This is an economics textbook with a difference. There are no mathematical equations. There are no graphs. And there are cartoons on nearly every page. From this description, many economists might form the initial impression that the book is somewhat superficial. But they would be quite wrong.
The style of presentation is based upon work by educational psychologists on how the human mind most easily understands and remembers information. Arguments are summarised in key words, which are organised spatially to recreate the logic which underlies them. The overall format can be thought of as a kind of sophisticated flow chart.
This innovative approach requires that concepts are expressed clearly and concisely. The result is a very concentrated set of sequences of ideas, which cover a wide range of theoretical literature.The cartoons serve as light relief which might irritate teachers but which students might well find welcome. For this book does demand constant attention on the part of the reader. In the words of the author "the argument is not embellished with mellifluous turns of phrase or amusing anecdotes". It is highly distilled logic.
But with appropriate effort, students at all first degree levels can gain an enormous amount from this book. Anyone who mastered the arguments in the text would acquire an excellent understanding of the basis of both micro and macro theory. And for the stronger student or economics specialist, there is a long list of references which can be used to gain a deeper appreciation of particular topics.
Cole's book is distinguished not merely by its style of presentation. It is based on the premise that economics does not consist of a set of established truths which the student must absorb. From the outset, differences of opinion among economists are emphasised. These differences are not merely the purely technical ones between, say, Keynesians and monetarists, but address fundamental issues such as theories of value.
Inevitably, a book of this kind cannot help but reflect the interests of the author, which in this case appears to be the view that the philosophical and economic views of Karl Marx are still of great relevance to the modern world. As it happens, the innovative presentation of the book enables these arguments to be presented with much greater clarity than is usual, so that students who persist with these sections will be well placed to make up their own minds.
This aside, the exposure of the wide range of disagreements among economists over the years is a valuable function for a textbook to perform. Academic economics in the UK is becoming increasingly focused on a particular view of how the world operates. Earlier this year, for example, a survey of economists by Leicester Business School established this fact clearly, concluding that the outcome of this process will be "students ignorant of alternative knowledge and a lack of the necessary training to mount an effective intellectual challenge".
Understanding Economics does not simply offer an antidote to this particular intellectual disease. Even the most dedicated proponent of economic orthodoxy will find value in its ability to present mainstream arguments clearly and concisely.
Paul Ormerod is chair of post-orthodox economics and is a visiting professor of economics, Manchester University.
Author - Ken Cole
ISBN - 0 7453 0894 5 and 0893 7
Publisher - Pluto Press
Price - £30.00 and £9.95
Pages - 198