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VINE VOICEon 27 May 2008
There's a rash of these things. This latest one, like Freakonomics, takes an "economic approach" (i.e. use of basic statistics and vague generalisations) to make a series of obvious or clearly incorrect assertions about the world. Still, the lack of hagiographies about the authors at least makes it easier to stomach than Freakonomics.

I got bored after two chapters of this. To take an example: there's a section on why milk comes in square cartons, while coke comes in cylinders. The answer seems to me to be almost entirely because coke needs to be pressurised. He says it's because it's drunk from the can and therefore needs to be easy to hold. I don't care either way because I can't see why either has anything whatsoever to do with economics. And anyway, what's so hard about drinking directly from a Tetrapak?

Get Tim Harford's "The Undercover Economist" instead, which addresses many of the same points (especially the ones about product features/costs) much more intelligently and in some cases directly contradicting this; Frank assumes that additional product features cost more to produce; Harford makes the point that often they don't, they're just excuses to have differentiated pricing. It's a much stronger case.
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on 16 June 2008
After reading Levitt's "Freakonomics" and Harford's "Undercover Economist" I was attracted to this book when I came across it. Yes, there's some overlap with both of them and yes, in some places either Levitt or Harford is better. Where this book scores, however, is that you can take it in small bites and have a good mull over what it says a bit at a time.

As another reviewer has noted, the book is based on questions that Frank's students have posed and answered, in varying degrees of depth, but always from the economist's perspective. The result is a collection of questions and answers, all relatively concise, and all showing economic thought at work. And the book pretends to be no more than that.

Criticism that it is too shallow or not based on empirical research IMO misses the point. The book's purpose is to demonstrate the application of economic thought to questions about everyday economic observations. The answers are cogently presented without any pretence that they are the last word - and this alone is welcome in a field whose more psychotic schools of thought have a hubristic track record of basing theories on patently false premises.

The important thing about this book is that it seeks to make its readers *think* about the things it discusses. IMO, it succeeds admirably (and it certainly made me think a lot). As a former student of economics, I'd confidently recommend it as a taster for students considering whether to take economics as a major subject.

More power to Frank and his students. I hope he writes a sequel ("More from the Economic Naturalist"?) that addresses topics not included in the original.
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on 30 May 2008
I bought this book expecting, on the basis of cover quotes, to find more of the type of incisive and analytical thinking that illuminates Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist. Against the standard sent by those, and other books, it is a **huge** disappointment. Peter Kennedy writes in his review that it uses "basic statistics and vague generalisations". From my reading I'd say that it weights itself heavily towards the vague generalisations side of this statement (I would also like to say that Freakonomics is rather more robust than its mention in Peter's review implies). I got bored very quickly.

This is a book that is cashing in on the popularity of a genre and falling short of the standard of that genre. Prospective purchasers should be aware that the source material for the book is short essays that were written by Robert H. Frank's students of an Introductory Economics course. Specifically, they were asked to 'use a principle, or principles, discussed in the course to pose and answer an interesting question about some pattern of events or behaviour that you personally have observed' in less than 500 words. So you are, in effect, reading a compendium of coursework that addresses this challenge. And, frankly, the lack of rigour that results is evident.

To be fair to Robert H. Frank (and his students), he does admit in his introduction that he doesn't expect all the answers to be correct and that they should be read with a critical eye. He states that the answers should be seen as 'intelligent hypotheses suitable for further refinement and testing'. And many of them do stand up to that measure. But I'd have been grateful for a bit of the refinement and testing coming from Professor Frank himself. For example the answer to the question of why Kamikaze pilots wore helmets (which is touted on the cover of the book) is historically inaccurate and doesn't even contain any economics.

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on 1 October 2011
A good book, starts as a light mood pop-economics, and gets more serious after the half.

I find many reviews here too harsh, so decided to try adding my 2 cents.

As the author says, the answers he gives are free to be refutable, open interpretation, and it's just an economical aproach. The point not to reply to the answers as whole (like how electromagnetism works for the lights in the freezer, and etc.) but to answer them in the economical perspective.

For the most, it was interesting, although I didn't agree with everything. I admit I liked freakonomics more, but an interesting read nontheless. I'd give it 3,2/5
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on 16 August 2014
I got this because I have no background in economics and the cover made it look like an accessible and stimulating intro to economics that would make it relevant for the layperson. Well, if questions like "Why are houses in the UK smaller than in the states and Australia?" stump you, then go ahead. If however you've already worked out the answer before he's finished asking the question then this will drive you as mad as it did me. Even content that could have been potentially a good basis for interesting discussion (like the fact that New York cabbies knock off early on rainy days) was dealt with in the same turgid and dry manner. I never even got half through I was so bored. Intellectual riches may lie in the second half but I couldn't bear to plough on.
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on 30 September 2008
If you enjoyed Freakononics and Undercover Economist, then like myself either you have already bought this book ... or planning to buy it... expecting similar quirky questions answered with the aid of `layman' economics.

