Dilbertian Economics: Consumer Surplus

Joseph DeMaio, BC Class of 2011, Economics, Fall 2008

The Problem

Economics is a fairly unique academic field. Where most subjects only rely on either qualitative reasoning or quantitative proofs, economics features a mix of both. This dual nature of economics creates a problem when crafting methods to teach economics. While long, text filled paragraphs are useful for subjects like history and sociology, this style has trouble incorporating economic formulas and graphs into an easy to read format. Similarly, the number laden proofs that form math textbooks are inadequate when trying to explain qualitative economic principles. Most authors, when faced with this issue, will choose the text heavy approach, attempting to incorporate formulas and graphs into text filled paragraphs. While effective in teaching the material, this approach is hard to read, and often quite confusing. However, this is not the only way to teach. The cartoon strip Dilbert makes use of cartoons to make fun of complex office politics. The purpose of this project is to apply this simplifying process to the subject of economics, and consumer surplus in particular.

The Pros and Cons of the Current System

There are several problems in the way that the current form of written textbooks in the subject of economics attempt to teach students material. First and foremost, these books are incredibly text heavy, as you can see in the selections below. While some text is necessary in order to explain the concepts, long paragraphs don't provide opportunities to let the eyes rest, and it becomes incredibly easy to lose one's place when reading. Long paragraphs also mean that numerical formulas must be written into lines of text, which can be incredibly hard to follow. Another problem is that these textbooks are very bad at incorporating charts, tables and graphs into the flow of the teaching. For example, most of the graphs are placed in the upper portions of the page so that they stay out of the way of the text. However, most of the time this means that the author is forced to reference a graph that is on a separate page than the one the reader is on. The concept might fit in text on the page, but there is no place for the graph. This forces the reader to choose between either finishing the paragraph and ignoring the graph (which often contains information crucial to the understanding of the concept), or skipping to the graph and losing his or her place in the text. A third and final problem is also connected to the incorporation of graphs. Each graph contains a small caption that explains what is going on in the graph itself. Frequently, however, these captions are added in a small, hard to read font. Thus, the reader is forced to strain his or her eyes attempting to read something that is crucial in interpreting the authors line of reasoning. This is not to say that there are no positive aspects to this system. Long text paragraphs enable incredibly detailed descriptions of the topic at had. Also, while often in illogical places, the graphs are large, easy to read, and incredibly clear. These few slight positive aspects, however, are not enough to make up for all the layout problems.

Katz & Rosen, Microeconomics, 108. Katz & Rosen, Microeconimics, 109. Katz & Rosen, Microeconomics, 113.

A Better Way

Just because the text heavy style has become the standard for teaching economics there are not alternative ways. The images below are a selection from the Subprime Primer, a slide show available on the internet that attempts to explain the economic turbulence of today in a different manner.

BusinessPundit.com, The Subprime Primer

Rather than utilizing a long text paragraph to explain how independent banks took all of the bad loans that they had accumulated, packaged them together, and sold them to Wall Street, there are barely three sentences. By using simple language that nearly everyone can understand, as well as slight visual hints like the stench rising from the trash can, the entire idea is conveyed with a minimum of text. Even more surprising is the fact that, despite the lack of text, it is easier to grasp and understanding of the situation. The reason for this is simple. Rather than being able to connect to the concept on a single level, text, The Subprime Primer uses two separate visual systems: text and image. By using both, even a complex concept like a worldwide economic crisis is an easy thing to grasp.

The message is also easier to grasp because of the usage of humor and a narrative format the information is in. The roman rhetorical thinkers Cicero and Quentilian both note how humor is important in crafting a message since it is capable of both eliminating emotions such as anger, hatred, or boredom and enabling the audience to better connect with the message (Golden, Bernquist, & Coleman, 79). The Subprime Primer takes advantage of these aspects of humor, the effect of which is to allow the audience to identify with the information presented and keeps them interested in the story. The usage of a narrative format is also incredibly important in allowing the audience to connect to the information presented. The 20th century thinker Walter Fisher argues that, since human beings are essentially story telling beings, the use of a narrative "enables us to understand the actions of others" (Fisher, 138). In other words, Fisher argues that by using a narrative, the author of The Subprime Primer enables the audience to better understand the information presented because readers can connect to the actions taken in the story. Since all of the actions stem from economic principals, the audience therefore is able to better understand the concepts. With these two rhetorical principles in place, it is easy to see why The Subprime Primer is able to teach a complicated concept so easily.

Fixing The Problem

After examining all of the reasons that the text laden approach fails and why The Subprime Primer's narrative approach is so effective, I attempted to take an economic concept and simplify it into a narrative format. The principal I chose was that of consumer surplus. The page to the right is taken from a chapter economic textbook that teaches consumer surplus, and it is easy to see some of the problems inherent in the textual approach. Long paragraphs without places for the eye to rest, numerical formulas built into sentences, and small captions for graphs. Below is my attempt to re-create that information in a narrative format.
Katz & Rosen, Micoreconomics, 112.

If successful, the combination of text, pictures, humor and a narrative format create a message that was able to both teach the concept of consumer surplus while at the same time remaining easy to read and entertaining.

Ready for a Quiz?

1. What is the consumer surplus if the price is P1?

2. What is the consumer surplus if the price is P0?
Ministry of Economic Development, Partial Equilibrium Analysis.

The Correct answer for question 1 is triangle P1-C-D, for question 2 is triangle P0-A-D. If the reader is able to get the correct answers, then the slide show was successful. If not, than the textbook style of teaching is more effective.


Due to the dual numerical and textual natures of economics, most materials designed to teach the subject have visual issues. From readability issues to locations of graphs, textbooks consistently have problems when presenting economic concepts. The Subprime Primer, on the other hand, presents a unique way to teach economic concepts. By utilizing humor, a narrative format, as well as simple language and visual aids, The Subprime Primer is both entertaining and informative. In applying those principals to the concept consumer theory I hope to have proven that this format can be extended beyond the current economic crisis and into more general economic concepts. Just because the the current way economics is taught is not visual engaging doesn't mean that other styles of presenting information can't be just as informative, while also being entertaining.

Works Cited

BusinessPundit.com, "The Subprime Primer," cartoon, The Subprime Mortgage Primer, http://www.businesspundit.com/sub-prime/ (accessed December 7, 2008).

Dilbert.com. "The Official Dilbert Website." Dilbert.com. http://www.dilbert.com (accessed December 9, 2008).

Fisher, Walter R. "Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm." In A Rhetorical Perspective on Communication, edited by Bonnie Jefferson, 75-86. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/ Hunt Publishing Company, 2003.

Golden, James L., Goodwin F. Berquist, and William E. Coleman. "The Education of the Citizen Orator." In A Rhetorical Perspective on Communication, edited by Bonnie Jefferson, 75-86. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/ Hunt Publishing Company, 2003.

Ministry of Economic Development. "Partial Equilibrium Analysis." Ministry of Economic Development.http://www.med.govt.nz/templates/MultipageDocumentPage____8072.aspx (accessed December 8, 2008).

Katz, Michael L., and Harvey S. Rosen. Microeconomics. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 1998.