Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Economic Naturalist by Robert H. Frank

If you're looking for a very readable introduction to economics, The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas is an excellent choice. Robert H. Frank asks dozens of intriguing questions and offers economic explanations. The idea is that once you start to think like an economist, you can see economic reasons for virtually everything. The answers are fairly brief, making the book very easy to digest. Frank groups questions together by economic concept so the reader can see how one concept has a variety of applications. Perhaps best of all, The Economic Naturalist is free of the profound arrogance that many economists express when writing for the "common" people.

Here are some examples of the questions Frank asks:
  • Why do color photographs sell for less than black-and-white ones?
  • Why do women endure the discomfort of high heels?
  • Why does the rookie of the year in baseball often have a less successful second season?
  • Why is the proportion of aluminum cans recycled in Brazil much higher than in the United States?
  • Why did kamikaze pilots wear helmets?
Frank took many of these questions from essays written by his students, writing new answers in his own words. At the end of the book, he includes two students' papers. The first answers my favorite question: "Why do animal rights activists target fur-wearing women but leave leather-clad bikers alone?"

The Economic Naturalist isn't perfect. Frank admits in the introduction that many of these questions are not answered completely by economics but asserts that all have an economic component. Some commenters at Amazon have criticized some of his answers, but I think they miss the point. Frank's objective is not necessarily to have all the right answers, but rather to change the reader's way of thinking to consider an economic perspective.

Bookstores have been blitzed with several popular economics books in recent years. Freakonomics shows the value of economics outside the marketplace, but it gets too esoteric at times (the chapter about names bored me to tears). The Undercover Economist, which I reviewed last week, covers more traditional applications but over-explains them. The Economic Naturalist is the best and most readable of the bunch. It takes on common questions from the marketplace and beyond, using the answers to teach the concepts of economics in a fun and intriguing way.

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