Book Review: Economics Explained Enjoyably

Published September 1, 2007

Bulls Don’t Blush, Bears Don’t Die
Barry Asmus
AmeriPress, 2006
365 pages, hardcover, ISBN: 978-0970987327, $44.50
available online through

On the early pages of Bulls Don’t Blush, Bears Don’t Die, Barry Asmus traces the development of economic principles from the Greeks to St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and the English Magna Carta, then fast-forwards to John Locke in the seventeenth century and the American Constitution in the eighteenth, followed by a historical summary of the U.S. economy in the twentieth century. It all adds up to a short film before the blockbuster feature at the local cinema.

In Chapter 6, the book takes off like a James Bond movie, literally becoming a page-turner. Reading it becomes addictive as you begin to understand things about economics you gave up on long ago. Best of all, this book is about success and optimism. It is an antidote to your daily dose of print or TV news.

In the author’s opening cannon shot across our bow, he makes free traders of us all with this statement:

“Free trade is at the top of most economists’ list of factors producing prosperity, growth and opportunity. Trade is also the great civilizer. We exchange ideas when we exchange goods. Trade is a bridge, where traffic moves both ways. Rivals and customs are re-thought, diversities become advantages, superstitions cancel each other, and economic reason begins.”

Better Methods

In an early section on productivity, Asmus brings us to an egg farm with 250,000 well-fed, healthy, and happy–yes, happy–chickens laying 200,000 eggs a day. The eggs roll automatically into cartons, the cartons onto pallets, and the pallets onto trucks, all managed by two employees–which is why a dozen eggs cost less than a gallon of water.

The capitalist achievement, Asmus says, is “not that it produces more silk stockings for Queens, or leather boots for Kings, but that it brings them both within the financial reach of the common man in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.”

Productivity also makes life more humane. To pull people off farms and to end the drudgery and backbreaking work of factory life is simply to allow machines to work and let people think. When James Watt invented the steam engine, Asmus writes, “thousands of 10-year-old boys who had been hauling coal carts were now out of work. However, it did free them to do other productive things, like living to be age 11.”

Energy Use

Moving from tangible improvements in productivity to the digital information age that increases our collaborative capabilities exponentially, we see why inflation remains so low while energy costs continue to soar. Asmus optimistically concludes this chapter with the statement, “technology of the future will create needs faster than it satisfies them. Jobs will be plentiful.”

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 9, “Energy, Honda, Hybrids, Hydrogen, and Other Solutions.” As an energy aficionado and editor of Wiley’s forthcoming Energy Encyclopedia, it was satisfying to me to learn the author shares my sentiments that the world is not running out of oil or natural gas. Easy discoveries may be a thing of the past, but new technologies for discovering oil will locate large untapped deposits, as we ultimately begin a new era of nuclear power that will one day allow a hydrogen-based economy.

In the meantime, our economy has absorbed higher energy prices without significant harm.

Good Intentions, Bad Results

In Chapter 11, I kid you not, your heart will race in anticipation of Asmus’s every word. Here is a sample:

“The growth of government in most countries did not happen because evil people had evil intentions. On the contrary, it happened because many good people had good intentions. Health care, welfare, government jobs, social security, government education, opera houses, recreation centers, public buildings and food stamps are just a few of the good ideas for more government.”

But these good intentions rely on confiscation of others’ wealth. “The first problem is that government is doing good with other people’s money,” Asmus writes. “There is no end to the good that do-gooders will do with other people’s money.”

That is why no country can maintain a limited government for very long. People want less government, except when it benefits them. Asmus says, “even the greatest miser spends money like a drunken sailor when it is not his own.” When the government spends your money, it never does so as wisely as you would do for yourself

The author explains with extraordinary clarity why government gets away with it all. Simply put, the average person has little interest in stopping any particular program, because the out-of-pocket cost of the program is small and the time and effort required to stop it is large. Those who benefit from a program, on the other hand, will expend much time, money, and energy to get it implemented.

As a result, the political process favors special-interest groups.

Social Security System

Asmus applies similar common sense to Social Security, humorously describing the absurdity of our current system as follows:

“First, you cannot touch the money in the account until you retire. Second, if you or your spouse die, the money is lost unless you have school-aged children. Third, the minute that you retire you will be forced to convert the entire nest egg into an annuity that dribbles the cash out in a low monthly rate. Fourth, you cannot invest the account funds in a well-diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds. The funds must be parked in a single low-yield government instrument. Fifth, you must contribute 12.4% of your earnings to that account every year.”

Asmus’s solution to this travesty is personal retirement accounts. These, it may surprise you to learn, have been the law of the land in Chile for the past 25 years, and also Galveston, Texas, where county workers have enjoyed such a sensible system since 1981.

Failed Health Care

In Chapter 13, you will come to fully understand every nuance of our failed health care (read: sick care) system. Asmus explains what it is like to go health care shopping with someone else’s credit card, which is how Americans do it. When both physicians and patients know the bills will be paid by a third party, they have little incentive to ask for and get only the services actually needed.

All medical caregivers have, in reality, become employees of insurance companies or our government. Nothing in a free-market system, Asmus says, “resembles such irrationality.”

As we do regularly on the pages of Health Care News, Asmus explains consumer-driven health care and health savings accounts, and why they are so good. He also previews convenience clinics, now popping up in CVS pharmacies and Wal-Mart stores, as the wave of the future, where typical doctor-visit costs of $110 will be reduced to $60 and still be covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, etc.

Using a free-market approach, Asmus outlines simple answers for all of our seemingly complex health care problems.

Government Education

Similarly, you are unlikely to find clearer explanations for the problems of our government-controlled education system. In Chapter 14 Asmus asks, “Do you find it interesting that parents can send their kids to any school they choose if the kids are between the ages of zero and five, then again after the age of eighteen? But, between the ages of five and eighteen, the government says you must send them to the school of government’s choice. In America, we choose our spouse, our car, our home, our food, our church, even our pre-school, but not K thru 12.”

Asmus quotes a famous George Will column: “Not long ago the education establishment promised that if we would only invest more in the nation’s schools, they would produce a nation of Einsteins and Edisons. Today, we’d be pleased if upon leaving school our children have heard of Einstein and Edison.”

Asmus tells us public schools’ failures are not mysterious when there is no competition or choice. Why would anyone be surprised by poor results when we allow the poorest-quality college students to become public school teachers? We demand far less of them than we do of those who study math and science; we give teachers ironclad tenure, work them fewer days a year than any other profession, make their students a captive audience, and pay teachers according to seniority rather than performance.

And with 3 million members, the teacher unions virtually control political districts with their money and voting power, blocking reforms that might bring fundamental change to the system and improvement in student learning. But Asmus is ever the optimist. He proposes uplifting solutions to these problems involving choice, competition, vouchers, and tax credits.

Basic Principles

This book is actually two books in one. The first part, described above, can serve as an economic policy textbook focusing on the important issues of the day. The second part explains in context what Part 1 teaches about socialism and capitalism, the state of each of the world’s major national economies, how they got to be where they are, and what the future holds.

You may at this moment be rationally ignorant about the economies of Latin America, Asia, India, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia. I am confident, however, that most of you would be delighted to invest two hours to understand them all. That is all it will take to read this book–and you will indeed understand clearly. Please do not hesitate to purchase it.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.