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on 7 June 2006
A joy to read! Insightful, yet beautifully simple, arguments for many key economic ideas, such as why prices are good and arguments in favour of free trade. Some of the arguments are counter-intuitive, such as seatbelts killing people and recycling paper being bad for trees, but are great truisms which make you think differently and more lucidly.

I also like Landsburgh's modesty. For example, he admits that, despite being a top-notch economist, he cannot satisfactorily explain why popcorn is so expensive at cinemas!

And I like his sense of humour -the book is full of jokes which add enormously to the pleasure of reading it. Great for both economists and non-economists who want an introduction to the subject.
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on 6 June 2009
The Armchair Economist is clearly written and interesting, but to me it's real value is in understanding how "supply-side" economists think. Much of the value is in trying to spot the hidden assumption or the logical fallacy.

As an example of the first: he argues that we should decide whether to do anything on global warming based on the monetary value people place on driving cars versus the monetary value other people place on not having their islands flooded. Ok, that's probably a self-consistent way of evaluating a policy, but there are at least two other frameworks for evaluation in common use that he doesn't mention: i) some idea of democracy, whereby the wishes of the (poorer) islanders have the same weight per person as the (richer) car drivers; ii) the idea of an external moral or ethical standard requiring that we avoid or minimise damage to the planet, independent of the opinions of others. Failure to acknowledge standards for decision making other than monetary seems a major flaw in the book.

The second weakness, the logical fallacy, is mainly illustrated whenever he demonstrates that two choices for economic policy have equal cost - e.g. a country paying for a something now versus borrowing money to pay for it; or making cars in the USA versus growing corn for export and buying cars from Japan. To a first approximation, he's correct in saying that the two alternatives are of equal cost. However at this point he should go on to consider the cost of second-order effects - e.g. the rising interest rate as borrowing increases, or the loss of future choice if the industrial capability to build cars is lost.

Since most or all of the book suffers from one or both of these problems, I wouldn't recommend this as a way of understanding economics, so much as a way of understanding economists. Given the importance of supply-side economists sharing his views, the book is useful to understand how and why economic policy is set.
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on 16 June 2008
Parts of this book delighted me and parts infuriated me. From a conventional economic perspective, Landsburg does a standard demolition job on many popular misconceptions about how markets and economies work. On the other hand he never questions the validity of the conventional economic theories on which he bases what he says. Worse, his cocksure tone belies what I suspect are some stark intellectual limitations.

Part VI, entitled, "The Pitfalls of Science", is IMO one of the most revealing in the book. In it Landsburg reproduces the text of a letter he sent to the organiser of his daughter's group at a Jewish Community Centre. The letter complained that the group was indoctrinating his daughter in environmentalism. He writes of himself and his wife,

"...We are not environmentalists. We ardently oppose environmentalists. We consider environmentalism a form of mass hysteria akin to Islamic fundamentalism or the War on Drugs. We do not recycle. We teach our daughter not to recycle. We teach her that people who try to convince her to recycle, or who try to force her to recycle, are intruding on her rights."

This sadly typifies the mentality of the many economists who ignore all biophysical considerations in economics. His daughter's rights won't count for much on the trashed planet that people with his attitudes are likely to create.

I found myself asking how much weight I should attach to Landsburg's other arguments when his views on environmentalism expose such addled thinking.
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on 4 June 2003
If you are like me, naive in the field of economics pick up this book. It has no tables or other confusing 'aids' and will take you through a series of essays on everyday economic matters. It is easy to read and the author knows how to keep you hooked. Overall, a good use of your time.
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on 28 January 2011
If you're not an economist, then this book has plenty of examples of how economic thinking contradicts conventional wisdom. Landsburg has plenty of stories showing that all alternatives to free markets are inferior. I found his example that cars can be made in Michigan or grown in Idaho very clear and well described, and useful in these protectionist times. However, he comes across as an economic absolutist. Little mention of the limits of free markets or immeasurable externalities. If you know anything about economics, then you might be bored reading this book.

(To grow a car: plant corn, harvest corn, put corn on ship, send ship across the pacific, ship returns full of Toyotas. Farmers and welders are competing directly in the labour market. Ditto in Japan).
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on 3 February 2011
This is certainly not the best or clearest pop-economics book on the market. I expect an economist to be necessarily inclusive of all sectors of society and the personal diatribes and perpetual introspect into exclusively US economic habits is tedious, irrelvant and intolerable for anyone who doesn't happen to live in America.

