Tyler Cowen, Bad Religion, and contemporary religious practice

Tyler Cowen writes about Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion and as usual shows a lot of acumen in a small space; consider:

My main question is what could have become of most organized religion in an era of newly found television penetration — a competing source of ideas about right and wrong — and the birth control pill and sexual liberation of women? Not to mention gay rights. The recent evolution of American religion may not be optimal, but it is endogenous to some fairly fundamental forces. Non-religious thinking seems to offer especially high returns to successful people these days, and while American religion certainly has survived that impact (unlike in the UK?), what is left will seem quite alienating to much of the intelligentsia, Ross included.

For most mainstream religions, for most urban and suburban intellectuals circa 2012, it is hard to live a religiously observant life during the ages of say 17-25. American religion is left with late convert intellectuals and proponents of various enthusiasms, all filtered through the lens of America’s rural-tinged mass culture. Where is the indigenous and recent highbrow Christian culture of the United States?

I left this as a comment: I wonder why a large divergence in American religious signaling (as opposed to actual practice) has opened up, while in Europe pure signaling seems smaller (see, for example, Slate’sWalking Santa, Talking Christ: Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?“, which observes that Americans say they engage in religious practice much more than they actually do, as measured by attendance in religious institutions like churches). The trappings of religion seems to offer benefits to some people, especially the non-intelligentsia, even when religious doctrine is unimportant. The only popular media representation of this sort of thing I can remember is in Friday Night Lights, where many of the characters go to church but aren’t theologically inclined.

In other religious news, I’ve been reading John Updike’s novels, and the way many of his characters are aware of each others’s church affiliation is striking (such and such is a Methodist, such and such is an Episcopalian) because a) I don’t think that way, b) I don’t even know the major differences among Christian sects, save for Catholics, and c) to Updike’s characters this is important, but mostly as a form of group membership. The status markers are religious in nature. This gives many of his novels an old-fashioned tinge; in my own mind or culture, people get divided into “hard-core religious” and “not,” with more people in the “not” category, even when they claim they are. Religious signaling might increasingly be a matter of convenience, in which one adopts religious trappings when they’re useful and discards them when they’re not (especially sexually).

For liberals / people in the intelligentsia (those two groups are not synonymous), I get the sense that college or academic affiliation is the modern secular equivalent. You build group affiliation based on college instead of your brand of Christianity / Judaism / Islam. Incidentally, Updike also gets the power of movies to take over religious beliefs: they are sprinkled throughout In the Beauty of the Lilies, which is often boring and over-written; it should be half as long, though as always there are beautiful individual sentences. It is hard to accept the more retrograde parts of older religions when they are paired against modern narrative experts, especially modern visual narrative experts who make TV shows and movies.

In general I find religious discussions very boring but sometimes like meta-religious discussions about why people are religious. I’ve been citing him a lot lately, but Jonathan Haidt is very good on this subject in The Righteous Mind.

Alex Tabarrok's Launching The Innovation Renaissance and what normal people should do about interest group accretion

In Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance, I noticed his discussion of regulatory thickets* and patents, both of which are real but hidden problems of the kind that accumulate in democracies, like free radicals in the body. But there’s not an obvious way for random people to do anything, which led me to ask Tabarrok directly:

I have a question about Mancur Olson [if you’re interested, see The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities] and interest group accretion: what, if anything, could and/or should normal people do about it? If normal people are worried about free speech, they can put their money where their online complaints are and join the ACLU or EFF, but I don’t see any obvious parallel for the accretion of interest groups. Is there an anti-interest group interest group out there?

The ACLU / Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) model is an obvious one to me because a lot of people online complain about things like the police abuse of photographers and the patent system. Complaining online is better than doing nothing, but it’s even more helpful to support interest groups that are trying to preserve freedom in the face of growing state power. I get the sense that relatively few people move from the “complaining” to “doing” stage.

Tabarrok replied:

Excellent question. Unfortunately, Olson isn’t too helpful on this score as he says one of the few times the interest groups are cleared is after losing a terrible war! I am hopeful that as we see other countries such as China and India leaping forward that we will clean our house. Not much of any answer, I know. We have to develop a base that supports innovation even when we don’t know what innovation will bring.

