Adapt — Tim Harford

Adapt is deep—much deeper than most pop economics books, and deeper than Harford’s last book, The Logic of Life. I can’t really define precisely how—”deeper” is not the sort of thing that lets me compare quotes from one section versus another section. But there’s a sense of inevitability about this book.

Harford describes how Thomas Thwaites, “a post-graduate design student at the Royal College of Art in London,” attempted to make a toaster from scratch. He failed, and not subtly, either. This leads to Harford’s larger observation: “The modern world is mind-bogglingly complicated. Far simpler objects than a toaster involve global supply chains and the coordinated efforts of many individuals, scattered across the world. Many do not even know the final destination of their efforts.” It’s easy to find this alienating, especially if you’re a random paper pusher who manages information and never sees anything tangible that you’ve created. Hence the derogatory term—”paper pusher”—that presumably sets up some kind of binary, with the paper pusher contrasted to, say, a lumberjack, or something. I don’t even know what, other than that the phrase is common.

Yet we exist as paper-pushers and bureaucratic cogs because people will pay for cogs and because if we didn’t, we also wouldn’t have the modern economy. We don’t think about this much, however; as Harford says, “The complexity we have created for ourselves envelops us so completely that, instead of being dizzied, we take it for granted.” Maybe we need to. But we also need an unusual set of skills in such a vast landscape: ones that will let us try new ideas, let them fail or succeed, and then try something else. That’s a top-level view of Harford’s point.

In a blog post, Harford writes:

[. . .] the message of Adapt isn’t really “practice makes perfect,” or even “learn from your mistakes,” at least not as a straightforward self-help cliché. It’s about building systems – whether markets, businesses, governments or armies – that solve complex problems. And it turns out that complex problem-solving usually means experimenting, quickly discovering what works and what doesn’t, and somehow letting what’s working replace what isn’t.

Unfortunately, we often don’t realize how complex problems should be solved, and individual egos often get in the way of those problems. That was the basic issue with Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary: he didn’t accept the need to improvise, which appears to be getting more important over time, not less. This also sounds similar to the subject of Nassim Taleb’s next book, Antifragility: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand.

Or consider this passage from Adapt, which should make us humbler about the large political problems we face and how we can solve them:

We badly need to believe in the potency of leaders. Our instinctive response, when faced with a complicated challenge, is to look for a leader who will solve it. It wasn’t just Obama: every president is elected after promising to change the way politics works; and almost every president then slumps in the pools as reality starts to bite. This isn’t because we keep electing the wrong leaders. It is because we have an inflated sense of what leadership can achieve in the modern world.

Perhaps we have this instinct because we evolved to operate in small hunter-gatherer groups, solving small hunter-gatherer problems. The societies in which our modern brains developed weren’t modern: they contained a few hundred separate products, rather than ten billion. The challenges such societies faced, however formidable, were simple enough to have been solved by an intelligent, wise, brave leader. They would have been vastly simpler than the challenges facing a newly elected US president.

Notice the key word in the first sentence: “need.” Is it really a need we have to believe in our leaders? At first I wanted to say no, but thinking about all the symbolic capital we invest in our leaders (and actors, and others, especially if those “others” are credentialed) makes me think otherwise. Those needs should make us somewhat uncomfortable, since leaders might not be able to fix as much as they might imagine. This is also an aspect of the “New Jesus” complex, which James Fallows described in the context of David Petraeus becoming the commander of American troops in Iraq. As Fallows says:

Everyone who has ever worked in an office will recognize the idea. The New Jesus is the guy the boss has just brought in to solve the problems that the slackers and idiots already on the staff cannot handle. Of course sooner or later the New Jesus himself turns into a slacker or idiot, and the search for the next Jesus begins.*

We want some Messianic figure to sweep away all our problems. In the real world, that just doesn’t happen, or it very seldom happens. Petraeus was certainly important, but he was also implementing ideas that had percolated around the military for some time—as Harford discusses in his chapter on “Conflict or: How Organisations Learn.” The military is an obvious environment for exploring adaptation, since the consequences of failing to adapt are severe: people die. Blockbuster went under because it couldn’t or wouldn’t compete with Netflix (see here for more), but the consequences mostly happened in terms of shares lost. On the battlefield or in the emergency room, it happens in terms of lives lost. We want a leader to somehow “clean house” or “cut through red tape” to solve problems, but that often doesn’t happen, especially outside secular hagiography. Instead, we need to learn as individuals and organizations how to adapt to circumstances and how to make circumstances adapt to us. Few would disagree with this banal assertion. Many would disagree in a particular circumstance that requires adaptation.

