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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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