Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 119 (6/2) -- Dear Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

Harford is the author of The Undercover Economist (which I read, and wrote about briefly, back in 2006), one of the flood of Freakonomics wannabe books by various economists and economic writers in the middle of that nameless decade. Undercover was the same sort of thing as the Leavitt-Dubner book: several aspects of modern life were examined, through the lens of moderately right-wing academic economic theory, to prove that Everything We Know Is Wrong. And, like the other books in that genre, it was interesting and useful to the extent that a reader could bring his own common sense -- and ability to realize that the real world is not an academic economic-theory abstraction in several important ways -- to bear on Harford's examples and ideas.

Undercover was successful enough that Harford has been writing for the Financial Times since then: he's on their editorial board, writes "The Undercover Economist" column, and also took over a nascent economics agony aunt column, "Dear Economist." And it's from that last column -- in which Harford answers the usual run of questions on sex, relationships, money, family, work, and everyday life, all according to whatever economic paper he's read most recently or can be most amusingly applied to that situation -- that the contents of this particular book were taken.

It would be slightly exaggerating to say that Dear Undercover Economist is entirely a joke; there are nuggets of useful advice scattered throughout, amid the inappropriate application of theory to reality. (The more of an academic economist one is, the more one can be expected to find Dear Undercover Economist a close guide to everyday behavior.) But the point is to entertainingly apply particular economic theories to the questions, and if we were keeping score, Harford would receive bonus points for dropping major names in economics and for the abstruseness of the theories chosen.

This is a quick and generally entertaining read, and it certainly does look just like a collection of similar questions from Dear Abby or whomever -- there are five chapters on very broad topics, within which are a semi-random sequence of questions and answers from the column. I do tend to think it won't be much use as a guide to anyone's behavior, which might make it seem substantially less useful than it could be -- but, then, the real point here is either "oh, those economists are so out of touch with reality" (for most of us) or "if only people would follow sound economic principles, everything would be much more efficient" (for the FT crowd), and Dear Undercover Economist delivers those feelings reliably.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Indelicates - Be Afraid Of Your Parents
via FoxyTunes

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