It’s a crisp Tuesday night in University College Cork and as many students indulge themselves at the college bar, many more are crowded into a lecture theater eagerly awaiting the arrival of a very special guest speaker. From the audience whispers of “Dental Plan” and “Lisa needs braces” echo throughout the hall. For most of the attendees, The Simpsons was a core part of their childhood. Before the revolution of cable and satellite TV, Irish people only had two or three channels to choose from. Six O’Clock would roll around and the people of Ireland would be faced with a chilling dilemma; the choice between watching the evening news and enjoying a trip to Springfield. For my generation, The Simpsons holds a special place within our collective pop cultural hive-mind and we’ve all played “knifey-spoony” before. This familiarity makes it uniquely suited as a framework to illustrate economic principles, something which the evening’s guest speaker Dr. Joshua Hall; adjunct professor of Economics at West Virginia, has a lot of experience with.
Ever since Dr. Hall began lecturing, he has found that the use of pop culture examples within the class-room has allowed for students to better engage with the course material. The title of his lecture was Homer Economicus: The Four Times that The Simpsons was “Teacher, Mother and Secret Lover” [with donut points going for those who get the reference]. The event was organised by the UCC Economics Society has part of their annual Economics Week. It is clear from the start that Dr. Hall’s passion for The Simpsons is a strong as his economic expertise. For Hall, the study of economics is all about how people behavior and make decisions. His approach to teaching the principles of microeconomics has always been to provide students with tools that will help them at work, at home and at the ballot box. His aim is to transform students into homo economicus, to get people to think critically, to think like an economist.
Dr. Hall is someone who understand the importance of accessibility with regards to education. His work emphasises that economics is not about saying with certainty that somebody will make X choice, but rather that somebody might make X choice. As such, the actions of Homer Simpson are prime examples of how incentives affect the public. While more often than not, we may not have chosen the path that Homer often goes on during his misadventure, but in almost all of those scenarios there are clear, logical incentives at work. We can understand why in “King-Size Homer” he decides to become morbidly obese because he perceives the benefit of working from home being working to outweigh the negative impact on his health. It demonstrates that value is subjective and that incentives can have both seen and unforeseen consequences, something which the true economist will bare in mind. Hall demonstrates that The Simpsons has much teach us from the economics of immigration and politics to the economics behind prohibition. The episode “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment” is clearly illustrative of the principle that illegality of a product does not necessarily impact demand for that product. Similarly Sideshow Bob’s mayoral campaign, in particular his focus on the construction of a “Matlock Expressway”, illustrates the importance of special interests within a political system and weight given to certain classes of voters such as the elderly. Throughout the entirety of the lecture, Dr. Hall is charismatic and passionate about the material being discussed. You can tell this is man who really cares about his work. Its quite clear that for him that everything is coming up Milhouse.
Recently, Dr. Hall has brought his work to the wider public. In 2014, he edited and published (with the Stanford University Press); Homer Economicus: The Simpsons and Economics which features contributions from over 16 economics scholars. Besides having one of the wittiest titles that I’ve ever seen, the book is a fantastic insight into the world of economics in an easy to understand and comprehensible manner. With chapters focusing on Monorail markets, Homer’s constant career changes and compulsive gambling, Dr. Hall says it appeals to both economic wonks and Simpsons fans. For the latter category, he hopes that they are able to look at their favourite episodes in a new light while gaining an appreciation for the core concepts of microeconomics. Dr. Hall also takings great pride in saying that the framework provided by The Simpsons allowed his mother to finally read some of his work. If something like The Simpsons can get people to engage with economics more, then he has done his job right. It’s clear that Joshua Hall’s work demonstrates that economics is everywhere. He is one of many academics using pop culture as a lens with which to view complicated material such as Daniel W. Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies. This is something to be welcomed and encouraged. Accessibility enhances an discipline as it allows more people to contribute and engage in a productive discourse. What is apparent from both his lecture and his book, is that Dr. Hall is someone whose love of fiction enriches his teaching ability. Homer Economicus provides that one can learn a lot from the antics of Springfield’s favourite family. Nothing is “umpossible”.
Homer Economicus: The Simpsons and Economics is available on Amazon, Book Depository, all good book-stores and some crap ones as well.
You can also follow Dr. Joshua Hall on Twitter; @