The Uncarved Block

Undercover Economist

A review of 'The Undercover Economist' by Tim Harford

Inspired by my friend Erich Schlaikjer, I intend to write some reviews of books and music and put them up here, so I'll start with the book I have just finished, which is "The Undercover Economist" by Tim Harford.

This book is an entertaining and thought-provoking exposition of some key principles of economics and how they interact with big questions (such as "Why are rich companies rich and poor companies poor?"), small questions (such as "Why does my morning coffee cost as much as it does?") and all sizes in between. In that respect, it grows out of the author's "Dear Economist" column in the weekend ft, in which he offers often amusing "agony-aunt" style advice using the principles of economics to shine a light into normal everyday activities and moral dilemmas. The same mix of clear, reasoned argument and amusing and thought-provoking style is in evidence in this book.

All of the economics is explained and argued in a way that someone (such as myself) who has interest but little understanding in this field can easily follow, and there are references at the back to academic papers and journalism that back up the author's points and provide a starting-point for additional reading.

As another entry in the growing field of "popular economics" books, and with it's ostensibly similar promise of using economics to shine a new light onto everyday things this book is bound to provoke comparisons with "Freakonomics", but both books are worth reading in their own right and there is very little that is covered in both. Actually I enjoyed "The Undercover Economist" more, not least because it lacked the selfcongratulatory sections of Freakonomics that annoyed me so. (That book has sections that are just one of the authors telling you how clever and amazing the other author is- I don't want someone to tell me they are clever, I want them to show me!). It is also more deeply thought-provoking for being less willfully controversial.

permalink Updated: 2006-05-11