Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

Tim Harford, a columnist for the Financial Times, would make a very good economics professor. His book, The Undercover Economist, is essentially a textbook intended to explain various fundamental concepts of the dismal science. But the combination of a lively style and lots of examples from every day life make this one of the best introductions to an academic subject that I've read. In fact, I imagine that many readers will have no idea that they have been introduced to an academic subject, so light is Harford's touch.

He explains why supermarkets make their budget ranges look grottier than they really are. They don't want rich people to buy them. Instead, wealthy customers are steered towards organic, free-range and fair trade products. We learn why free trade is always a good thing and also why most people find the concept so hard to grasp. Harford makes a powerful case for road pricing so that car users pay for the damage they do with each additional mile they drive at rush hour. His 'told-you-so' attitude to the boom is faintly nauseating because he gives little indication he did tell us before it fell apart. But overall, this is one of the books I'd make people read before giving them a licence to vote.

What struck me most about the book, though, was that it takes the triumph of free-market economics completed for granted. There is some stuff in defence of globalisation, but otherwise Harford makes no effort to debunk socialism or even Keynesian demand management. The latter was still part of the accountancy exam syllabus when I sat it in 1994. No more, I expect. For all the sound and fury from Naomi Klein and her ilk, the market really does seem to have swept all before it.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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