Monday, August 13, 2007

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

As introductory economics books go, The Undercover Economist isn't a bad choice. Unlike the wildly popular Freakonomics, which is about surprising or unusual applications of economics, The Undercover Economist explores more traditional topics: prices, scarcity, markets, taxes, government influence, and globalization, to name a few. The book covers those concepts more clearly than the typical economics textbook, making it fairly accessible to the layperson (note: my experience with economics textbooks was in 1989, but I have the impression that they haven't changed for the better since). My favorite chapter is the final chapter about China. It describes the disastrous economic policies of Mao Tse-Tung and how Deng Xiaoping reversed them.

Less convincing is the chapter enumerating the glorious benefits of globalization. Although Harford's perspective as an economist made me consider that globalization isn't quite as evil as progressives like me are inclined to believe, his environmental arguments fall flat. For example, Harford naively trusts multinational corporations to install the same pollution controls everywhere regardless of whether the law requires them.

Harford's writing style is okay, but sometimes he belabors points (you could say his writing could be more economical, heh-heh). There are times when the book drags, but considering the subject it usually moves along at an acceptable pace. Another fault of the book is that the "undercover economist" persona employed by Harford is alternately forced and poorly developed. I got the feeling it was a gimmick grafted onto the manuscript late in its development.

All in all, The Undercover Economist is a better place to start than Freakonomics for someone interested in learning about economics. However, I don't think either is the best choice. For that, stay tuned (note: the answer is not Freedomnomics -- John R. Lott, Jr. is a tool)...

6 comments:

John Lott said...

Well, if I am a supporter of the establishment, I will have to find out what has been happening to all the checks that I should be getting. May be they just have the wrong address. If the establishment is pretty politically correct, I must have missed out on what I was supposed to defend.

David Johnsen said...

Are you trying to say that the American Enterprise Institute, where you are a resident scholar, isn't firmly entrenched in the Establishment? A 64-year-old, right-wing, pro-business think tank funded in part by ExxonMobil and the Scaife family? The place where the vice president's wife is a senior fellow? You've got to be kidding. Then again, according to the most popular definitions in the Urban Dictionary, most tools don't even recognize that they are.

I'll admit that I haven't given your new book more than a cursory glance, but your reputation precedes you. I'm not fond of right-wing ideologues, especially those who invent bogus identities to argue that they are not.

John Lott said...

Well, you might not be very accurate in your claims, but you still might want to actually look at the book. I suspect that you will be surprised by a lot of what I write about. For example, you might find yourself interested in how the education system in South Africa during the 1970s controlled the information that students received. You might find it interesting that I don't put much stock in the so-called political market theories of failure in terms of whether politicians accurately represent the views of their constituents. You might be surprised by some of the things that I write concerning product liability rules. My guess is that you might be most surprised by who I talk about loses from some types of regulations. In any case, go ahead and call people names, but it might be more productive if you considered the issues actually involved here.

John Lott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Johnsen said...

Okay, I read the dust jacket at Amazon. First of all, I read Freakonomics and failed to see it as the terrible affront to free markets that you apparently did. So in some respects, this looks like an academic catfight between you and Steven Levitt, which doesn't interest me.

According to the inner flap, your book argues in favor of free markets, against abortion, for privatization, and against affirmative action (among other things). By highlighting your pro-right findings on "hot button" issues for Republicans, this book comes across as mightily partisan. I know that authors don't necessarily have control over jacket copy, so maybe that was not your intent. But that's the way it looks in bookstores and at Amazon.

John Lott said...

These issues that you cite are a lot more complicated that you imply. Take affirmative action. What the book argues is that if you are going to do it there is a right way and a wrong way. There are two ways that this has been done: norming (the way that they do it for women by creating different strenght standards for men and women) and eliminating the tests (what has happened for cognitive skill tests for minorities). What I argue is that norming is a much less costly way of doing it if you are going to do it.

The book does argue in favor of free markets, but as noted earlier it also points out that some of the claimed political market failures are not true. For example, I argue that politicians actually do a very good job of representing the interests of their constituents.

My guess is that you would also be surprised by the other characterizations you make of the book.