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The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas [Hardcover]

Robert Frank
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 May 2007
Why do the keypads on drive-up cash machines have Braille dots? Why are round-trip fares from Orlando to Kansas City higher than those from Kansas City to Orlando? For decades, Robert Frank has been asking his economics students to pose and answer questions like these as a way of learning how economic principles operate in the real world--which they do everywhere, all the time. Once you learn to think like an economist, all kinds of puzzling observations start to make sense. Drive-up ATM keypads have Braille dots because it's cheaper to make the same machine for both drive-up and walk-up locations. Travelers from Kansas City to Orlando pay less because they are usually price-sensitive tourists with many choices of destination, whereas travelers originating from Orlando typically choose Kansas City for specific family or business reasons. The Economic Naturalist employs basic economic principles to answer scores of intriguing questions from everyday life, and, along the way, introduces key ideas such as the cost benefit principle, the "no cash left on the table" principle, and the law of one price. There is no more delightful and painless way of learning these fundamental principles.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Editiion edition (1 May 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046500217X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465002177
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.3 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 944,842 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. His "Economic Scene" column appears monthly in the "New York Times." His previous books include "The Winner-Take-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. He lives in Ithaca, New York. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyday phenomena accessibly explained 28 Nov 2007
By Rolf Dobelli TOP 500 REVIEWER
According to professor Robert H. Frank, economics pedagogy is a scandal. A basic economics course at a university costs thousands of dollars, yet when students are tested six months after their final exams they do little better than those who never took the class. Often they do worse. One study asked students a simple multiple-choice question about opportunity costs. Answering randomly gave the students a 25% chance of being right, yet only 7.4% answered correctly. The students shouldn't be too embarrassed, though. Out of a sample of economists at a professional gathering, only 21.6% knew the right answer. Fed up with these dismal results, Frank tried something new. He told his students to write short essays applying economic principles to puzzling social phenomena. ("Why do women's blouses cost more to launder than men's?" "Why are milk cartons square while soda cans are round?") The result was engaged students, real learning and this marvelous, popular little book. We recommend it enthusiastically.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The Economic Naturalist - In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas

Why did Japanese kamikaze pilots wear helmets?
Why are some countries so much more successful in recycling waste products?
Why do theatres discount prices on spare tickets just before a performance whereas airlines and rail companies raise prices for last minute customers?
What explains the low cost of renting a car compared to hiring a dinner suit?
Why are prices in a hotel mini-bar so expensive?
Is it efficient for people to agree to share the bill when they go to a restaurant?
Why are there signs outside stores saying that guide dogs are permitted?
Are GPs responsible for the spread of MRSA through over-prescription of anti-biotics?
How can an economist justify a salary cap in professional sport?
Why are seat belts mandatory in cars but not in most school buses?
Why are colour prints so much more expensive than black and white?
What explains the different package sizes for DVDs and CDs when the discs are the same size?
Why is so much milk sold in cartons whereas soft drinks tend to be sold in cylinders?

In the last few years we have seen a cluster of new books on economics that have generated a huge amount of public interest in the subject. 'The Economic Naturalist - In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas' by Robert H Frank is two hundred pages of scintillating and fascinating economics, written with a lovely lightness or touch and which I devoured in one sitting yesterday. This is a book that simply has to find its way onto the bookshelf of a school or college library - it beats Freakonomics hands down!
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  45 reviews
131 of 138 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars fascinating but 6 July 2007
By Jaime F. Guerrero - Published on Amazon.com
A fun, easy read, but with some serious flaws. Written in a chatty question-and-answer format.

Notably, many of the answers Franks gives are incorrect, obviously thought up by himself without any research. For example, in the chapter on Product Design, he asks the question "why is milk sold in rectangular containers, while soft drinks are sold in round ones" he posits several business-economics answers about costly retailer shelf space, about how a round beverage container's shape might better accommodate a customers' hand, but never states the principle and overwhelming reason- that a container for anything under pressure should be spherical or cylindrical according to the laws of physics and math, for maximum economy of manufacture. A square soda can would require, I'm guessing, at least a half pound of aluminum to hold its square shape perfectly against the internal pressure of a typical soda. So it is about economics, but the economics of container design, not of the other forces as he guesses.

Anyway, this sort of guessing pops up periodically in his answers, and reduces the effectiveness of his arguments. I wish he had asked his colleagues in the engineering and science departments to proof his manuscript.

On the other hand, there is much good stuff here. One chapter, that of Arms Races and The Tragedy of the Commons, is excellent, introducing important phenomena that many people aren't aware of and that are severely damaging our society. He has written on these topics before in his prior books Luxury Fever and The Winner Take All Society.

Despite its flaws, still a fun read. Just don't take all his answers to be perfectly correct. It's more like a late night BS session with your buddies.
39 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating collection of questions and answers 4 Jun 2007
By S. Park - Published on Amazon.com
At first glance at the bookstore I thought the book would be a variation on the theme of recent popular economic books such as Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. I purchased the book anyhow and am now glad that I have done so.

