Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Build, Baby, Build, Graphic “Novel”

Whenever you attend any of the major comic-cons, there is one complaint you hear repeatedly: not enough graphic novels with extensive endnotes. At least, they ought to be asking for that, because it would imply smarter graphic novels. In this case, the “novel” part of graphic novel might be debatable, but the intelligence is evident on every page. George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan makes the happy-warrior case for housing deregulation in Build, Baby, Build: The Science and Ethics of Housing Regulation, illustrated by Ady Branzei and published by the Cato Institute, which goes on-sale today.

Caplan patiently explains to readers why housing regulation, including rent control and zoning laws make housing less affordable and harder to find for average people. Of course, it is a simple matter of supply and demand, but do not take his word for it. He quotes leftwing economist Paul Krugman at length dismissing the folly of rent control. Perhaps Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck said it best: “Next to bombing, rent control seems in many cases to be the most efficient technique so far known for destroying cities.” Yet, rent control is an article of faith amongst New York politicians.

Those who have an open mind will learn a lot from Caplan. For instance, he makes a convincing case for the environmental greenness of housing deregulation, because new housing stock emits far less carbon than moldy older units. Likewise, housing deregulation can narrow income inequality and promote social mobility. According to studies Caplan cites, low-income workers are actually moving from states where wages are high to states where they are low, because any advantages in greater take-home pay would be more than offset by correspondingly higher rents. That is a significant finding.

How can you not love a graphic novel, or whatever, that features Frederic Bastiat in a supporting role? Yet, Caplan makes compelling philosophical arguments for housing deregulation from Utilitarian, Egalitarian, Libertarian, and managerial cost-benefit perspectives. Caplan tries woo the left to his cause, which is admirable, but probably futile in the polarized era of the “Squad.”

However, if you really care about the housing issue, Caplan gives you a lot of substance to engage with. A dozen or so economists, statisticians, and social science researchers make guest appearances in
BBB to “discuss” their work with Caplan. Those who are still skeptical of their findings can consult the data in the endnotes. Follow the science, right? That takes you straight to deregulation.

It might sound dry, but
BBB is a surprisingly snappy read. Caplan’s goofy Dad-ish sense of humor helps makes the topic accessible. Yet, it is the fascinating economic history and political philosophy that he incorporates that really keeps the pages turning.

Branzei’s colorful art is also pleasantly eye-catching. He has a particular talent for detailed architectural illustrations, which is obviously very advantageous for a book advocating building taller, denser, and more plentiful private sector housing developments. Frankly, Branzei’s splash pages are as striking as any you might see from the big commercial comic publishers.

I really wish New Yorkers would humor me and read Caplan’s comic-based analysis of housing policy. Even if it does not completely convert the rent control zombies, it might force them to re-examine some of the questionable assumptions. Frankly, it is just cool to see economic arguments presented with such enthusiasm, in such a fresh package. Very highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand why the state of housing is such a mess in New York City,
Build, Baby, Build is now on-sale wherever really smart books are sold.