It seems like a lot of large-scale, serious problems do not have simple or obvious solutions. Reading Launching the Innovation Renaissance helps at the margin—Tabarrok is after all the co-writer of Marginal Revolution—but I am also looking for space to expand that margin, which inspired the question.


* Example: “The problem is that building even a small hydro-electric project requires the approval of numerous agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, State Environmental Departments and State Historic Preservation Departments. It’s simply too expensive, time-consuming and risky to build these projects when any of these agencies could veto the project at any time.”

Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance and what normal people should do about interest group accretion

In Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance, I noticed his discussion of regulatory thickets* and patents, both of which are real but hidden problems of the kind that accumulate in democracies, like free radicals in the body. But there’s not an obvious way for random people to do anything, which led me to ask Tabarrok directly:

I have a question about Mancur Olson [if you’re interested, see The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities] and interest group accretion: what, if anything, could and/or should normal people do about it? If normal people are worried about free speech, they can put their money where their online complaints are and join the ACLU or EFF, but I don’t see any obvious parallel for the accretion of interest groups. Is there an anti-interest group interest group out there?

The ACLU / Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) model is an obvious one to me because a lot of people online complain about things like the police abuse of photographers and the patent system. Complaining online is better than doing nothing, but it’s even more helpful to support interest groups that are trying to preserve freedom in the face of growing state power. I get the sense that relatively few people move from the “complaining” to “doing” stage.

Tabarrok replied:

Excellent question. Unfortunately, Olson isn’t too helpful on this score as he says one of the few times the interest groups are cleared is after losing a terrible war! I am hopeful that as we see other countries such as China and India leaping forward that we will clean our house. Not much of any answer, I know. We have to develop a base that supports innovation even when we don’t know what innovation will bring.

It seems like a lot of large-scale, serious problems do not have simple or obvious solutions. Reading Launching the Innovation Renaissance helps at the margin—Tabarrok is after all the co-writer of Marginal Revolution—but I am also looking for space to expand that margin, which inspired the question.


* Example: “The problem is that building even a small hydro-electric project requires the approval of numerous agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, State Environmental Departments and State Historic Preservation Departments. It’s simply too expensive, time-consuming and risky to build these projects when any of these agencies could veto the project at any time.”

What success looks like: A link from Dave Winer of Scripting News

I’ve been reading Dave Winer’s blog Scripting News since long before I’d heard the word “blog.” Scripting News been covered in Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters and countless other profiles as one of the early examples of a blog. Imagine my delight when:

Yes, that’s a link my post on the sad and stupid demise of Flip at the hands of Cisco. I wouldn’t call Winer’s Retweet “a dream come true” or any other phrase that should be reserved for acts of extreme achievement or copulation (which can sometimes be an extreme achievement), but it’s certainly gratifying—like getting e-mails or comments from writers and critics I admire.

Now I only need a link from Marginal Revolution and my blogging life will be, if not complete, then at least substantially more satisfying than it might be otherwise.

Institutional hypocrisy enabled by wealth, part 2, gambling edition

My comment from July 18 regarding Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition:

[…] hypocrisy regarding victimless crimes is a luxury good. It can be indulged when a society has sufficient wealth that it can afford to be hypocritical, signaling that its members want to be perceived as virtuous even when many of them as individuals would prefer to indulge in alcohol, other drugs, or sex-for-money.

Today’s New York Times:

With pressure mounting on the federal government to find new revenues, Congress is considering legalizing, and taxing, an activity it banned just four years ago: Internet gambling.

Lesson: moralizing is a vice enabled by excess wealth. Now that our societal wealth is not quite so vast, maybe we’ll consider lowering the prison population; as the Economist wrote, America locks up too many people, some for acts that should not even be criminal.

Releasing some of them would be morally justified, as the Economist makes clear, and probably economically rational. This assumes such people are not Zero marginal product workers, as Tyler Cowen discusses at the link. Such an assumption might be too large to be sustained; I can’t evaluate the arguments about zero marginal product workers very well.

Tyler Cowen's political (and general) wisdom

“[…] we are accustomed to judging the truth of a claim by the moral status of the group making the claim.”

That’s Tyler Cowen speaking of “Climategate” in his post “The limits of good vs. evil thinking.” Normally I would put something like this in a links post, but “The limits of good vs. evil thinking” is so good that I’m emphasizing it with an independent post.

