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

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.