Arnold Kling  

Reviewing the undercover economist

The Humanity of the Economist... Constitution of Surveillance?...

About Tim Harford's book, The Undercover Economist, I write,

I am tempted to review it as if it were a textbook. Not because it resembles the freshman textbooks that are commonly used today, but because it resembles what I believe such books ought to be.

...The traditional freshman economics textbook says little or nothing about economic growth and development, asymmetric information, and tactical price discrimination. Harford covers those important topics, while omitting the usual long, boring, and not-so-enlightening discourse on cost functions and industrial organization.

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The author at The Fat Triplets in a related article titled The Undercover Economist writes:
    The Undercover Economist is a new book by Tim Harford that the Economics blogosphere is buzzing about. Arnold Kling with the Library of Economics and Liberty Blog posted a pointer to a review her worte at TCS. His review is more positive than I wou... [Tracked on December 5, 2005 11:10 PM]
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enronal writes:

Harford's book may be readable and enlightening, but as an English major who came late to economics (in my senior year over 20 years ago), I think economists are too apologetic about their tools, cost functions nothwithstanding. I started Econ 101 believing the price system and the economy were a fascist, corporate plot. Cost functions, along with supply and demand functions and their relatives, showed me I'd been seeing as through a glass darkly. Those relentlessly logical pictures taught me more in a few pages than all the trendy, lefty sociological tomes that till then had me believing I was a sharp intellectual. The hyper-mathematical graduate economics for math's sake may be marginally relevant, but the basic tools of economics are nothing to apologize for.

John P. writes:

I'm about halfway through the book now. Maybe someone here can answer a question I have about it: Several times so far, Harford has referred to scarcity power as a form of market failure. Is that the conventional economic wisdom? Isn't scarcity power a normal part of a market?

Roehl Briones writes:


Right on! No amount of common sense economics can substitute for the conceptual tools. Without such abstract apparatus, the reader is left with a persuasive set of arguments that she has not a ghost of an idea how to apply to other real world situations.

The textbooks just about have it right. If those curves don't convince you about the idiocy of anti-price gouging, I don't know what will.

paul writes:

I had the same thoughts as John P. I think Hartford had to include the conventional "market failures" section to make sure people didn't become anarcho-capitalists. Other than that I thought it was a very good primer on economics.

Roger M writes:

I don't think you can emphasize too much the importance of a well-written textbook. A few years ago I read about a study of history textbooks which compared the effects of three books, one written by a professor, one written by a textbook specialist, and one written by a journalist. The students learned far more from the book written by the journalist than the other two. Good writing skills are extremely important, but even more so in communicating technical information. I've found that to be true with my two children who are in college, also. I would prefer a text that's well written but with some technical flaws over one that's technically perfect but unreadable.

nn writes:

While I would support the idea that well-written is better, I don't think a study of history books helps us much with technical subjects.

I'd believe this comparison, if it worked for a college level textbook in physics or linear algebra. Course, you'd have to find a journalist who could write one.

And good undergrad econ is a lot closer to a course in baby physics than it is to history.

Roger M writes:

Well, the history/econ comparison is probably not good, since history isn't so technical. But take the example of Freakanomics, written by a journalist with the economist providing tech support. But the key issue is the audience. If you're writing for other economists, style is not so important. If you're writing for a general audience, it's extremely important. As Freakanomics showed, journalists have a well-honed sense of what the public will pay attention to and how to sell an idea. They know how to select interesting material and present it in an appealing way. Some of the things I've learned from them are to eliminate passive verbs, use emotionally gripping examples, provide graphics where possible, and leave out as many qualifiers as possible. Don't assume the public should naturally be interested; tell them why it's important to them.

Roger M writes:

See Why is Economics So Boring? by Donald Cox on this web site's front page. A good starting point for the answer is the textbooks and the professors. My two college students have found economics both boring and interesting, depending upon their prof and textbooks.

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