The word “potency” hearkens to the Middle Ages, when the fecundity of the King was linked to the fecundity of the realm, as so many fairy tales hold. Yet we’re still using the same kinds of words to describe leaders today, even when leaders get in trouble for being overly, uh, potent (see, for example, Bill Clinton, or whoever is involved in the scandal du jour).

There’s a recurrent thread of very old ideas and needs running up against modern complexity in this book, although Harford doesn’t discuss such issues directly. But they’re present, if you’re watching for adjectives like “potency” to describe leaders. Or word like “instinct” that contrast with the cool, cerebral mastery we’d like to associate with modern technical accomplishment. Underlying contemporary achievements sit older ideas. When we deny those ideas, we get into trouble. Harford is trying to get us back out.

* For the origins of the New Jesus complex, see this post, also from Fallows.

Why de Botton (and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work)

Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work has two wonderful passages on page 27: the first, concerning ship spotters—or those who watch and log ships coming in and out of a harbor:

They behave like a man who has fallen deeply in love and asks his companion if he might act on his emotions by measuring the distance between her elbow and her shoulder blade.

The ship spotters focus on statistics in large part because statistics can be found more readily than, say, aesthetic theories, or meta ideas about why we like spotting, or statistics, or fountain pens. Why do some of our activities, like ship spotting, dwell in the countable, while others, like love, tend to dwell in most people’s minds in the land of emotion? I say “most people’s mind” because some writers, like Tim Harford in The Logic of Life, have brought game theory to bear on love in the group sense in order to see what one might see.

De Botton has a partial answer:

It seems easier to respond to our enthusiasms by trading in facts than by investigating the more naive question of how and why we have been moved.

He’s right, and I think this is why many book blogs tend pay disproportionate attention to, for example, the publishing industry or a writer’s habit than the works that the industry publishes or that the writer writes. It’s simply easier, to steal de Botton’s accurate word, to deal with systematic issues than to analyze why de Botton’s simile of the lover works so well, which at bottom might be simply “because it does,” or an unattractive analysis of how something is both like and unlike something else. Like explaining a joke, such an analysis might render the subject being analyzed dead, and thus no longer worthy of analysis.

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.

Oops, perhaps, and several points on The Logic of Life

* Carrie Frye quotes Neil Gaiman, who writes: “I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don’t Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre.” I try not to but occasionally do, as with The Logic of Life. But maybe Gaiman and Frye are only carving out their rule for fiction, as with nonfiction it seems more appropriate to survey existing work to ascertain whether an author is merely duplicating what already exists. I’m also on the record agreeing with the gist of what they say.

* Two readers wrote to ask in effect why, if I didn’t like the idea behind The Logic of Life, I bought and read it. Several answers:

1) I haven’t read all the econ-for-dummies books I listed and so thought I would still benefit from another one.

2) I didn’t realize the problems with The Logic of Life until after I read it, at which point they became more apparent.

3) Tim Harford was visiting Seattle, and I wanted to have the background for his discussion before he arrived.

4) Some of the chapters are also helpful professionally because some topics Harford discusses are perennials in grant writing.

Without number three, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Number four is probably just a post-purchase justification.

* A friend who edited my post on Logic of Life said apropos of it, “Your beginnings are always very abstruse and hard to follow.” Really?

If I accept the premise that they’re harder-than-some-kind-of-average to follow, I would say that it’s because they often set up important context for what’s to follow. I’ll be more cognizant of this, especially because I began keeping a list a while ago of things reviewers often do that can annoy me. Number one, was, naturally:

1) Reviewing the author’s preceding ouevre before getting to whatever the reviewer is supposed to be reviewing or discussing the genre/similar books more generally. I did it in my discussion of Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers. This is essentially what Frye and and Gaiman were discussing.

2) Developing grand theories: I found myself writing about what makes a good history book when I really wanted to deal with The Pursuit of Glory.

3) Tangentially discuss a book while instead focusing on political or social commentary. This essentially describes The New York Review of Books, to the extent they still write about book, as opposed to galleries, political essays, movies, the universe, pornography, navel gazing etc. And yes, I’m a subscriber.

I’m sure other patterns exist, and I might start pointing out examples as I see them. All three have happened in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, I’m sure.

* Overall, the issue of context for reviews makes me think about why trusted criticism and publishing gatekeepers are so important: you’re more likely to read a book or review about a subject if you have a preexisting indicators that you aren’t wasting your time and that someone has vetted whatever you’re reading. This could be generalized to the chicken-and-egg problem of blogs more generally: you don’t have credibility until you have enough fame to generate credibility.

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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