A brief indictment of what debut author and illustrator Stevenson sees as the global economy’s endemic corruption.
Judging by the current U.S. election season, we’re living in an age of extraordinary discontent, especially regarding the state of the economy. Populist outrage isn’t merely the consequence of economic stagnation or a deficit of opportunity, but also due to an increasingly widespread perception that the system is fatally rigged to benefit a few at the expense of the many. Stevenson offers a tutorial on the history of evolving crookedness from the perspective of “a ranking member of the cynical elite,” essentially confessing to his own complicity in producing inequitability. The confessor divides economic history into four periods: feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism, and cynicism. In the first stage, he says, regnant kings composed the rules without any other aim than the satisfaction of their own interests. However, this enraged the business community, which eventually revolted and rewrote the rules in order to benefit themselves; this period Stevenson calls mercantilism. The success of mercantilism and the expansion of key markets, he says, led to capitalism, featuring rules written to provide crucial advantages to private enterprise. However, even though this system, at least in its original incarnation, ended up producing a more expansive roster of winners, many were still disenfranchised, Stevenson notes. Out of capitalism, he continues, comes the current age, cynicism, in which a surfeit of capital and the fear of dimming prospects inspired the robber barons of business to rewrite the rules yet again. Much of the book is devoted to candidly explaining these new rules, which amount to various kinds of mountebankery, rhetorical manipulation, and exploitation. The whole work also features cartoonish, consistently hilarious illustrations. The book is dotted with cheeky, wryly delivered advice, sure to please readers whether they share the author’s cynicism or not: “Remember kid, if you borrow enough money it’s the lender that has the problem.” However, this short, unremittingly (and admittedly) pessimistic book provides nothing new or particularly rigorous for readers interested in understanding our current economic doldrums; it’s more a complaint than a lesson. It’s a very funny complaint, delivered with style, but one without nuance or disciplined scrupulousness.
An entertaining, cynical critique of cynicism, mostly worth reading for its comedy and brevity.