative ways. His stated goal is to add beauty and ethics to economics, which is like adding lipstick and wings to a pig.

Collinge is big on boosting creativity and rewarding it, but unlike an economist, he doesn’t give us a way to measure creativity or measure improvements in it. He could have mentioned the number of patents applied for, with a welcome discussion of how that might not be a good measure of creativity, or the number of start-up companies founded, a decent measure of risk-taking. Missed opportunities.

The author teases “life dollars” as a new currency, which grows as people make life-enhancing choices rather than purely financial choices. I was hoping for serious ideas about alternative monetary systems, such as Ithaca Bucks or numerous other quasi-successful efforts at community currency. Collinge gives propers to the inventor of BitCoin but never discusses how crypto-currency could support life dollars.

Instead of plans we get puns: a hippie guide called “The Road to Surfdom” and a defense contractor named “Happyburton.” He does include a lengthy quote from the leader of Bhutan on measuring Gross National Happiness, but it’s hard not to smile when the author suggests we use smiles as an alternative to GNP: How? Practical Economics it is not.

Finally, the impression the book leaves is that it was created by someone not constrained by ordinary economic concerns. A full-size, hardcover book, it has one-third the number of pages typical for a book this thick. How? The pages are printed on extra-thick stock so the content of a pamphlet looks like a substantial hardcover book costing US$24.95 ($33.95 in Canada).

Each page of the book is soaked with color and bursting with graphic design. As you turn the colorful, fat pages, you wonder what it must cost to print such a book? The price to upload a PDF (likely how Beautiful Economics was printed) to today and get a professionally bound hard cover book with premium paper is $24.56 — nearly identical to the book’s list price. Even if you printed in China (as powerHouse Books did) in quantities of 1000 – 5000 copies, it still likely cost nearly the cover price to print and ship the books. This is not serious economics.

Beautiful Economics succeeds in making the reader think differently about economics but fails any ambition at supplying the tools to get there.

Steve O’Keefe is the author of several books, most recently Set the Page on Fire: Secrets of Successful Writers, from New World Library, based on over 250 interviews. He is the former editorial director for Loompanics Unlimited.