The major problem is that sometimes people we perceive as morally palatable can make untruthful or not optimally useful claims, while the opposite—people we perceive as morally unpalatable can make truthful or optimally useful claims—can also occur. Notice that I’m intentionally not providing examples of either phenomenon. As Paul Graham says in the notes to “What You Can’t Say:”

The most extreme of the things you can’t say would be very shocking to most readers. If you doubt that, imagine what people in 1830 would think of our default educated east coast beliefs about, say, premarital sex, homosexuality, or the literal truth of the Bible. We would seem depraved to them. So we should expect that someone who similarly violated our taboos would seem depraved to us.

If I said this kind of thing, it would be like someone doing a cannonball into a swimming pool. Immediately, the essay would be about that, and not about the more general and ultimately more important point.

The more important point is about avoiding ad hominem attacks and being able to consider claims independently of the person making the claims in some circumstances. As Cowen says, this is really hard.

The Logic of Life on Marginal Revolution

I had mixed feelings about Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life, and the Marginal Revolution forum on the book has ended with this post. Among its observations:

But where do “geniuses” come from? Turns out, there is a fascinating literature on creativity and achievement. A few names: R. Keith Sawyer, a sociologist/psychologist, writes eloquently on the emergence of genius from networks and groups. Sociologist Randall Collins wrote a highly regarded book on prominent philosophers showing that “genius level” philosophers tended to be clustered in space and time, suggesting that genius is made possible by very specific kinds of “hot house” situations. Other research, pioneered by Florida State psychologist Anders Ericsson, shows that high level performance isn’t just a matter of talent. It’s also a matter of specific training techniques and immersion in a topic. Basically, it’s not just talent that leads to achievement, it’s also the right kind of social environment.

Fabio Rojas includes three links in that paragraph, but to get them you’ll have to see the MR post.

Predictably Irrational — Dan Ariely

One of the central tenets of economics is that we behave rationally, and yet much of what we see on a day-to-day basis defies rationality like some Modernists defy the conventions of plot. We become irrationally attached to concepts like “free,” even if something else is a better value, and our price preferences are relative: experiments in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational show that we’re willing to forgo what seems to be a better deal just so we don’t have to risk even tiny amounts of money. These tendencies can be manipulated to some extent; Ariely says that the main lesson that could be distilled is that “we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend.” I disagree with the chess metaphor, as it seems to deny us the will and ability we have to learn about the game and not move forward just one square at a time, but the thought it expresses is accurate, and throughout the book I could think of parallel examples to the ones Ariely gives. We don’t see the blindness in others as well as ourselves, and we become attached to prices, things or ideas.

I remember turning 21 and being able to drink legally for the first time and being shocked at the price of going to bars; parties in college and high school usually charged three to five dollars for a cup and as much beer as you could drink. Girls got in free. If the door guy raised the price from three to five, I would try negotiating and sometimes leave. If I came with a group of attractive girls, which wasn’t often, I’d sometimes get in free. In contrast, at bars five dollars only gets you the first beer; to be fair, however, that beer is usually of higher quality than keg beer. Nonetheless, the price increase of an evening out caused much consternation at first, but now I’ve acclimated to the idea that, although Ariely says “[…] first decisions resonate over a long sequence of decisions,” I also use anchoring points in my price expectation continuum. Now paying $15 to $20 at a bar seems normal and $5 at a party would seem cheap. These “anchors” can change over time and with context. If I went to New York or L.A., where trendy bars allegedly now charge $15 a drink, I’d be astonished. When I was a freshman in college and a New York club accidentally gave me a band that allowed me to drink even though I was 18, I was shocked at having to pay $10 per drink and consequently didn’t drink much, even when a 23-year-old girl wanted to get me to buy shots. Buying her shots isn’t a good idea for reasons Richard Feynman goes into in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Nonetheless, I’m wandering far afield from the central point, which is that original decisions about price can resonate powerfully over time and can be hard to change.

