Smash Pages Q&A: Bryan Caplan

The writer and professor who “say things that a lot of people think are crazy” discusses his latest project, the graphic novel “Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.”

Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University and the author of books like The Myth of the Rational Voter, Selfish Reasons to Have Kids and The Case Against Education. He’s a blogger at EconLog, has contributed to Freakonomics and is affiliated with the Mercatus Center and the Cato Institute.

Caplan is also the author with Zach Weinersmith of the book Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. Simply stating that it’s a book promoting the idea of open borders will be shocking (or offensive) to many people, but through a series of reports, analyses and thought experiments, the book looks at multiple moral, legal and logistical questions around immigration. Caplan admitted that he writes books that “say things that a lot of people think are crazy” and this book manages to make this argument through a deft use of the comics medium, which will leave readers saying, “Maybe this isn’t such a crazy idea.”

It’s a startling and thoughtful book that I couldn’t stop thinking about after reading it, and Caplan was kind enough to answer a few questions about comics, economics and why the late Milton Friedman was wrong.

How did you first come to comics?

I never read comic books when I was a kid. There were a couple in the library but you could never follow the series. I didn’t buy them because I didn’t have money for it. A friend gave me Watchmen for, I think, my 20th birthday, but even then I didn’t read too many until I was a professor and had some extra spending money. My friends would get some and we would exchange them. I wound up picking up books about the 50 Best Graphic Novels and Manga and I ordered all the ones I thought were interesting. Probably the biggest influences on me were Scott McCloud’s Making Comics and Understanding Comics, which really got me into the idea that maybe this was something I could do myself. Also Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe. I saw that five volume series and went, this is not just good for comics, this is good.

How did you first end up studying immigration?

It’s a subject economists have often worked on and I knew there was a generally favorable view [towards immigration] among economists, but it was only after I started blogging around 2005 that I got up to date about what researchers were saying. Liberalizing immigration isn’t just one good thing out of many, but in terms of the measured benefits, it seems bigger than anything else anyone has ever found. These regulations affect billions of people and they do a lot of harm per person so you multiply a ton of people times a ton of harm per person and you get this enormous damage that’s being done to the world. That’s the kind of thing that got me really focused on it. I spent almost fifteen years blogging on research on the subject and I’ve wanted to go and put it all together. That was the genesis of the project.

So you had been thinking about a book about immigration for a while.

Yes. There used to be this software called “My Comic Book Creator” and it’s hard to get now because they went out of business, but around 2007 I played around and made a fictional graphic novel that’s never been published. I didn’t draw it, I just storyboarded it. I had a lot of fun doing that and realized that I really liked doing this, but it would be easier to publish if I did something closer to what I’m actually known for rather than completely branching out into fiction. I had that in the back of my mind. I was thinking that this topic would fit with the medium really nicely because there’s all these thought experiments that I use and I thought it would be easier to draw the thought experiments instead of just describing them. Also, I thought I could reach a broader audience. I could aim the comic at adults but it would be something that kids could enjoy, too, and I feel like I’ve been successful at that.

You’re accustomed to not just writing for an academic audience because you have been blogging and you teach, but what was the biggest hurdle for you in terms of writing the book?

The biggest hurdle was getting an artist because I just can’t draw. I think visually, but my drawing would be ridiculous. I had a list of people I thought would be a good match for the project and Zach was No. 1 on my list. I didn’t know him at all so first, I friended him on Facebook, and then I waited three weeks so I didn’t seem like a stalker. I messaged him and said that I had this idea for a project that I wanted to talk with him about. I pitched it to him and it turned out that he had actually read some of my stuff, so that was a good sign. But he said he was overworked and had a baby coming and he just couldn’t do it. I was disappointed but then three days later he called me back and said he’d changed his mind and wanted to do it. And after that, it was smooth sailing. It was the easiest book for me to write because I never had any writers block while doing it.

You said before that you think visually and so much of the book has these thought experiments and different designs. How much of that was in your script, how much was Zach, how much was you two discussing it?

I’d say 95% was in the storyboards and script I gave him. I used that software, which has been off the market for years now but I couldn’t find anything similar to it, so I just kept using what I knew. I would write the script, but I would also do Google images for the storyboards to give Zach an idea of what I wanted the art to look like, and I would give him notes. The script was quite complete when I sent it to him. Our main interaction was that he would draw it, and I would say, “Make this person 5% happier.” He was very cooperative with my crazy micromanagement. [laughs] I can see a lot of people saying, “You don’t know anything, Bryan. You haven’t done this before, let me do my job,” but he wasn’t like that. I would say maybe 20% of the jokes are Zach’s, although he would sometimes punch up my jokes by changing the wording. He is a professional humorist so he would make me feel good by saying, “This joke is pretty good.” I could go, “He says it doesn’t suck, so we should keep it.”

Related to that, how important was it that the book be funny?

In terms of just reader enjoyment I think that’s very important. Just for communicating and creating a mood in the reader so that they’re more open to thinking about new ideas. I think it was a big part of the design. This may not have been directly in my mind but I remember reading that there are different experiments in teaching kids logic. Usually it’s very hard to teach logic because kids are very concrete. There’s one – all dogs meow, Fido is a dog, will Fido meow? Logically, of course, the right answer is yes, but kids normally will say no, dogs don’t meow. There’s a variance of this experiment where you say it in a silly voice and then kids get it right. [laughs] This is an issue where people get so angry so I think helping people to relax a bit really improves communication.

I was curious about the tone of the book. How much of this is how you tend to lecture and how much is just you as a person?

This is very much my lecture style. I do work in a lot of jokes while I’m talking. In my more scholarly books there’s humor there but depending on how well the person knows me, they may totally miss it. It’s a lot easier to be funny visually or verbally than in writing.

