Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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Autumnal reading

Some exciting books coming along soon. I urge you to buy David Bodanis’s new book Einstein’s Greatest Mistake. (US) (UK) I read it in an earlier draft and it’s a wonderful, fresh and readable take on one of the most fascinating lives in science.

Later in the autumn, Steven Johnson launches Wonderland (US) (UK) – a book about how play shaped the modern world. Bravo for the concept, Johnson’s previous books are smart and thought-provoking and the associated podcast series has been great so far.

Alex Bellos offers us Can You Solve My Problems? – self-recommending for Christmas. Alex’s puzzles in the Guardian have been delightful and he’s a terrific writer. (US) (UK)

Hannah Fry and Thomas Evans, also self-recommending for Christmas, give us the mathematics of the season with The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus (US) (UK)

If you can’t wait for any of them, try Adam Grant’s Originals (US) (UK) – the TED talk gives a good sense of the book, which is excellent.

Finally, I should perhaps mention that my own book, Messy (US) (UK), is coming soon. More details here.

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15th of September, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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Some good books

I recently re-read Marc Levinson’s modern classic, “The Box” (US) (UK) – a history of how the shipping container made the modern world. Scholarly yet very readable. Levinson has a new book “An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy”. (US) (UK)

As a not-very-good photographer married to a very good photographer, I’ve been loving “Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus”. (US) (UK) Witty and accessible guide to modern photography.

A wholehearted recommendation for my colleague John Kay’s “Other People’s Money”. (US) (UK) John is trying to imagine what banking and finance would look like if we had the chance to redesign from scratch. This is a wise and witty book – angry too, as only someone who truly understands what’s going on can be angry. Strongly recommended.

Ed Yong’s brilliant debut “I Contain Multitudes” (US) (UK) will tell you all you need to know about the microbiome and all that jazz.

Then there’s Peter Sims’s “Little Bets” (US) (UK) – a book that was published about the same time as “Adapt” with the same philosophy, but some different and brilliant examples and case studies. I remember distinctly reading through it and thinking “exactly right!” and “I wish I’d put it like that…”

And if that’s not enough for you, you could always pre-order my new book, “Messy“. (US) (UK) More about that to follow soon…

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30th of August, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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Summer reading 2016

A few recent recommendations – and old favourites.

CityAM asked me to recommend an economics book – any economics book. So I went for “Thinking Strategically” (UK) (US), which is an all-time favourite of mine.

I wrote, “It’s the book that first attracted me to economics and one that I find myself recommending over and over again. Thinking Strategically is a guide to using game theory to succeed in business and in life. And what is game theory? Game theory was devised by the economist Oskar Morgenstern and John von Neumann, one of the great mathematical geniuses of the twentieth century. It’s a way of thinking through problems where you are competing or cooperating with others: how should Andy Murray decide whether to serve to the backhand or forehand? Where should you try to rendezvous in New York if you’ve lost your friend and your phone is out of battery? When faced with a competitor, should you raise your prices or lower them? Dixit and Nalebuff produced a fun and fascinating guide to a fun and fascinating topic.”

If you want to know more about Von Neumann and the history of game theory, you could do much worse than William Poundstone’s excellent book, “Prisoner’s Dilemma” (UK) (US). (Poundstone has a new book out, “Head in the Cloud” (UK) (US).)

I enjoyed Manu Saadia’s “Trekonomics”, but would have enjoyed it more if I was really into Star Trek. It’s smart but I think it’s best suited to real Trekkies who want to learn new economics, rather than economists who want to learn about Star Trek. (UK) (US)

I read a lot of books about improvisation while researching my new book “Messy“. There’s Keith Johnstone’s classic, “Impro” (UK) (US) but the book I enjoyed the most was Patricia Ryan Madison’s short, simple and wise “Improv Wisdom” (UK) (US). If you’ve any interest at all, try them both.

Finally, a boardgame recommendation: “Thunderbirds” (UK) (US). Great cooperative game, by the designer of and inspired by Pandemic. But of course it’s better, because it has Thunderbird Two in it.

Or if you fancy reading one of my books, try The Logic of Life.

 

 

 

13th of August, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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What I’ve been reading in June

In between all that Brexit, I’ve read some cracking books of late.

TED Talks by Chris Anderson. I wrote a piece about the book here; as a person who devours books about public speaking, this is by far the best I’ve seen. Bravo. (US) (UK)

The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton. (US) (UK) Fascinating take on the history of technology, pointing out that the innovations that make the headlines aren’t necessarily the ones that really make a difference. All hail to concrete and the bicycle!

