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If Our Science Is So Dismal, Why Do People Keep Making Cartoons About It?

July 5th, 2011 · 15 Comments
Economic History

You know the joke about the New Yorker cartoons being hard to get? (There’s even a Seinfeld bit about it.) Apparently Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is continuing the trend:

Actually, I am pretty terrible at guessing what people get and don’t get, so perhaps I shouldn’t assume anything…I’ll just turn my assumption into a lesson instead:

You know that whole economics as the “dismal science” thing? Yeah, we supposedly have Malthus to (indirectly) blame for that. From wikipedia:

It is often stated that Carlyle gave economics the nickname “the dismal science” as a response to the late 18th century writings of The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who grimly predicted that starvation would result as projected population growth exceeded the rate of increase in the food supply.

In fact, if the situation in the cartoon above were to have transpired, economics would likely have been labeled just another “gay science” like music and poetry. (No really, that’s what they were called. I’m now picturing a bunch of “science is so gay” t-shirts and can’t decide whether Carlyle and Malthus did economists a favor on the marketing front.) Actually, that’s not true, since the story quoted above is somewhat of an urban legend. Justin Ross was kind enough to post the actual etymology of the term on an earlier post:

Actually, Carlyle’s objection was that the economic theory undermined arguments for “lesser races.” As Levy and Peart write:

While this story is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact—that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty—that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.”

The cite for this can be found here:…

We should wear “the dismal science” label as a badge of honor!

Hmmm…so I suppose I would rather be dismal than gay? I’ll take it, but it sounds a little weird either way. Personally, I am a bit surprised that Malthus’ predictions actually worried people, since Jonathan Swift had already proposed a solution a number of decades earlier.

Tags: Economic History

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Scott // Jul 5, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Gotta love “A Modest Proposal”. Although, anytime I bring it up in context (e.g. “Wow, that is a very modest proposal…”), I tend to get looked at like I am the one suggesting we eat babies…people have no sense of humor about eating babies, who knew?

  • 2 econgirl // Jul 5, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Please, plenty of species eat their young, it’s totally natural. =P

  • 3 Eat The Babies! // Jul 6, 2011 at 9:14 am

    I’ve been doing comics about economics! I have lots more to come, but most of the comics about economics I have done have featured Keynes, who’s one of the recurring characters in my strip. Of the strips that are out, there are only 3 that feature Keynes, but many, many more have already been made and are waiting to come out.


  • 4 Eat The Babies! // Jul 6, 2011 at 9:26 am

    P.S. It bums me out that everyone rips on Malthus. He was RIGHT. Given what he knew at the time. We were saved by the luck of technological advancement, but he was still right.

    And wouldn’t it have been nice if folks had listened to him and found ways to waste much much less? Because as a society we do waste ever so much.

  • 5 econgirl // Jul 6, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    You act as though ripping on an economist in retrospect for conclusions that were correct given available information at the time is a new thing. 🙂

  • 6 Pepper // Jul 6, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Um. I do believe it’s a smidge more politically and socially complicated than just looking at available information. (There’s a book called “The Malthus Factor” all about the starvations allowed for by Malthusian reasoning…which is, in fact, not at all right) Of course we were saved by technology. That’s the way economic growth works.

    But even if we hadn’t been saved by technology (and industrial agriculture is indeed far from a savior) Malthus just had it wrong.

    What he said: population grows geometrically, food production grows algebraically. Thus, population will outstrip the amount of food and people will starve

    Why he said it: So that all the English Bigwigs could watch the potato famine without intervening because it was the fault of those durned irish for reproducing too much (It wasn’t. They weren’t.)

    Actually: Malthus assumed that the only way to increase food production would be to increase the area of land we farm. This would be algebraic – true – but the other way of increasing production is by intensifying. If you intensify your production system (and Ester Boserup combined economics and anthropology to show that this is precisely what people do) , food production can actually increase faster than population. Hence, surpluses. You know, the surpluses of rice that Amartya Sen pointed out were rotting in Indian storage facilities while all the Malthusians blamed the Indian populous for having too many babies.

  • 7 Mj // Jul 7, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    What on earth is ‘algebraic growth’??

    Here in Australia, Malthus has made a huge comeback in the form anti-population growth ideology. For a country with 21 million people and land the size of Europe, there sure are a lot of whingers in this country. lol (See for more information on a prominent Aussie business personalities misguided view).

    Malthus was wrong – clearly. However, there is the concern that ethanol production is causing rising food prices. People tend to mix up Malthus with this phenomenon and equate the two in the same light. Rising food prices is most definitely going to create a lot of a problems in a few years but that too can be avoided by smart food-management, alternative energy sources and technological innovation.

  • 8 Mj // Jul 7, 2011 at 8:11 pm


  • 9 Amarsir // Jul 10, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    I was all ready to jump in with “but that’s not right!” on the dismal science, then the rest of your post had to go and be accurate. 🙂

    p.s. When an economist is predicting the future, I think criticizing them in hindsight may in fact be fair.

  • 10 Martlark // Jul 12, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Food costs is captive to the low return, uncertainty of production and ease of increasing supply.

  • 11 Kyle Pate // Jul 26, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Can I just say, the title of the article alone it poetry to me.

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