The examples all seemed very old too and I suspect the majority of this book was written at least several years ago.
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on 1 July 2014
Apparently this author inspired or knew Steve Levitt (Freakonomics). However he doesn't quite have the light touch of Levitt, which makes the economic theories quite hard going. I delighted in Freakonomics, reading it twice and passing on copies to friends and family. But this one really needs focus and concentration to read it, and you can't put it down and wander off for a while.

So it's good if you want indepth solid reading of economic theory in fairly lengthy chapters, but its not a light read for non-economists by any stretch.
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on 29 July 2013
First off, there are some very interesting ideas in this book. It encourages you to think more closely about why things work the way they do. For example: A company that spends a lot of money on advertising expects to be in business in 5 years' time, so their products probably won't fall apart after a week; whereas another company spends nothing and as a consumer, I have no way of knowing whether they intend on making a quick profit and then exiting the industry or whether they are in for the long-haul. So while there is nothing to guarantee a product's quality, the existence of advertising is an indicator of the firm's overall strategy.

This is the sort of thing I expected after reading Freakonomics a few years ago (which, by contrast, was fantastic). Unfortunately, I was very disappointed.

The first reason is that many of the ideas weren't really developed. Freakonomics spent time developing each "story", explaining everything along the way. The Armchair Economist often devotes no more than a few sentences to some of these otherwise interesting ideas, and jumps to some pretty ambitious and definitive conclusions (therefore it "MUST" be true...).

But the main reason for my disappointment was the author's unbelievable arrogance. Essentially he makes the argument throughout the book that as an economist, he's clever and therefore understands how things work. If anyone has an opinion contrary to his own, they are labelled a non-economist (i.e. stupid). Several chapters are devoted to demonstrating how stupid other people are (often naming them in the process) because they don't subscribe to his understanding of economics. At times, it feels like his goal is to encourage the reader to join in and insult all the stupid non-economists. After a while, it feels like he's simply giving us ammunition on how to argue with and mock people that see the world differently.

It really is a shame, because as I said - there are some great ideas in this book. But it was just really painful to read (again and again) how he looks down on and insults everyone else.

My advice: Read Freakonomics instead. If you've already read Freakonomics, then find something else. You'll be soreley disappointed by the Armchair Economist.
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on 7 October 2008
If you're anything like me, you enjoy reading interesting subject matter written by a passionate author, and whilst this book certainly counts as such, it isn't without its flaws. Steven Landsburg provides an introduction to the field of economics for the uninitiated, and then walks us through various unlikely and often entertaining consequences of viewing the world through an economist's eyes.

At the moment I can't seem to get enough of pop-economics, and this book, being billed as the progenitor of the breed, seemed a little too irresistible. Published as it was in 1995, the material is starting to show its age, but its examples are still very relevant. Far more distracting is the author's tendency to sensationalise his assertions before justifying them. The entire book would read better if the audience were allowed to digest the enormity and validity of his proposals for themselves.

If you were looking for a lay introduction to the subject of economics, I'd recommend Tim Harford's Undercover Economist, which is intrinsically more pleasant to read. If that whets your appetite, you might want to continue with this.
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on 21 August 2012
Being a more left-leaning person this book managed to make me raise my eyebrows several times.

Landsburg's thinking is a prime example of old-school economics where the intrinsic value of nature and finite amount of natural resources is completely ignored. In fact, he identifies environmentalism as "a force-fed potpourri of myth, superstition, and ritual that has much in common with the least reputable varieties of religious Fundamentalism".

To mention just a couple of examples:

Landsburg advocates keeping consumption of meat, paper and other goods at high levels to sustain the companies that produces them. It seems that the environmental effects of excessive consumption have no weight in his 'logical, science-driven economics'.

On species extinction, Landsburg's thinks that we can "pick up a lot of valuable knowledge by wiping out a few species to see what happens"! He would be sorry, though, if lions were wiped out as he has "fond memories of them from the zoo or from childhood storybooks". Therefore Landsburg would be ready to pay $50/year to preserve them, thus making economic sense to conserve the species.

On air pollution, he sees it a "self-evident opportunity" for the US to move its high-pollution industries to poor countries to improve the lives of not only Americans, but "everybody" as apparently wealthy people "can afford to sacrifice some income for the luxury of clean air, while people in poorer countries are happy (!) to breathe inferior air in exchange for the opportunity to improve their incomes".

Right-wing, conservative anti-environmentalists would probably love this book.
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