Ariely uses Starbucks versus Dunkin’ Donuts as an example: Dunkin’ Donuts coffee was and probably still is much less expensive than Starbucks and, I would argue, not much worse if it is at all, but Starbucks still manages to charge millions of people three or more dollars for various drinks. They can do so in part because they’ve changed expectation through decor, drink names, and the like. “Starbucks did everything in its power […] to make the experience feel different—so different that we would not use the prices at Dunkin’ Donuts as an anchor, but instead would be open to the new anchor that Starbucks was preparing for us.” In other words, Starbucks created a new anchor. This raises fundamental questions about the nature of things like supply and demand—or, as Ariely says, “As our experiments demonstrate, what consumers are willing to pay can easily be manipulated, and this means that consumers don’t in fact have a good handle of their own preferences and the prices they are willing to pay for different goods and experiences.” I agree to some extent, as I didn’t like paying extra money to go to bars and avoided it to the extent I could when I first turned 21, but now all my friends go and they’ve become the new norm. In the land of companies, Apple might be the best example of a company manipulating consumer expectations: only its operating system and industrial design separates it from other manufacturers, and yet it can get away with offering unusual machines and limited, premium product lineup.

I wonder if Ariely has read Trading Up: The New American Luxury, which describes how some companies are trying to harness these price point anchors—and redefine them. One point of Trading Up, however, is that the new or luxury products must have at least some technical advantage of what they replace. Starbucks does: it offered espresso drinks when, to my knowledge, they were not readily available at most places. Not surprisingly, the book also covers Apple and BMW. Apple offers a real technical advantage to me in the form of OS X, but you can’t buy a regular desktop tower and separate monitor. Where Apple does compete it offers hardware at prices similar to competitors, but you can’t get low-cost towers stripped of the computer equivalent of bells and whistles. In addition, this morning Apple released new versions of its MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops. The base-level MacBook is $1,100—or, thanks to Apple’s marketing, $1,099—but comes without a DVD burner, an extra gigabyte (GB) of RAM, and the extra 40 GB hard drive. Its processor is also slower. Given these drawbacks, it makes sense to buy the $1,300 version—but Apple’s website touts that the MacBook starts at $1,099. Yet buying the middle version is better, for resale value if no other reason. In doing so, the company might have differentiated itself enough to set new anchors for many consumers. And we either fall for it or make a rational choice, depending on one’s perspective.

Ariely doesn’t specifically cover Apple because he’s more interested in experiments where you have two things that are absolute equivalents, rather than OS X versus Windows. But I begin to see examples of some of his thinking in the world I see. There are limits to manipulation—I won’t pay $10 for coffee or $2,000 for any computer with the capabilities of a present-day MacBook. But I might pay marginally more for some products, like beer, depending on the setting and my age. In addition, product preferences change; in Ariely’s next chapter, “The cost of zero cost,” he describes how people will often take free even when it appears to be a better value to take money. He offered a $10 Amazon gift certificate for free or a $20 gift certificate for seven dollars. Buying the larger certificate nets more profit, but most people take the free one. To conventional economics, this would seem irrational, but for some people an Amazon gift certificate might not be of as much use as cash; they might not read much, or want to buy DVDs, and the like. In essence, I believe their demand is lower on the demand curve for Amazon products. I would take the $20 certificate because I buy too much from them already. In addition, he describes how Amazon’s free shipping policies can cause people to buy more than they would otherwise to reach the $25 free shipping threshold, but I often will add an extra book to reach it because I always have a backlog waiting. Not all those who act in response to Amazon’s offer act irrationally.

Still, the issues of Amazon gift certificates and free shipping are mostly nitpicks. My bigger question concerns some of his methods for generating data—many of the stories and anecdotes come from experimenting on convenient undergraduates at good Universities, who might not be representatives of the general population. Though he follows up many with experiments elsewhere, I’m still leery of drawing overly broad conclusions based on limited samples. In addition, how reliably can we extrapolate data from a limited number of people in artificial settings and then apply it to the bigger world? Posing the question is much easier than answering it, and to Ariely’s credit he has given us a framework for exploring the issue, while I throw popcorn from the sidelines and offer stories about drinking. But the issues are real, and there’s a perpetual danger of finding a correlation that works only to discover that some other variable drives the correlations or causes experiments to turn out as they do. Will our tendency to cheat and steal more when dealing with abstractions for cash rather than cash itself, as Ariely describes in “The context of our character, Part II,” really scale up to the level of Enron-style fraud? He makes a convincing case, but not one beyond all reasonable doubt, even if I can certainly agree that he meets the lower legal standard of a preponderance of the evidence.

