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on 27 July 2015
Only bought this for school. Interesting but needs more metaphors and similes and personification
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on 29 November 2009
Having read Freakonomics, I was hoping for something more in depth,
but thisbook proved to be about basic economic principles, often repetative,
and far less entertaining.
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on 17 July 2015
A wonderful book.
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A straightforward title for this book might be "Economics 101." Tim Harford makes the case for the invisible hand of the marketplace, for globalization as good for both the developed world and the undeveloped; he makes "differential pricing" clear, shows the value of free trade and why protectionist policies can be bad even for the protected and always costly to the country implementing them. His is the traditional view of the mainstream economist, the racy title notwithstanding. (I wonder: did the success of Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, which came out a little before this book, influence the people at the Oxford University Press to employ a spicy title?)

It's tempting to compare "The Undercover Economist" with "Freakonomics," but I won't except to say that Freakonomics really is about economics beneath the radar and undercover while The Undercover Economist is a very nice introduction to traditional economic thought as applied contemporaneously. Both books are excellent in their own way. Harford is more of a teacher and explainer, while Messrs. Levitt and Dubner are more interested in surprising us.

Harford is fond of coffee and beer and uses the economics of those products to make some telling points. He is not enamored of the "fair trade" coffee movement believing that the problem for coffee farmers is simply that the have no scarcity power since coffee can be grown in so many places in the world and growing it requires no great skill. He doesn't see sweatshops as a great evil. Instead he believes that if we banned clothing from countries that have sweatshops that would only hurt the workers in those shops since they would lose their jobs. His arguments for the good that globalization does follow the same sort of logic: yes, we in the developed world are gaining nicely from our capitalization of and trade with the underdeveloped countries, but they are gaining too. Without First World investments and a place to sell their goods and services, the underdeveloped countries would be poorer. I call this the trickle down theory of globalization, and I think it is generally correct. The sad truth is that no matter what scheme or system of interaction between the haves of the world and the have nots is employed, the haves are going to have an advantage and they are going to benefit more than the underdeveloped. This has been true since at least the time of the conquistadors.

He uses the sad example of Cameroon to demonstrate why some countries are so poor. In Cameroon tariffs are among the highest in the world; the government is corrupt and not friendly to foreign investment while the ability of the locals to do business is stifled by governmental regulations and taxes, and bribes at every level. When the government steals from the people the people lose their incentive to work.

Harford touts the economic resurgence of China and compares it directly with the failed economy of Cameroon. His main point is that once Mao and his top down economic policies were gone, and Deng was able to move China toward a profit motive economy, beautiful things began to happen. Harford recalls the horrors that the people of China suffered during the so-called Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. China for Harford is an example of a real world economic experiment that proves that a national economy is too complex to be directed from on high as in the communist system. His main point is that the information that we get from the marketplace cannot be had in any other way; and it is this information about what people really want, and what they are really willing to pay, that is what makes the invisible hand so powerful. Much of the book is devoted to illustrating this idea. When governments set prices or make quotas they are inviting gross inefficiency that steals from all of us. Letting the market place fix these values is much more efficient.

Although Harford bends over backwards to let us know that he feels for those who suffer the pain that comes from the constant change that takes place in free economies--people who lose their jobs, people whose companies go out of business, etc. because of competition from afar or because of technological advances elsewhere--I don't think he pays enough attention to the effect of free enterprise on limited and non-renewable resources. Economists tend to believe that when one commodity or element becomes scarce, the economy will find a substitute. Harford is no exception. He doesn't spend any ink worrying about the loss of the rain forests of the world probably because he sees them primarily in relatively short term economics. But in the long run the loss of something irreplaceable such as the rain forests or the coral reefs may cost us dearly in ways we cannot predict. Furthermore, there is such a thing as the aesthetic, spiritual and even psychological value of resources that are not taken into account in the economist's short term view.

By the way, the reason you can't buy a decent used car is the problem of "asymmetric information." In situations where one side has important information that the other side doesn't have, the result is a rip off--or there is no sale since the side without the information may have no confidence in the value of the sale item. In the chapter entitled "The Men Who Knew the Value of Nothing" Harford shows how information can affect auctions as well as used car sales and how the value of spectrum rights licenses and even your house may depend on asymmetric information.
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The truth is, in my eyes, economics is and will always be the best field of study ever. Complex, world-changing and integral to our daily lives, it has never been and will never be obsolete or far removed from our everyday actions and decisions. It may not have occurred to everyone how important economics is and how deeply it affects each individual until the onslaught of the recent recession, but regardless of how long your interest has been, The Undercover Economist is a must-read for just about anyone who has the slightest bit of curiosity in what economics is really all about.

Tim Harford is a genius. This I found out when I attended one of his talks at the LSE a few months back. His book is no less brilliant and does not let up in its charms. The Undercover Economist is a good introduction to the study of economics - it covers the basic and immediately dives into what it really is. It erases the misconception that it only affects economists, and explains in various understandable ways. The author explains the subject in clear, easy to understand language, tailored especially for non-economics folks. That is not to say that this book is only for those who doesn't study economics. Fellow economists will also be charmed by The Undercover Economist, especially those in their early years of study and are looking towards how economics operates in our daily life.

The text in the book is conversational and is founded through examples in real life situations. Everyone will be able to relate to this because it refers to many things we do regularly - for instance, choosing free trade instead of non-free trade coffee, shopping in supermarkets and getting on the property ladder. The insights this book will give you makes you feel like an insider knowing how things operate - it is rather brilliant! It answers so many questions in a way that will pique your interest in the beauty that is economics.

And if you think this book is a boring academic text - you're wrong! It's as fun as an economics book can be - with its light hearted banters and amusing situations, not only is the author's brilliance embedded in this book, but also his fantastic sense of humour!

Clearly, I love this book, and I'm sure other readers do too. If you're vaguely interested in economics or are simply bored, why not pick up a copy of The Undercover Economist and perhaps discover an appreciation for everything economics...
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on 7 November 2014
I completely loved this book. It is incredibly well written and flows really well. It is an interesting, relevant and exciting read. You might think you have no interest in economics but i promise you that after reading this book you will not only realise how much it is a part of your everyday life but also how interesting it is.

If you want to read something that opens your eyes and really makes you think then this is the book for you.
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on 16 June 2011
Like many other not too impressed reviewers I enjoyed the first few chapters as a light diversionary read. Suspicions were beginning to form regarding what could have been editorial errors but then I read that carbon dioxide is a pollutant! No wonder the World's economies are in the state they are in. If pop economists believe that and expect others to follow then the dumbing down of education is complete and we really are doomed.
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on 9 January 2007
Aside from a great opening chapter, and then a half decent one explaining the 3G licence auctions in the UK, this book is utter tosh, littered with inaccuracies and truisms that are not backed up by any facts.

For example, the author claims to be a great fan of globalisation, then elsewhere he states "paying unemployment benefits is the right thing to do", and then presents zero facts or statistics to back this up.

As another reviewer commented, the misguided sections on taxation and healthcare could only have been written by someone with strong socialist views, which is totally at loggerheads with the globalised, free movement of goods and people theories he espouses elsewhere. It strikes me that the author is probably an academic-type economist who has never really worked in the commercial sector with the pressures and business realities that brings.

Not recommended in the slightest. For the lowdown on how economics really works read something like Investment Biker by Jim Rogers.
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on 15 May 2007
This book is warming up common sense knowledge and trying to sell it as easily digestible economy for the casual reader. It doesn't take a business degree to write this lukewarm book of commonsense business tactics.

Its boring, dragging out dull stories and if anything, will send you to sleep.
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on 23 July 2014
Love the man
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