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on 13 October 2009
I had read and enjoyed 'The Undercover Economist', so I didn't hesitate to buy 'Dear Undercover Economist'. Bad mistake! This is a 'best of' collection of letters written to Harford looking for his quirky economist's take (or 'advice') on everyday problems, dilemnas, and questions. The first few responses are mildly amusing, but the humour wears thin by page 20, and is distinctly boring by page 30! If you haven't read 'The Undercover Economist', buy it now. But if you're considering buying 'Dear Undercover Economist', save your time and money. This book is an ill-considered attempt to cash-in on the success of the original, and it just doesn't work!
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on 20 August 2009
Most of us will be familiar with the agony aunt format of newspapers and magazines: correspondents share their woes with a concerned, no-nonsense columnist who offers suggested ways of dealing with said woes. These can range from the heartbreaking to the laughable, and are addressed with varying levels of solemnity, depending on the the agony aunt's brief and inclinations.

In the Financial Times, the format is slightly different. Rather than offering homilies or pseudo-psychological buzzwords, the agony aunt -- or perhaps uncle, in this case -- uses current economic theories to clarify just what letter-writers are concerned about and provide a close analysis of which solutions offer the greatest benefit. Dear Undercover Economist is a collection of the best, most informative, or at least the most amusing, letters from his file.

In essence, it offers a variation on Harford's goal in his previous books, of making economics accessible to, and as far as possible entertaining for, the general populace. He once again achieves this with aplomb, and the book is a worthy addition both to his works and my shelves.

Unlike The Undercover Economist or The Logic of Life, though, the bite-sized format offered by the letters and responses in this latest book make it very easy to dip in and out. In line with the space constraints of a newspaper column, issues are addressed in a couple of hundred words rather than a chapter or two, which through the course of the book demonstrates just how broad a sweep economics can have -- and how specifically it can help us weigh up pros and cons in a given situation. Should you need insight into a problem of your own, input will be easy to find, too, thanks to letters being handily grouped by category.

In addition, since our FT agony uncle is not always the most diplomatic of souls in writing his replies, there are more than a few chuckles to be had during the reading. What more could anyone interested in the field ask?
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on 3 November 2014
This is an absolutely fantastic read greatly written by Tim Harford. The book is packed full of knowledge and interesting facts which any economist will find fascinating. It has a humorous tone running throughout so is therefore a particularly enjoyable read. The format is that of a question in the form of a letter or an email, and then the answer together with accompanying economic explanation. Some Questions and answers are more interesting than others, but nonetheless all are well worth reading. The book isn’t particularly long at so won’t take you very long to get through. A great buy and read!
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on 1 January 2012
Just like a book by Jeremy Clarkson, this one has to be read in small doses. The collation of letters and responses into categories which are chapters means it all feels "samey". The slightly tongue-in-cheek style is fun to read in little bites, but you can't make a session of it.

It's perhaps also a step too far - The Undercover Economist was a great work that made economics very accessible to the majority, this however, doesn't take the time to explain things in enough detail to make it worthwhile as an educating read.

Still entertaining, but I was expecting more.
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on 29 March 2010
The format is `agony aunt' style letters recycled from Harford's `Dear Economist' column in the Financial Times. Each letter is answered in economist-speak, often supported by apparently genuine if improbable research, in a droll and rather witty style. My fiancée for example liked the description of an engagement ring as a "non-refundable deposit". The first section on love and dating "Should I fake my orgasms?" is perhaps the weakest, but don't let that put you off: it definitely picks up a bit later. I noticed a similar unevenness in The Undercover Economist. Hartford really needs to get a better editor, but if anything this was better written.
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on 4 February 2015
Review courtesy of

What, you might wonder, is the secret to happiness? Harford, citing Kahneman, says that sex is best, but that exercise, food, and prayer are also good. In fact, all human contact is good, except for that with your boss, which is quite bad. The secret to happiness? Don’t have sex with your boss.

Tim Harford is a frequent writer for the Financial Times, and has also published several excellent pop economics books, including The Undercover Economist. Dear Undercover Economist, however, is a collection of advice columns he published in the FT. Written in the classic style of Dear Abby columns, they use economics to answer questions about love, family, careers, and other domains. He gives advice to a man who gives bad first impressions (give a signal of quality, like giving the girl theatre tickets for a third date with him when they first meet); a student who is too busy with his karate club activities to study (gains from trade: find a weakling to do his homework and beat up the weakling’s enemies); someone looking for missing socks (give up on them: instead, focus on interchangeable parts, and just buy all identical socks); and, in response to someone concerned about inflation and the shrinking size of Mars Bars, points out they are actually a very stable unit of account, with about 20,000 bars buying you a small car for the last 70 years.

This is classic pop economics, freakonomics-style. It takes the insights of economics, particularly signalling, screening, and trade, and applies them to problems outside economics’ traditional gaze. I’m not sure I’d take the advice myself, but the columns are entertaining and well written: you could do worse if you’re trying to learn some microeconomics for yourself, or if you’re a student taking microeconomics. After all, how many other opportunities will you have to make economics fun? Overall, a great romp through the insights of economics, applied to everyday problems.
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on 31 August 2011
The strength of this book is twofold: first, each letter I short and can be read when you have five minutes to spare. The second is as an illustration of the variety of issues it is possible to apply economic theory. For those who have never had theoretical economic training, or found it to be too abstract, this book presents many concepts with an entertaining twist. To enjoy the book, one has to accept the premise of the answers, namely that Harford will use economics to answer the question, regardless of how suited the framework may, or may not be.
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on 28 November 2009
The Dear Economist column provides a fascinating insight into how economics can be useful in our daily lives. Tempered with wit, this collection of letters will open your eyes to aspects of daily life that you often ignore. There's a lot of good advice in there too!
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on 5 September 2009
This is a witty and light-hearted book which almost anyone could get plenty from. The agony-uncle persona of the Undercover Economist is a great device for coming at everyday aspects of life in a new and thought-provoking way. It's a perfect present for a huge range of people.
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on 26 February 2011
A fantastic book for anyone who enjoys reading Harford and for anyone who wants a book with some economic theory but not to much theory. The book is a collection of letters and responses sent to Harford's column "Dear Undercover Economist" in the FT. The chapters are built according to topic of letter - love life and dating, family life, career and etc. Some of Harford's replies to his writers are hilarious when looking at the question posed to him (especially in the dating and love life section). The questions raised to Harford by his readership- worldwide and of all ages, show us how economic rules can be applied to all walks of life and hence the important role that economics considerations and models play in our life, even if we do our best to ignore it. Like physics and biology in the natural world - economics exists everywhere in the social world, there is no escaping from it - so best to read and learn about it, and Harford proves yet again what a good economic sage he is.
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