The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor-And Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car! Hardcover – 1 Nov 2005
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About the Author
Tim Harford writes the "Dear Economist" column in the Financial Times Magazine, in which he draws upon the latest economic theories to provide tongue-in-cheek answers to readers' personal dilemmas. Formerly an economics editorial writer at the Financial Times, Harford has worked at the International Finance Corporation, for a major oil company, and as an economics tutor at Oxford University. He lives in Washington DC.
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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.
It goes over simple economic theories in a non-textbook way, the author provides persuasive and real world examples which make it really easy to understand the benefits of free market economic policies: such as reducing barriers to trade..
The book also briefly covers The Great Recession remarkably well enough for even those with little or no understanding of finance to get a simple idea of what the cause was.
I really recommend this book as an easy introduction to Economics and as an essential quick read for those studying the subject, however if you already have substantial knowledge of Economics you wont find anything 'new', instead many fun examples of theories at work!
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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