And even if some of his conclusions make you go, “Really?”, his book is still fun to read. The chapters I discussed in-depth were just a small part of Predictably Irrational, and to give every chapter the same treatment would lead to a document almost as long as his book. But maybe I’m inclined to like his book more because Tim Harford recommend it (in addition, Ariely sent me an e-mail about my Harford post, and, as often happens with famous authors, I have a slight tendency towards being star-struck. But I can also admit that, perhaps alleviating some of its effects). In “The effect of expectations,” he describes experiments that show “When we believe beforehand that something will be good, therefore, it generally will be good—and when we think it will be bad, it will be bad.” He finds the influences go deep, and that signaling that an experience will be good can often make it good. Compare this, however, to Chris Matthews’ advice that one was better served by setting expectations low and exceeding them than setting them high and missing, even if the ultimate result was the same. He discussed politics, however, and Ariely is describing, well, something more domestic and more grand at the same time. I feel like there is a way to reconcile the views even if I have not found it yet, and it might speak to the depth of both writers that I have not been able to (incidentally, you should read Mattews’ Hardball).

Harford’s signal that this book will be good has an impact on the pleasure I derive from reading it, and I can’t help comparing The Logic of Life and Predictably Irrational, given their similar subject matter and proximity in both publishing date and my reading. Arguably, Harford is the better writer, with more journalistic zing, but this tendency also gets him into trouble: he jumps without transitions from idea to idea too often, and his chapters seem more loosely linked than Ariely’s. To be sure, both books are similar in that their chapters are more or less independent, but Ariely’s passes what I now call “the blog test” in that its content doesn’t seem to have been replicated on blogs and its form is not necessarily better suited to that medium. The buffet approach in Predictably Irrational by its nature lacks total coherence, but also allows one to skip chapters at will and not lose much. It also makes generalizing about an entire book more difficult, which is why I focused on particular chapters. The largest difference between The Logic of Life and Predictably Irrational is that the former makes the case for logic and rationality in a larger, social, macro sense, while the latter makes the case for irrationality in a smaller, individual, micro sense. And yet I can’t help but wonder if the latter approach supports the former approach, much the same way that the self-interest of capitalism might end up altruistically benefitting society on a large scale, or the way we might not be able to predict how an individual will act but can sometimes guess how large bodies of individuals turn out. Take two people with different SAT scores and you can’t know that one will do better than the other, but take 100,000 people with very different scores and you’ll know that most of the top group will outperform most of the bottom. So too, maybe, with Ariely’s Predictably Irrational on the small scale and Harford’s The Logic of Life on the larger. Both books also have a self-help aspect to them in that if you can understand your own weakness and how others will behave, you’ll be more likely to correct those weaknesses and exploit them in others. Of course, if enough people read both books, then their behavior could change en masse, leading to the books changing what they seek to measure, but this seems unlikely. Ariely knows about the issues with weakness, too: “[…] these results suggest that although almost everyone has problems with procrastination, those who recognize and admit their weakness are in a better position to utilize available tools for precommittment and by doing so, help themselves overcome it.”

Perhaps that is also true of readers of what I call, tongue-in-cheek, econ-for-dummies books.

Many of Ariely’s chapters are structured like this post: they tell a story, conduct an experiment, and then draw more general conclusions. The story could be a personal one from Ariely or drawn from another source. In my case, I tell a story, link it to Ariely’s experiments, and then draw a more general conclusion about his book and methods. Mostly, I suspect his book shows that we don’t really know what we want, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise given all the lonely hearts columns, uncertainty, regret, and the like we collectively experience. As such, it helps us better evaluate what we want and why we act the way we do, and that the book is fun to read helps as well. And it has enough substance to fuel more than 2,000 words of commentary and analysis.

NOTE: Ariely will be in Seattle tomorrow night, and I’ll be at Town Hall to hear him.For more about Ariely and behavioral economics, read What Was I Thinking? The latest reasoning about our irrational ways, an excellent New Yorker article, or this much shorter post on Marginal Revolution. Finally, the Economist’s Free Exchange has a very negative review that I think is wrong, as my comments above should illustrate. Its biggest complaint seems to be that Ariely doesn’t define what he means by rational, but if the writer missed that, I’m not sure he understood the book.For a descriptive but positive view, see The New York Times’ story, which is in the science rather than books section.EDIT: Dan Ariely’s visit was excellent, and I wrote about it here.

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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