On Popular Economics

I’ve just purchased Tim Harford’s latest book, How to Make the World Add Up, and in honour of this moment I wanted to reflect on his earlier books, The Undercover Economist and its sequel. I read these a while ago, and they were pretty foundational for me getting into the subject of Economics (a shout out here to Thorny Pages, who has recently written about the books that got them into Fantasy). I’m not an economist, or at least not technically — I’ve never had formal training in Economics, though my understanding of the subject is important for my day job. This means that I’ve read quite widely on the subject, and my ability to do so was aided in no small part by the introduction to fundamental concepts provided by Harford’s books.

The Undercover Economist and The Undercover Economist Strikes Back explore various concepts associated with Economics in discussions of scenarios that are relatable for the reader. Harford introduces readers to the science of scarcity, exploring supply and demand, resource allocation, information asymmetries, externalities, and so on, by talking about things they will encounter in their lives. He also introduces readers to many important thinkers and theorists, from David Ricardo to Michael Spence. He explains much about why life is organised the way it is, and offers answers to some important questions (“Why Poor Countries are Poor” is an example from the first, and “Can growth continue for ever?” an example from the second). Of course, whether these stand the test of time is up for debate — the first book was published in 2005, and a lot has changed since then; the 2008 recession understandably weighs heavily on the follow up.

The Undercover Economist is obviously not the only book in this genre. At around the same that the first was published, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner published Freakonomics, which tackled a similar challenge: how to explain economic concepts in a relatable and engaging way. The approach is slightly different. Levitt and Dubner go for a wackier vibe; dare I say that they try to make Economics sexy, or would that be too far? Where Harford relates the concepts to everyday things that you’re likely to encounter in your day-to-day life (like buying coffee), Freakonomics asks seemingly paradoxical, and, at times, irreverent questions to investigate relationships between variables and concepts. Some of these can be quite controversial — the relationship between crime and abortion, for example. Nevertheless, the audacity of the book (and its sequel, Superfreakonomics) is what makes it so engaging, and what makes Economics seem so interesting and powerful: the tools are useful for more than just understanding a country’s GDP.

There are problems with over-simplification that arise from this process. Both books make climate change, for example, seem like a much simpler problem than it has turned out to be (I’ve recently reviewed Bill Gates’ recent book on the subject). But the issues are far outweighed by the positives. The storytelling in both series is superb — and this needed to be good for them to serve their purpose. I’m sure I’m not the only one who, after reading them, has gained a greater appreciation for how the world works, and a better understanding of politics, business, and the economy. Importantly, they have stimulated a greater interest in a subject that I have only gone on to appreciate more. All this to say, I’m looking forward to reading How to Make the World Add Up.

What books got you into a subject? What are you looking forward to reading?


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3 thoughts on “On Popular Economics

  1. Love this review! I wondered what Freakonomics is like – although I studied economics, I never read this book. Good to hear it made you more interested in the subject.
    To your question, Development as Freedom and The End of Poverty got me interested in international development. Dear Life and Being Mortal got me interested in healthcare.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you’ve already studied econ before I’m not sure how you’d find it – if you ever pick it up then let me know how you get on.

      Who are those books by? I’ll have to look them up!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Of course! The End of Poverty (Jeffrey Sachs) and Development as Freedom (Amartya Sen) are both econ books, so maybe you’d like them!

        Dear Life is by Rachel Clarke and Being Mortal is by Atul Gawande – both doctors.

        Liked by 1 person

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