The Undercover Economist

I finished Tim Harford’s book The Undercover Economist the other day. If you’re running an introductory economics course, and looking to set a text explaining how economists think, and how the profession views coffee prices, the value of a statistical life, stock market fluctuations, and world trade, this one would be top of my list.

By contrast, Levitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics is terrific fun, but a bit removed from mainstream economics by dint of its quirkiness, and Landsburg’s The Armchair Economist is now 13 years old, and beginning to show its age.

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6 Responses to The Undercover Economist

  1. Mark Davis says:

    Andrew

    David Warsh has posted an interesting explanation of the success of Freakonomics (http://www.economicprincipals.com/issues/06.10.29.html).
    He concludes that while Freakonomics doesn’t deliver learning in any depth it is “a remarkable evocation of the excitement of being smart, young and on a roll; of the power of economic methods, too … The book, then, is ‘CSI: Economics’ in the manner of the current hit series on US network television, in which sexy Crime Scene Investigation specialists reveal their clever secrets week after week.”

    But like you he concludes that Harford’s book is a better teaching tool: “a veritable microeconomics textbook.”

  2. Steve Edney says:

    I must say I learnt heaps from the undercover economist, whereas freakanomics was more or less novelty stats book. Interesting enough but not actually teaching you anything much about economics.

    I’ve been recommening UE to anyone who wants to understand a bit about economics and the thinking behind it.

  3. Sacha says:

    I really enjoyed Harford’s book and can thoroughly recommend it to anyone as such.

  4. The Undercover Economist is the best intro to economic thinking I’ve seen.

    Freakonomics was enjoyable but it wasn’t really about economics.
    All good researchers or planners and thinkers and managers ask the kind of awkward or counter-intuitive questions and look for data in a way that the Freak people do.

    I’ve noticed that Economists often stumble upon issues or theories and think they have invented it and call it economics but they neglect to see that others, psychologists, sociologists, epidemiologists, even politicians, and so on have been dealing with the same issues for decades and coming up with similar answers.

    What is it about the hubris of economists?

  5. Christine says:

    I suspect other fields do it too, FXH – I’ve certainly seen some criminology, sociology and politics that ignores any contributions in economics. I think that’s just bad research, really, though admittedly you just can’t reference everything in a paper, even if you have read it. And I suspect if you reference lots of sociology papers in an article you want published in an economics journal, you would reduce your chances of publication.

    A book titled ‘Economics is Everywhere’ by Daniel Hammermesh landed on my desk the other day. Seems to be a mostly micro textbook with addition of “vignettes inspired by everyday events from news articles, films, family and popular culture”. An example from back blurb is: “Some private universities are putting cemeteries next to their buildings and selling off plots to alumni. How should the elasticity of demand and the opportunity cost of the land affect the price of the burial plots?”

    Haven’t read it yet, but am inclined to think well of it given the author.

  6. Hamer’s Economics is Everywhere is a great book, but it more a supplement to a textbook rather than a primary textbook. For what it is worth, my own recommendations for micro textbooks can be found here:

    http://economicsgeek.blogspot.com/2006/10/so-you-want-to-learn-some.html .

    As an aside, my recommendations for game theory textbooks can be found here:

    http://economicsgeek.blogspot.com/2006/10/so-you-want-to-learn-some-game-theory.html .

    Disclosure: I was taught by Prof Hamermesh and TAed for him for one semester.

    Regards,

    Damien.

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