How do you explain economics in plain English? If you’re like us at The Atlantic, you use stuffed animals, poker chips, and delicious pies to answer questions about the difference between monetary and fiscal policy and what exactly money is. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, however, has been answering all of those questions and more with an even more unlikely tool: comic books.
And it’s been doing that for decades. The New York Fed has published comics about money and finance for younger readers more interested in cartoons than macroeconomics since the 1950s, according to Edward Steinberg, a retired former Fed employee who authored several of the comic books available online today. From 1993 to 2002, Steinberg directed the communications staff at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s public information department. In that role, he oversaw a small team of writers and editors that produced the Fed’s print publications and educational materials, such as the comic books. Of the five comics Steinberg wrote himself, three were updates of the Fed’s longest-running titles, while two, The Story of the Federal Reserve System and The Story of Monetary Policy were new additions to the Fed’s extensive comics catalog.
Distributed free of charge to teachers, the comics were mostly aimed at high school students, whom Steinberg felt weren’t learning enough about the economy and personal finance, but some of the more advanced titles, such as The Story of Monetary Policy, have been taught in several college classrooms. Many of the comics are still in distribution today—The Story of Money, which was first published in 1994, has since been revised and reprinted a dozen times in batches of around 250,000 copies.
It’s no surprise that the comic books offer highly simplified takes on our country’s complex financial systems, but they go out of their way to avoid dumbing down the content. Most of the booklets are more than 20 pages, and they’re packed with terminology and details that could overwhelm a teenager on a first read: The Story of the Federal Reserve System from 1999 starts off slow by comparing and contrasting the Fed with local neighborhood banks, but it soon dives into details about monetary policy, open market operations, government securities, and reserve requirements. With guest appearances from Uncle Sam and a walking, talking bank, 1998’s A Penny Saved offers a crash course in saving before touching on the respective pros and cons of investing in the stock market, real estate, and fine art.
The comics, drawn by a number of different artists, are delightfully dated—extreme bowl cuts are featured prominently in The Story of Money—and they serve as a fascinating, pun-filled archive of jokes the federal government probably wouldn’t attempt again in 2014: One cell from A Penny Saved courts laughs with the line “No, liquidity has nothing to do with liquids,” while (what appears to be) a burping, homeless alcoholic—complete with a mystery beverage wrapped in a brown paper bag—answers back, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
But the funniest part of the series might be the fact that Steinberg doesn’t even like comics. “Other than the work that I did at the Fed, I don't have an interest in comic books,” Steinberg says over email. “It was appropriate, though, that I had a job writing comic books, because when I was in graduate school, my thesis advisor suggested that I try to earn my living through humor. What worried me at the time, however, was that he had never heard any of my jokes; he had just read my thesis proposal.”