Picture This: Economists Go Popular

January 23, 1995|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Never before has a set of trading cards had so many people with such extraordinarily high foreheads.

And, outside of ads for the optical department at Sears, rarely has there been such an extensive display of thick-framed eyeglasses.

It is sometimes lamented that trading cards lost their innocence when children began looking at them as investments, as economic instruments. But it is difficult to look at, say, the brand-new R. H. Coase trading card and see it from anything but an economic perspective.

Right on the back of the card is the Coase Theorem: "If transaction costs are negligible, then the initial assignments of a property right will not affect the efficiency with which resources are allocated."

From the point of view of those represented on a new set of Economics Trading Cards, virtually every human endeavor can be looked at from an economic perspective.

Anybody who questions the demand for trading cards bearing pictures and theorems of noted economists -- many of whom ply their trade in Chicago -- is obviously using faulty assumptions.

All 5,000 copies of the first set of 29 Economics Trading Cards sold out shortly after being issued in 1993. The University of Michigan Economics Club, which prints and sells the cards to fund a scholarship endowment, hopes a new set of 29, just back from the printer, will do as well.

"I guess it's sort of cute to bring a dismal science that is in some disrepute with the public into the area that the public sort of accepts," said Northwestern University Professor Emeritus Robert Eisner, whose grinning face graces one of the new cards.

"Here we are getting into the realm of popularity, and we are being treated as popular heroes."

As he spoke the words "popular heroes," though, his sentence, even to him, seemed to be of dubious veracity.

"That is an exaggeration, I know," he quickly added.

The economic analysis of Mr. Coase, who works at the University of Chicago, is basic.

"People are collecting cards in various fields, so they figured there is obviously a market," he said. "It's not a big market. It is a little market. I think it's a niche. They'll obviously make some money."

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