The book indeed is like Freakonomics in that its purpose is to reveal the economic rational behind everyday matters. It is different from Freakonomics in that it follows a "top-down" approach: each of the book's chapters corresponds to a basic economic principle (for example supply and demand for a chapter, and signals and asymmetric information for another) that is explained via real world examples. So if one can say that the goal of Freakonomics was in reaching the bottom reason/motive of particular phenomena, it can also be said that the goal of The Economic Naturalist is to elicit fundamental economic principles through questions and answers. In this sense the book is more educational.

As noted earlier, the book is a sequence of questions and answers. An answer generally spans the length of a page. There is no central narrative as can be expected from a book adhering to such format. However I found the examples as a collective to be more value than the sum of each. That a single principle underlies various and seemingly disparate phenomena is what creates such value.

There were a few question-answer pairs that I felt either not informative or not convincing (an example question: "if attractive people are more intelligent than others, and if blondes are considered more attractive, why are there so many jokes about dumb blondes?"; corresponding answer: "if blondes are indeed perceived as being more attractive, then being blonde may create attractive opportunities that do not require heavy investments in education. The perception that blondes are less intelligent than others may thus stem less from any innate difference in their mental abilities than from the fact that they rationally choose to invest in less education."). Apart from such examples, which there were only few, the questions posed were fascinating, and the author's exposition clear.

The author points out that economic education is hindered by the usage of arcane nomenclature. He thus purposely steered away from using professional jargon, and in my opinion has been successful at this effort. However I wonder if the book would have been better if related nomenclature were described after the explanation of each underlying principle -- that would have provided a nice bridge to existing literature.
32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing 15 Sep 2007
By Mitch Baywatch - Published on Amazon.com
I admire Frank's attempts to teach economics through narratives rather than graphs/charts, and credit him for his use of informal concepts like arms races and leaving money on the table. But in the process, he's also teaching his readers two unfortunate lessons: (1) everything can be explained economoically and (2) it doesn't matter if your theories are correct. With respect to the latter, he rivals evolutionary biologists in their favoring of speculative narrative over evidence. It's all "maybe the reason is this" and "it could be that." Examples:

-In explaining why 'we' leave tips for some services and not others, he ignores the lack of tipping in other countries. Perhaps Frank could conjure up some economic explanation here, but this isn't a book which ultimately care about answers. The stories are apparently enough.

-In an example involving taxicabs and rain, Frank's conclusion is that cabbies are acting against their financial interests. If this is permitted to happen -- and it should be -- then what are the ramifications for the rest of the book? Maybe you CAN leave money on the table. But Frank quickly remembers he's an economist and never again questions economic laws.

--He suggests that laws requiring children to attend kindergarten by a certain age are enacted to prevent parents from holding their kids back, giving them unfair advanatages of being the oldest/biggest/smartest kid in class. Really? I'd love to see this tested in the real world.

I don't even want to talk about the embarrassing final section on personal relationships ("why is coyness considered an attractive attribute?").
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars If you have a hammer, it's nails everywhere you look. 18 July 2007
By Paul F. Austin - Published on Amazon.com
The Economic Naturalist is well written and informative, exploring many day to day circumstance through the lens of economic theory. On the way, Frank provides a painless and vivid introduction to key principals in economics.

That said (and probably because much of the material was provided by students taking classes in economics) all the explanations were economics explanations and mildly left economics at that. As an example, when explaining why 49 states don't make radar detectors illegal, Frank says that a few powerful manufacturers of radar detectors exert outsized political influence. Powerful manufacturers? The radar detector industry is tiny. In fact, Federal law preempts state efforts to ban radar detectors.

Elswhere, in a few cases technical and engineering considerations explain better than economics.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fun speculation, but no more than that 21 Jan 2008
By David M. Chess - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'd hoped this book would be a collection of enlightening economic explanations of puzzling phenomena. That is in fact what it purports to be, and while reading it it sometimes feels like that, but mostly it's too shallow to be really satisfying.

The book is organized as a bunch of questions about Stuff in the Marketplace (Why does X cost more here than there? Why do Zs come in round containers while Ws come in hexagonal ones?), each with clever economically-based answers.

The problem is that the answers, while clever and facile, are pretty much entirely speculative, just-so stories without any real evaluation of whether or not they're the right explanation. "It might be because C!" Well, okay, but is it?

While it's fun to see smart people make up plausible economic explanations for puzzling things, I find it ultimately unsatisfying that the book stops there. It would of course take more work to try to verify the armchair guesses, but without that verification the whole thing ends up feeling sort of pointless. I'd much rather read about clever economic explanations that turned out to be *correct* than ones that are merely cute and/or plausible.
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