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The Undercover Economist successfully avoids mind-numbing equations, boring examples and abstruse subjects.
Using ten themes, Mr. Harford provides a popular platform for the latest thinking on economics.
In Who Pays for Your Coffee? he looks at how a desire for quick access to caffeine allows landlords along commuter routes to charge high rents for take-out coffee locations.
In What Supermarkets Don't Want You to Know? he explores how item choices and pricing are used to create the appearance of competitiveness while encouraging the price insensitive to pay as much as they like. He also explains the theory of why you pay so much more for fancier coffee drinks . . . and even possibly for fair trade coffee.
Perfect Markets and the "World of Truth" considers how economic policy can influence how people make decisions and allocate resources more efficiently such as by raising taxes on fuel while subsidizing the poor with a "head start".
Crosstown Traffic looks at the ways that social problems can be solved by a judicious use of fees, such as by charging for the right to pollute.
The Inside Story examines how imperfect information causes costs and prices to soar . . . as those who know what's good and bad take advantage of those who don't. People sell used cars that are lemons and hold on to ones that are peaches. Those who need health insurance because they are sick buy it while those who are well avoid the cost.
Rational Insanity describes talks about irrationality in economic decisions such as the recent Internet bubble.
The Men Who Knew the Value of Nothing is about describes the brilliant and not so brilliant auctions that economists set up to sell radio spectrum for new services around the world.
Why Poor Countries are Poor contains an unforgettable tale of what it's like in Cameroon and why the economy isn't likely to get better anytime soon.
Beer, Fries and Globalization makes the case for free trade.
How China Grew Rich is a nice study in government policy in China and how it overcame the worst problems of being a centralized economy.
If you know economics, all that will be new in most of these chapters will be the examples, which are fairly new and interesting.
If you don't know economics, you probably won't follow some of the chapters such as Beer, Fries and Globalization.
So this book will be most appealing to those who know a lot about economics and will be interested to see how key ideas can be explained more simply and in a livelier way.
For those who don't know economics, it's a lot better than my economics professors in explaining key ideas. But you may end up learning more than you wanted to know. Many of the chapters are of more interest to economists than the typical non-economist reader. I suggest you selectively read the chapters to focus on the ones that seem interesting to you.
I thought that the last chapter on China had the most interesting material and explained it very well.
Some people will compare this book to Freakonomics. That's a peculiar comparison to make. That book uses economics to provide new perspectives on old problems. This book, instead, tries to teach economics. The two books have substantially different purposes and perspectives as a result.
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on 5 April 2008
With the release, and runaway success, of Freakonomics publishers were faced with an interesting new phenomenon: The possibility that a book on economics could be interesting and could connect with the "common man" and as a result that it could sell in large numbers. Overlooking that Freakonomics was a book about statistical analysis, the hunt was on for other accessible economic texts.

As a result, a book as tedious and confused as Tim Harford's Undercover Economist has been allowed to reach the public.

To be sure, the book starts well - the opening chapters make for an interesting and informing introduction to economics, and form a promising introduction to the book. But pretty soon things begin to go awry. The chapter that explains why it is impossible to purchase a good second-hand car seems to ignore the likelihood that very many readers will have purchased perfectly good second-hand cars. From here on, Harford's credibility is damaged, and when he goes on to explain why countries are poor, and why globalisation is good without any of the earlier chapters credible and transparent economical theory to back up these assertions, he becomes trite and boring.

The Undercover Economist has its moments, Harford is a likeable and easy-to-read author, and the section on the 3G Wavelength Spectrum auctions is fascinating, and goes some way to explaining what seemed like an impenetrably confusing fit of behaviour on the part of these companies. But overall, after the first 25% or so, the book begins to drag, and fails poorly to live up to the promise of the early chapters, or to the marketing blurb on the cover.

The heartless survival-of-the-fittest neo-cons among reviewers find his book insufferably 'leftist' while the socialists find its claims that unrestricted capitalism is good for everyone intolerable. I just found it increasingly dull, and quite prescriptive. It didn't educate me and leave me to draw my own conclusions, it harangued me and expected me to share its conclusions without explaining adequately to me why I should.
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on 18 July 2012
I bought this book because I want to increase my understanding of economics, but I don't want to throw myself in at the deep end with a proper textbook. I was pleasantly surprised with this book; it presents key (often quite confusing) economic concepts, such as the trade off between equity and efficiency, and externalities without actually naming them as such, so I think that if the reader were to continue on to more advanced economics material (as I intend to) the concepts would not seem quite so alien.

The second edition also includes a breakdown of the 2008 global financial crisis using an analogy of rotten eggs. This I found particularly interesting and useful, and I am quite interested in finding out for myself what went wrong with the world's markets. Other interesting sections include "How China grew rich", where Harford examines the boom in the Chinese economy, and "Who pays for your coffee?", a delightful introductory chapter (which subtly introduces the concepts of supply and demand) examining a few of the ins and outs of the global coffee trade.