What was the experience like of getting those first pages back from Zach?

It was a thrill. Every time I saw that I saw he had new pages I would rush to go look at them. It’s so cool because he has such a distinctive art style that even people who don’t know his name, people recognized his style. Seeing how it went from those Google images to this always put a big smile on my face. There was never a time he sent me something where I went, “Crap, I can’t believe he did this.” It was always, “Oh cool.” Then like I said I was micromanaging him so there were lots of little tweaks I would be giving him all the way down to, make this expression 5% sadder. I really did stuff like that, and he complied and did a bang up job.

How did you two decide how to draw you?

Before we started, Zach drew 12 different models for me and then I shopped them around it with people who knew me, friends, on social media. The one that he used was the one I would say had a majority and I liked it, too. Of the 12 models, basically went with the really geeky, nerdy happy one. There were ones where I was short, ones where I was more of a hipster, and I thought this one worked the best.

You didn’t ask your kids, “Which one do you think looks most like dad?”

Oh I definitely asked them, but I asked, which one do you like most? None of the 12 looks photographically like me. At Cato, Zach went and did a visual display of how he was drawing me and then he got a photo of me and traced me and I look very different form the way that most people think about me. Sometimes you can make a better rendition of a character by making it less photo realistic.

You talk in the Brexit chapter about how the majority of people opposed to immigration do so not because of data, or even personal experience. I’ve seen similar data about the U.S. If these opinions aren’t based on economics or philosophy or life experience, is there a point in having such a public debate?

I’m always trying to talk to the marginal person. The people who strongly disagree – especially if they’re older – I’m never going to change their minds. But there’s a lot more people who are straddling the fence, and for them I think arguments do make a big difference. Of course arguments combined with a friendly tone that makes a person want to listen in the first place is a big deal. Making something that appeals to younger people and even kids. No sane person writes a book thinking they’re going to persuade everybody. I would just say that I’ve totally internalized the fact that it’s hard to persuade people and since it’s my job, I try to do it anyway.

You deal with this in the later chapters. You may be advocating for open borders and people might not go that far, but what if we meet partway. What if we have that kind of debate?

That’s a big part of it. There is this ideology of, if we just have a conversation. To me that always seems just a bit lame because what is the conversation about and why do you think that I’m going to change rather than you? I try to be a bit more forthcoming and say, I don’t just want to have a conversation, I want to convert you. But I’m not going to be a jerk about it.

At one point in the book you tell the late Milton Friedman that he’s wrong.

Yes. [laughs]

Specifically about immigration, which he opposed, not in general. I should make that clear. But you’re a scholar at the Cato Institute, is that allowed?

Here’s the thing. I met Milton Friedman. I got him to sign an autograph. I know his son and his grandson. I am very well aware of what Milton had to say and I have enormous respect for the man, but that doesn’t mean he’s infallible. In the book I thought that was a really fun conversation to have. It was so fun to get to draw myself arguing with Milton on the University of Chicago campus as if I’d traveled through time. I heard that he would walk around campus arguing with his son David from the time David was like six years and people would see father and son walking and gesticulating and arguing everywhere they went.

So what are you working on now or what topic are you thinking about?

My next project is going back to traditional word books so there’s one called Poverty, Who To Blame? In the back of my mind I have a couple other graphic novel ideas. I’m thinking of doing another one on housing regulation, which may seem like a fairly dry topic, but it’s at the heart of the biggest domestic problem the U.S. has right now. It’s very hard for most people to afford to live in desirable areas of the country. This is another area where there’s excellent social science saying that there’s a simple explanation – which is a giant pile of regulation that makes it really hard to build cheap housing. Starting with regulations that say you can’t build skyscrapers. San Francisco has these stupid two story houses when you could put up a 100 story skyscraper instead and massively increase the amount of housing available there. Other regulations saying you have to have a minimum lot size so you can only put one house on every five acres tends to choke off the supply of housing. That relates to so many other problems that society is facing right now like the poor prospects for non-college educated males. Well, the construction industry may be the biggest employer for high wage non college educated male jobs. This is a big help at solving that problem and so many others. I’m thinking if I can get someone who does great architectural drawings so we can see the cities of the future, the cities we might have had if not for regulation. It seems like that might be a good way to hammer home what we’re losing from regulations, which generally are quite popular, but I would say for very flimsy reasons. Like, no one should be able to build a skyscraper around here because I like my view. That’s a very trivial reason to stop people from having a decent place to live. There’s a lot of complexity to it but I think it lends itself to a visual format. And it’s worse in other countries like the UK and India.

And then I am trying to see if I can get an artist for that fictional graphic novel that I storyboarded 10 years ago. And I have some other fictional stories that I’ve worked out in a lot of detail that were originally for role-playing games that I wrote. The idea that it could also be a graphic novel seems really cool to me. I have this dystopian game. One about the mafia in 1924 which I think would be awesome to look at. All of these things are on my mind.

Just as a final question: I’m curious what you hope people take away from the book.

Basically all of my books say things that a lot of people think are crazy. I think it’s asking too much to take a person who thinks you’re crazy to agreeing with you in just a few hours, so I often say that my goal isn’t even to persuade you. My goal is to persuade you I’m not crazy. Here’s an idea that you thought was crazy and by the end I want you to say, well, maybe. If I can get people from where they are to maybe, that’s a great accomplishment. I know that this sounds crazy and hardly anyone agrees with this, but I am a reasonable and fair-minded person, and this convinces me. If you’ll give me some time to walk you through it, I think that I will show you a perspective that you were quick to dismiss and by the end, if you’re asking questions and curious about it, to me, that’s awesome.

Well, I haven’t gone more than a couple days without thinking about the book or your arguments. You’ve convinced me.

I’m glad to hear it.

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