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Everyman’s economist

Book Review

For those who are still suffering from nightmares about Economics in school, there is a cure. And, not only is it painless, it is downright pleasurable.

WHEN I was in school, I was hopeless at Economics. You’d have better luck making me solve a complex mathematics problem than getting me to read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

“Accidental economist’ Tim Harford relishes challenging conventional wisdom. – Photo by FRANK MO

But Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist and his latest book, The Logic of Life, cured my phobia. After all, who wouldn’t want to know answers to urgent questions like, “Is divorce underrated?” or, more importantly, “Why is your boss overpaid?” Apparently, economics can be entertaining stuff.

“Economics is not just about the study of commercial transactions but about the way we make choices, especially hard choices – choices about voting, crime, alcohol or the response to racial discrimination,” London-based Harford explained via e-mail. (The very busy author typed his response during his “tenth flight in 10 days” as he toured the United States.)

The busy economist

The Undercover Economist made economics a subject everyone can relate to, not just stockbrokers and finance managers. His reader-friendly prose is full of fascinating case studies and characters, and it’s no wonder that the book has been translated into more than 25 languages and has sold above 600,000 copies worldwide.

Besides being the author of a bestseller, Harford is the economics leader writer for Britain’s Financial Times and writes two columns for the paper: the Undercover Economist and Dear Economist, a “problem page” where he uses economics to find an answer to people’s personal problems. (The strangest question he has ever received: “Should I get a bikini wax?”)

Plus, he was a presenter for the BBC show Trust Me, I’m an Economist (and is in talks to do a second TV show) and is currently presenting a BBC radio show called More or Less.

But Harford nearly didn’t become an economist. He tried philosophy but realised that he wasn’t very good at it. Then he discovered that economics was far more enjoyable because “economists will never accept the conventional wisdom”.

Despite his enthusiasm for the subject, Harford had low expectations for The Undercover Economist.

“I didn’t expect it to be published. When it was published, I told myself that if it sold 7,000 copies I would be happy. In 2008 it is likely to pass 700,000 copies,” he says, saying that he was amazed that the book became so popular.

Life and economics

On the heels of the success of Undercover Economist, comes The Logic of Life, a book he had wanted to write for several years.

“Whenever I came across a new idea, research paper, newspaper article, anything that was relevant to the book, I put it in a crate. When the crate was full I got another crate. When I was ready to write, I started by digging my way through the crates to remember my thoughts and inspirations. It was a very important part of the writing process,” he says.