Harford writes in an engaging, easy to read style, and on the whole manages to avoid a lot of the jargon, diagrams and equations that fill the pages of most economics books. This book will not make you into an economics expert, but, as it promises to, it will leave you thinking like an economist. I would gladly recommend it to anyone.
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on 23 March 2015
I read this book because of the questions it posed on the cover: e.g. ever wondered why the gap between the rich and the poor nations is so great? What is the real cost of your cup of Starbucks coffee? Why is it so difficult to get on the property ladder? How supermarkets target and ‘game theory’ in every day spending? And to be fair, it does answer these questions and more in an informative and interesting way.

The book starts simply enough but halfway through I did become a bit lost in some of the jargon and concepts. This could be because of my lack of understanding of world economics rather than Tim Harford’s writing, but even so, some sections took rereading in order to move forward. In this respect, the book is sectioned nicely with clear and crisp headings so you don’t get too lost (like me). But, having said that, the book is an eye-opener and you won’t quite shop in the same way again after reading it. I did find the ending chapter on China’s economy a bit vague to decipher but overall a recommended read. For anyone. Not just those interested in economics.
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on 25 February 2010
This book has been marketed as a British "Freaknomics", but it is really a completely different beast.

In reality it is a basic introduction to free market economics and it does a reasonable job of that. Mr Harford is not so undercover when it comes to his unfailing belief that global free trade is a good thing; his consideration of any counter-argument is curtly dismissive.

There is an interesting chapter about the auction of "3G" mobile phone licenses which is worth reading, but the rest falls far short of the illumination that the quotes on the back of the book promise. I can see little evidence of any unique insights, and neither is the writing style sufficiently polished to make up for this short-coming.

If you are looking for a basic introduction to economics then perhaps this would be OK. However, I was disappointed to find that it was not the book that it was trying desperately to be.
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on 4 April 2006
Reading the popular press, one might be forgiven for thinking that economists are people who make forecasts which are of little relevance to most of us and almost always wrong, or who write about esoteric subjects using language and mathematics which we find impenetrable. This book is quite different. It shows, with great clarity and many examples, how economics can be used in our daily lives to understand what is happening and make better decisions.
It shows why coffee bars charge such high prices for cappuccinos; they are on prime sites, which are scarce, and much of the profit goes to the owners of those sites. Scarcity is also created by planning restrictions, trade unions, professional bodies and immigration policies, which raise prices to the benefit of some but the detriment of others.
It discusses how supermarkets seek to maximise revenue, differentiating customers who are sensitive to prices from those who are not by analysing purchasing habits, using special offers and 'value' lines, and by placing similar but differently priced products side by side or on different shelves.
The chapter on free markets shows how they reveal what people are prepared to pay for something, and such markets adjust - often incrementally, invisibly and in myriad ways - to changes in supply and demand. In contrast, markets that are distorted by subsidies, taxes or controls, are inefficient and result in misallocation of resources.
In many actions, what we do has a deleterious effect on other people or the environment, a so-called externality. For example, driving to work increases congestion on the roads and CO2 in the atmosphere. Alternatively, what we do can have a beneficial effect; installing energy efficiency measures reduces pollution. The book shows how economics can value externalities such as pollution and reduce them in the most economical manner, for example by auctioning pollution permits.
Many transactions involve asymmetric information, where one party knows more than the other. If we buy a used car, the seller knows more about it than we do; it may be good car or it may be a 'lemon'. On the other hand, if we buy medical insurance, we know more about our health than the insurance company. The author explains why it can be impossible to buy a good used car, why the cost of health insurance is so high, and how the information gap between buyer and seller can be narrowed.
In Rational Insanity, it explains why share prices behave erratically, why it is difficult to make money trading them without information or insights not available to others, and why fund managers often run with the herd. But sometimes, as in the 1990s boom, the herd can be wrongfooted.
One of the more illuminating chapters is on Game Theory, which can be employed in poker, nuclear war and many other interactions. Particularly fascinating is the account of how this was used in the auction of UK third generation cell-phone licences to raise over £22 billion for the government, against an initial estimate of £3 billion. The economists who designed the auction certainly earned their fees, but may have been disappointed to see the proceeds used just to reduce the national debt.
To illustrate why poor countries are poor, the author describes a visit to Cameroon. The country is racked by corruption, and the government and its acolytes are seen to be no better than bandits. However, in the example of Nepal, one of the problems is misallocation of aid, due to failure of agencies to understand the motivations of those being helped.
The chapter on globalisation shows how much richer the world has become by trading in goods and services. It shows that in such a world we should stick to doing what are most efficient at, even if someone else can do it better. Barriers to trade, such as duties, import restrictions and subsidies, hinder this process, benefiting one part of the economy but damaging another. They can also have other undesirable consequences; subsidies to US sugar producers harm farmers in Colombia, who have turned to producing cocaine.
How China Grew Rich describes the story of the remarkable transformation, as Deng Xiaoping slowly loosened the strings of a centrally-controlled economy in ways that encouraged entrepreneurship and wealth generation, without damaging those who were less able to change. This contrasts with Russia, where the relatively rapid changes after 1990 have made billionaires but left many people worse off.
Tim Harford in not only an accomplished economist but a prolific writer. His book is enjoyable, easy to read and contains not a single equation. But, being written from the clearly-stated viewpoint of an economist, those with other perspectives may reach different diagnoses and prescriptions.
It is perhaps unfortunate that his book was published in the US in the wake of Freakonomics, which has been widely praised. But whilst the latter describes some pathbreaking economic studies, not all of which are of practical application to most readers, The Undercover Economist contains numerous examples and ideas which show that economics, far from being a 'dismal science', can be applied by all of us in everyday activities. Read it and find out how.
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on 27 November 2014
A neat little book that attempts (mostly successfully) to explain economic forces in simple to understand terms; quite cleverly starting with the straightforward question of why coffee is so expensive in a train station, and building from that it goes on to end up examining how China grew so rapidly from its economic slump and what the effects of globalisation are going to be.

