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The Economic Naturalist: Why Economics Explains Almost Everything [Paperback]

Robert H Frank
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Product Description

Review

"Fascinating ... provides the answers to some of life's quirkiest conundrums" (Daily Mail)

"Explains how cold, hard cash really does make our world go round" (Independent)

"Can be returned to again and again like one of those all-you-can-eat buffets" (New York Times)

"Don't miss this addictive book. As Robert Frank and his students figured out dozens of everyday puzzles together, they produced ideas that are charming, curious, educational and lots of fun. Wonderful stuff." (Tim Harford, author of 'The Undercover Economist' and 'The Logic of Life')

"Fascinating, mind-expanding, and lots of fun" (Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate)

Book Description

DISCOVER THE SECRETS BEHIND MANY EVERYDAY ENIGMAS

From the Author

Shortly after I began teaching at Cornell, more than 35 years ago, three friends in different cities independently sent me the same New Yorker cartoon depicting a woman introducing a man to a friend at a party. `Mary, I'd like you to meet Marty Thorndecker,' she began. `He's an economist, but he's really very nice.'

Cartoons are data. That people find them amusing usually tells us something about reality. Curious about what drove responses to the economist cartoon, I began asking about the disappointed looks that appeared on people's faces when they first discovered I was an economist. Invariably they mentioned unpleasant memories of an introductory economics course. `There were all those incomprehensible graphs,' was a common refrain.

Needless to say, a course can be valuable even if unpleasant. Unfortunately, however, most students seem to emerge from introductory economics courses without having learned even the most important basic principles. According to one recent study, their ability to answer simple economic questions several months after leaving the course is not measurably different from that of people who never took a principles course.

What explains such abysmal performance? One problem is the encyclopedic range typical of introductory courses. As the Nobel laureate George J. Stigler wrote more than 40 years ago, `The brief exposure to each of a vast array of techniques and problems leaves the student no basic economic logic with which to analyze the economic questions he will face as a citizen.'

Another problem is that the introductory course is increasingly tailored not for the majority of students for whom it will be their only economics course, but for the negligible fraction who will go on to become professional economists. These courses prove daunting for many students and leave them little time and energy to focus on how basic economic principles help explain everyday behaviour.

The good news is that an approach that has revolutionized the teaching of foreign languages promises similar gains in economics and other disciplines. Just as a few simple sentence patterns enable small children and students of a second language to express an amazing variety of thoughts, a few basic principles do much of the lifting in economics. If someone focuses on only these principles and applies them repeatedly in examples drawn from familiar contexts, they can be mastered easily in a single week.

The form in which ideas are conveyed is important. Perhaps because our species evolved as storytellers, the human brain is innately receptive to information in narrative form. Years ago, I stumbled upon an assignment that plays directly to this strength.

Twice during the semester, I ask my students to pose an interesting question based on something they have personally observed or experienced. In no more than 500 words, they must then use basic economic principles to answer it. I call it the `economic naturalist' assignment, in the spirit of field biologists who use Darwinian principles to interpret the traits and behaviour of living things.

A high proportion of my students' papers invoke the cost-benefit principle, which says that a rational person should take only those actions whose benefits exceed their costs. This principle can help explain otherwise mysterious patterns of government regulation. My former student Greg Balet asked, for example, why parents are required to strap toddlers into a safety seat for even a short drive to the supermarket, yet are permitted to fly from London to New York with toddlers on their laps.

One answer might be that if a plane crashes, it won't much matter if toddlers are in safety seats. But Mr. Balet argued that because the real benefit of restraining devices in aeroplanes is preventing injuries caused by air turbulence, safety seats would be as useful in planes as in cars.

The explanation must lie on the cost side, he said. Once you've set up a child safety seat in your car, it costs nothing additional to use it. If you're on a full flight from London to New York, however, you must buy an extra ticket in order to use a safety seat, which might cost you a significant amount of money.

Safety seats are thus more likely to pass the cost-benefit test in cars than in planes. (Economists have a simple response to those who object that costs should play no role in safety decisions: `Do you get your brakes checked on your way to work each morning?')

Basic economic principles are not rocket science. They are accessible even to children. Lance Knobel, for example, who writes the blog DavosNewbies.com, said that he'd been regaling his 11-year-old son with economic naturalist puzzles at bedtime, `and he can't get enough of them.'

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. By the time you finish reading The Economic Naturalist, you will be an economics expert, relatively speaking. Having seen how basic economic principles help us answer interesting questions from everyday experience, you won't be able to resist posing and answering interesting new questions of your own.

Robert H Frank

From the Back Cover

Discover the secrets behind hundreds of everyday enigmas

Why is there a light in your fridge but not in your freezer?

Why do 24-hour shops bother having locks on their doors?

Why did Kamikaze pilots wear helmets?

The answer is simple: economics

Economics doesn't just happen in classrooms or international banks. It is everywhere and influences everything we do and see, from the cinema screen to the streets. It can even explain some of life's most intriguing enigmas.

For years, economist Robert Frank has been encouraging his students to use economics to explain the strange situations they encounter in everyday life, from peculiar product design to the vagaries of sex appeal. Now he shares the most intriguing - and bizarre - questions and the economic principles that answer them to reveal why many of the most puzzling parts of everyday life actually make perfect (economic) sense.

'Can be returned to again and again like one of those all-you-can-eat buffets' New York Times

Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Louis Johnson Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. His previous books include The Winner-Takes-All Society (with Philip Cook), Luxury Fever and Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke). Frank's many awards include the Apple Distinguished Teaching Award and the Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.

About the Author

Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Louis Johnson Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. His previous books include The Winner-Takes-All Society (with Philip Cook), Luxury Fever and Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke). Frank's many awards include the Apple Distinguished Teaching Award and the Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.

www.robert-h-frank.com

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