The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: by far the worst thing about it is the title
Tim Harford's book reviewed.
Photograph: Getty Images
Tim Harford is perhaps the best popular economics writer in the world. This is both less and more of an achievement than it sounds: less because he has little in the way of competition for the title and more because the reason there is so little competition is that doing popular economics well is very hard.
There are other economists who write for a wide audience. By far the most prominent is Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate and prolific blogger/columnist for the New York Times. Yet while Krugman might have intended to explain economics to the masses when he started his NYTgig, his column rapidly became highly political and he became a polarising figure. In any case, he doesn’t seem to care much about explaining economics in his columns except in so far as doing so helps him to make a broadly political point (usually that the Republicans are wrong and the Democrats should spend more).
There are also some commentators on economics, foremost among them Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, who play an invaluable role in helping to frame and explain – and sometimes adjudicate – the important debates taking place at the intersection of economics and policy. Wolf is erudite, well sourced and highly influential but to call him “popular” would be pushing things too far. His columns are dense, difficult things, written in large part with an audience of senior policymakers in mind. If you’re already an economics sophisticate, then you can learn a lot from them. If you are not, they will verge on the incomprehensible.
Harford takes a very different tack. He is in many ways most similar to the “two Steves” of Freakonomics – the economist Steven D Levitt and the journalist Stephen J Dubner. The Freakonomics project seeks to make economics accessible, looking at the way that it manifests itself in everyday life and calling out interesting findings from microeconomic literature. The impetus is praiseworthy but the results can be exaggerated, contentious, oversimplified, or just plain sensationalist.
Harford, by contrast, keeps his feet on the ground. He has a breezy writing style and an infectious sense of humour – but he doesn’t let himself go further than a sober, conservative economist would be comfortable going. He’s trustworthy in a way that most other commentators on economics aren’t. He is not particularly interested in political arguments or in imposing his views on others – instead, he just wants to explain, as simply and clearly as possible, the way in which the economics profession as a whole usually looks at the workings of the world.
Harford, like Levitt, is a microeconomist by training and by avocation; he is most comfortable when faced with questions such as: “Why does a return train ticket on British rail cost only £1 more than a single?” Hence his Undercover Economist franchise: the conceit is that he’s an economist spying on the world, explaining things – and answering readers’ questions – in a way that only an economist would.
With The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, however, Harford has taken a leap out of his microeconomic comfort zone. By far the worst thing about it is the title. There is none of the Undercover Economist about this book, unless you include the dialogue style of writing that Harford has perfected in his FT column. And he’s not striking back at anything at all: no entity was attacking him in the first place. Even the subtitle (How to Run – or Ruin – an Economy) is problematic. No one is going to come away from reading this book convinced that they know how to run an economy.
Instead, what Harford has achieved with his new book is nothing less than the holy grail of popular economics. While retaining the accessible style of popular microeconomics, he has managed to explain, with clarity and good humour, the knottiest and most important problems facing the world’s biggest economies today.
He is no fatalist when it comes to macro: it is important; there are things we know are true; there are things we know are false; what we do can and does make a tangible difference to how wealthy and happy we become. He explains these things in an unprecedentedly accessible way, making liberal use of quotations from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dr Strangelove.
By the end of it all, you will understand everything from liquidity traps to the Lucas critique – and your eyes won’t glaze over when reading about such things. Harford has written the “macroeconomics for beginners” book we have all been waiting for; I just wish that it had been published as such, and not as something targeting only Harford’s existing audience.
Felix Salmon is a writer on economics and a Reuters blogger