The book didn't disappoint, but did not dazzle either. It definitely misses the quality of linked events and explanation of Tim Harford's Undercover Economist, but is not as bad as some of the reviews claim.

Yes, it's not economist prose with complex explanations and statistics...with a unifying idea as an explanation for everything... which in my opinion frankly is a good thing. The layout is simple... each section has a series of questions with their `answers' below them... the Q&A layout makes it an easy read... which you can enjoy in chunks ...taking as much time as you like.

Some questions do jog the brain, and you will definitely find a few which you yourself might have wondered from time to time. Please be aware though, that the `economic explanation' offered for the posed question MAY be one of the many right ones... it's a point of view ... with an economic angle... just like these reviews which have been posted... each with our individual opinion!

A few fellow readers have been a bit generous with their criticism on for this book, but as already mentioned here a couple of times, due credit to the writer (R.H. Frank) that he confesses early in the book that the answers are a `point of view' and should be `critically' evaluated.

Yes, it's not dazzling economic or literary genius... but still a good read... worth a try.
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on 28 September 2009
This book is alright, but it's not fantastic. The questions are a collection of questions set by the author to his students and the replies are what his students came up with. Some of the answers do make you think, but mostly the realms of Behavioural Economics... it's still a bit of circular reasoning.
The book book is good to get you thinking beyond finance and business in an economic view point, but the extent to which it's being tenuously stretched makes you wonder.

This book is good for an A-level student who's looking into economics and wants to whet their appetite on questions that are a little more obscure that economics can help with. But overall the book is great while you're reading it, but you get the feeling "i would have come up with this" on a lot of the questions.
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on 28 August 2008
Unashamed and pointless cash-in on Freakonomics and the Undercover Economist, and not a patch on either though both have their weaknesses. This is a cobbled-together collection of oversimplistic answers to questions that in the main I wouldn't have asked. It makes some of the same faulty assumptions about logical choices and perfect markets that the other two do, but a number of the answers are so plainly wrong or miss out huge and obvious chunks that it becomes pretty annoying quite quickly. There are some interesting analyses in here but very little that a layman couldn't have figured out themselves, so the "economics" in the title could pretty much be replaced with "thinking about it". There is very little if any real innovative thinking or original insight in here.

One gap that stuck in the memory was the failure to understand that in rating people in a relationship scenario, not everyone's rating of you will be the same, as people give different priority to various criteria, and may also make different assessments of the same criteria. Therefore while you may be a 9 to someone, you will only be a 6 to someone else. Without this recognition, the (surprise) market-driven answer is nonsense. This is fairly typical in that the human element seems to be removed from the answers wherever possible - this economist seems scared of the messiness of humanity spoiling his neat models of how the world should be. While he isn't unique in this, it makes a book which purports to explain how the world works of strictly limited value.
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on 25 March 2009
Robert Frank teaches economics, but asks his students to look beyond the complex mathematics of modern economic theories for the underlying story. He asks (some) thought-provoking questions, and demands answers in simple narrative form that can be easily understood.

This book is a collection of such essays, re-written to form a loosely connected story. As such, the book has a magazine style - a collection of short stories. Some of these appear trite, some create only a momentary "ah", but some lead to further reflection.

This forms a useful introduction to some economic thinking, and is timely in given the current economic situation. This raises questions and challenges to societies that allow pure economic forces to drive decision-making. Differential pricing strategies, the tragedy of the commons and aspects of behavioural economics are well described through illustrative stories.
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on 14 June 2008
Its supply and demand, of course; "Freakonomics" established the market for popular economics paperbacks and this is one of several such books that have appeared recently. The pedagogic approach is very different from Levitt and Dubner's research-based original, though. Frank is an economics lecturer and despairs that students, even when they study economics, don't end up understanding much about it. Shockingly, surveys suggest maybe all those graphs and equations actually confuse ex-economics students. They often perform worse in answering everyday economically-related conundrums than the general populace! What this says about the competence of his teaching colleagues or the quality of the expensive undergraduate economics textbooks that pile up in university bookshops is left to the reader to decide.

Franks' approach is to ask his students to explain questions he puts to them (or they come up with) which represent little case studies of socioeconomic interaction. Why is there a light in your fridge not your freezer? Why do mobile phones cost less than their replacement batteries? Why do some bars offer free peanuts? Why are CD and DVD boxes different shapes? Why do women wear high heels? And so on. By pondering these, students should start to understand the basics of economics. All great fun and you genuinely end up beginning to "think like an economist", soon even challenging Frank's own sometimes simplified answers (...surely the aim of any pedagogic text). There is some theory underlying it but, as an ex-economics student myself, I thought a few graphs might actually have helped explain some concepts.

Nonetheless, cost-benefit analysis, opportunity cost, the tragedy of the commons, price-sensitivity, market segmentation and "behavioural economics" are some of the ideas entertainingly explained through example. The "economic naturalist" is therefore focused on fieldwork rather than abstract theory, but there is perhaps more to the title than that. Frank also draws, through for example the case of the elk's excessive antlers the link between evolutionary biology and economics and suggests that Darwinism was in part based on the ideas of Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations".
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