Economics joke of the day: the kindness of Milton Friedman

“. . . It isn’t axiomatic in economics that people are relentlessly selfish. . . . Everybody agrees that money isn’t everything. Even Milton Friedman used to be kind to animals and give money to charity.”

That’s from Ken Binmore’s Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction, which I like for its British cheek and dislike because I wish it had more detail.

The Logic of Life and Tim Harford in Seattle

Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life is another book intended at least in part to capitalize on the success of Freakonomics, which has sold a bazillion copies and been translated into numerous languages (I saw its distinctive cover in Hebrew). Economics are at work: one thing sells, people realize that previously unrealized demand exists, and then rush into the market. “Rush” is a relative term for the publishing industry, as Freakonomics came out in 2005. Since then, you’ve heard the steady beat: Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist hit a few months ago, and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions is due February 19. I’m sure more will follow. The same thing happened with Da Vinci Code clones, and the fantasy section of the bookstore has novels like The Name of the Wind and worse lining itself shelves. Those comparisons aren’t entirely fair: there’ve been poorly executed books about conspiratorial secret societies for a long time, and if I recall correctly Edmund Wilson mocked one in a essay. Although Tolkien has inspired hundreds of thousands of lousy novels about Elves who speak as if coming straight from King Arthur’s Court, he is also partly responsible for His Dark Materials and The Earthsea Trilogy.

Maybe it’s unfair to describe so much of the apparatus around Harford’s book prior to the book itself, but all that digression sets up a point, which is that The Undercover Economist is interesting enough on its merits to check out from the library but not so interesting that it’s worth buying. The largest problem is that much of its content is already available online in one form or another: you can read Harford on his blog, or get similar stories from Marginal Revolution (Tyler Cowen, its author, also wrote Discover Your Inner Economist), or go back to Freakonomics or its blog. Plus there’s Steven Landsburg’s More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics and Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas. So we have three blogs and five books with overlapping content. The blog components are free: you don’t have to be an economist to begin asking the question, “If I’m interested in the subject, why am I buying the book?” A few days ago, Slate posted a Harford article called Amazing Racism that covers similar ground to “Chapter Six: The Dangers of Rational Racism.” Marginal Revolution is hosting a discussion on The Logic of Life, which you can read about here and here, for example. The combination of Harford’s website, Marginal Revolution, and Freakonomics don’t complement The Logic of Life—they substitute for it.

Overall, The Logic of Life is enjoyable enough but never mind-blowing, as something like A Farewell to Alms was—it reoriented the way I perceive aspects of the world. The Logic of Life just piled on the econ-for-dummies stack. Harford is a good writer but his style—pithy, and scattered, yoking together concepts like metaphysical poets but without their artistry—is better suited for the magazines and newspapers he usually publishes in than he is for a book. The magazine and newspaper articles are naturally short, pithy, and to the point, and Hardford is often very funny when he doesn’t have to extend humor that works well in 800 words to a book of more than 40,000. The book feels more like a series of blog posts than a book, which is yet another reason to read the econ blogs, because its chapters are held together only by the tenuous thread of finding something that appears “irrational” and then showing how it makes more sense than it might first appear. As an introduction to some aspects of game theory it’s okay, but the feeling of disjointedness persists even within sections: in Chapter Two: Las Vegas: The Edge of Reason, the narrative skips from a Las Vegas hotel dateline to a discussion of the history of math and game theory to Camp David in September 1961 to Thomas Schelling more generally. Yet those individuals threads aren’t fully developed and don’t come together well.

The two great heroes of this book are Thomas Schelling and Gary Becker. The latter has a blog whose general tone is modeled on the Congressional Budget Office annual report and both are Nobel Laureates. They both also blurb the book, as does Tyler Cowen and Stephen Dubner who co-wrote Freakonomics. Suddenly I find myself commenting on the material around the book more than the book itself yet again, but that’s because 1) I can’t escape the feeling of being pulled into a marketing ploy and 2) find the book largely made redundant by other available material. Consequently, I will reiterate that this isn’t a bad book, and it’s lively enough to keep the reader moving from one idea to the next, but it’s also not terribly original in content or in packaging. I mention “packaging” because that’s what the book essentially is: repackaging of academic work for a non-specialist audience. This is undoubtedly a useful service for those who, like me, are unlikely to read economics journals, but it’s not as useful for those who, like me, are likely to read economics blogs for laypeople. In fact, I must have read too many blog entries because I just used the term “laypeople.” Sorry for that, I’ll try not to let it happen again. It’s the sort of thing Harford avoids, but at the cost of depth—and the cost seems too high. The Logic of Life is too simple and the kinds of material it contains too readily available elsewhere to make it a good purchase.

If The Logic of Life does anything really well, it’s in Harford being a cheerleader for an important and too-often-overlooked field. He was a professor, cheerleader, and pub friend at the University Bookstore in Seattle on Jan. 30, where he told stories, acknowledged the weaknesses in trying to see a rational world when ours isn’t always, and questioned his own metaphors. As a speaker he was fun and also speculated that the the econ-for-dummies books I generally like have done well because “people feel like they’re learning something about the world without having to know hard maths.” Note the “s” on “maths”—Harford is British, and made a joke about how he’s been studying America since being here. I asked what he noticed, and he launched into a short and thoughtful response about how our presidential election system is more rational than he first thought because early voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have a great incentive to learn about the candidates, who in turn advise the rest of the country. I wonder if Harford has read The Myth of the Rational Voter. Its content hasn’t been replicated online.

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