The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: by far the worst thing about it is the title

Tim Harford's book reviewed.

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
Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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