It is a very broad book and the author and the author writes with just the right amount of humour that it never starts to seem like he isn’t taking it seriously. The facts of the economics may be a bit idealised in some places, but it’s recommended reading for anyone without a start point in how the economy works.
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on 8 June 2007
I thought that this was a great book. A little simplistic to start but it really does get going with each succeeding scenario. The author makes a pretty convincing case for the power of absolutely free markets right up until the globalisation chapter where I got the impression he was beginning to miss out (or at least brush over) some of the counter arguments.

Contrary to one of the other reviewers, I really had the impression the author was all for unrestricted markets and introduced the concept of fairness as a consideration because he felt society (readers) would demand it. I certainly didn't feel the author believes fairness should be achieved in any other way but through the use of the market.
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on 3 May 2014
It takes a special kind of effort to be so behind the times that I’m reviewing The Undercover Economist more than three years after it was published, despite having it on my “must read” list for most of that time. As a fan of Tim Harford’s contributions to the Financial Times and his presentation of More or Less, I had great expectations for this book – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Undercover Economist seeks to explain the economic theories underpinning everyday life, from buying a coffee to shopping in a supermarket. I was passingly familiar with most of the theories being discussed, as I would imagine that most people would be, but Harford does a good job of fleshing out the details, equipping the reader with economic vocabulary, and showing how the theories work in everyday situations.

Harford is clearly an excellent writer, and the book zips along at a fair lick for the most part. There are, however, some parts that drag a little. Occasionally, Harford goes to some lengths to explain the same theories repeatedly in different situations in a way that becomes a little repetitive and unnecessary in parts. I sometimes felt like the speed of the repeated explanations was a little slow, as though I was some way ahead of the book. This was a bit frustrating. But it’s not a major issue. I guess what I’m saying is that a well-abridged version of the book would be no bad thing.

There are also bits of the book where I feel like Harford strays a little too far into relating a particular point of view, rather than setting out the wider picture as I would expect from a book like this. I am actually interested in Harford’s opinions on globalisation, for example, but don’t think that this is necessarily the place to communicate his point of view (almost) exclusively. I felt that a little more balance would have been welcome in this introductory book.

But these are niggles. Economics is often portrayed as dry and theoretical, and The Undercover Economist shows it to be anything but. It sheds light on the economic decisions we all make everyday, and the way that we are economically manipulated by corporations and governments – for better or worse. It is absorbing and enjoyable – not words that necessarily spring to mind for books about this particular subject matter.

So whilst there were some rough edges, I enjoyed The Undercover Economist. And perhaps the best I can say is that the sequel is on my “must read” list… and I think I’ll get to it some time before 2017!

This review was originally posted on my blog, at [...]
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 January 2014
Tim Harford’s “Undercover Economist” is a clear and well argued read. You don’t need any prior economic knowledge to understand his key arguments and he explains things in clear and simple language.

The book is along the same lines as a raft of populist social/science books - perhaps the most obvious comparison is with Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics”. However, while the two share an easy reading quality, Freakonomics is more concerned with micro economics (and human decisions) while Harford also covers macroeconomic arguments. Of the two, I found Harford’s more interesting and insightful. It seems more concerned with explaining things than going for the shock value. That’s not to say that there are not some contentious issues - the economic view of sweatshops for example won’t thrill everyone but his arguments are well reasoned.

There is a clear development of Harford’s approach - from the importance of scarcity right up to looking at the reasons for China’s development. The content of the chapters is cross referenced so you get a real sense of an argument building.

The concept of Harford as an “undercover economist” is the only area that doesn’t live up to the promise. Sure there are times when he uses the idea to explain why things are as they are from an economist’s point of view - notably looking at coffee prices - but while there are times when it is a useful device, for much of the book the undercover concept is a bit spurious. It’s really more of an explanation of why the world is as it is economically.

It’s both an enjoyable read and a very good and clear introduction to some key economic ideas that will give some useful examples to explain the key ideas.
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