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
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.