On a similar topic but a more upbeat vein, How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson is jolly good. Much I did not know here. (US) (UK)

Other People’s Money by John Kay is a magnificent book – witty, penetrating and wise. All about the gap between what the financial sector does and what it could and should do – but by someone who really understand the sector in some depth. (US) (UK)

Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. (US) (UK) This one is very good too: using computer science to help understand how to get a date, how to sort a bookshelf, how to find an apartment, how to tidy your desk, etc. etc. You learn a lot about computer science and a fair bit of self-help too. It’s not quite as good as Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human (US) (UK) but since that’s perhaps the best book I’ve read all decade, no big deal.

Or if you fancy reading one of my books, I’m rather proud of The Undercover Economist Strikes Back.

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11th of July, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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What I’ve been reading in May

Angela Duckworth’s new book Grit (US) (UK) – you can read some of my thoughts here. Enjoyable, but not the best book I read this month; if you liked the TED talk you’ll like the book.

Felix Martin’s superb book Money (US) (UK) – some wonderful stories about the evolution of key pieces of financial technology from the tally stick to international banking. A surprisingly light read for a learned book. Strongly recommend.

Equally strong recommendation for William Goetzmann’s Money Changes Everything (US) (UK) – this is a more technical history of finance from Uruk to Rome and beyond. Smaller print, heavier read, but still full of fascinating nuggets and extremely well researched.

I’ve been enjoying Will Gompertz’s Think Like an Artist (US) (UK) which teaches you a lot of art and art history under the guise of a self-help manual. Very nicely done.

Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters (US) (UK) is a clever reflection on material sciences. I loved the chapter on concrete, which tells you something about his lightness of touch.

Next on the pile, Robert Gordon’s magisterial The Rise and Fall of American Growth. (US) (UK) Self-recommending; I’ve not read it yet but must hasten.

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28th of May, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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What I’ve been reading in April

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman.  A short book arguing in favour of a universal basic income (and a few other things, but the UBI stuff is easily the most interesting). I’m not totally convinced by the proposal – the arithmetic of a UBI calls for some painful choices – but it’s an excellent read and full of well-told stories and details I didn’t know. (UK) (US)

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton – re-reading my favourite de Botton book. A fascinating and original reflection on how and why we travel – and whether we might find what we seek closer to home. (UK) (US)

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. A practical guide to living a creative life, by a brilliant, driven and entrepreneurial choreographer. I love the story of Twyla’s near-disastrous collaboration with Billy Joel, and often retell the story myself. (UK) (US)

You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney – a fun guide to cognitive errors and logical fallacies. I’ve been adoring the podcast of the same name. (UK) (US)

Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel. Okay, here’s the deal: everyone I know in radio is reading this book to learn how to be the next Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad or Roman Mars. And it’s good – very good. (UK) (US)

Or you may fancy one of my own books – for example, Adapt.

 

25th of April, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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Three pieces of Brexit Bullshit

A referendum on UK membership of the European Union is scheduled for June 23: dodgy statistics ahoy.

“Ten Commandments — 179 words. Gettysburg address — 286 words. US Declaration of Independence — 1,300 words. EU regulations on the sale of cabbage — 26,911 words”

Variants of this claim have been circulating online and in print. It turns out that the “cabbage memo” is a longstanding urban myth that can be traced back to the US during the second world war. Variants have been used to berate bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic ever since.

Part of the bullshit here is that nobody ever stops to ask how many words might be appropriate for rules on fresh produce. Red Tractor Assurance, the British farm and food standards scheme, publishes 56 different protocols on fresh produce alone. The cabbage protocol is 28 pages long; there is a separate 28-page protocol on pak choi and choi sum. None of this has anything to do with the EU.

Three million jobs depend on the EU

This claim is popular among “Remain” advocates — most famously the former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. What makes this claim bullshit is that it could easily be true, or utterly false, and it all hangs on the definition of “depend”.

The claim is that “up to 3.2 million jobs” were directly linked to exports of goods and services to other EU countries. That number passes a quick reality check: it’s about 10 per cent of UK jobs, and UK exports to the EU are about 10 per cent of the UK economy.

But even if “up to” 3.2 million jobs depend on trade with the EU, that does not mean they depend on membership of the EU. Nobody proposes — or expects — that trade with the EU will just stop. Three million jobs might well be destroyed if continental Europe was to sink beneath the waves like Atlantis, but that is not what the referendum is about.

EU membership costs £55m a day

This one is from Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who says membership amounts to more than £20bn a year. In fact, the UK paid £14.3bn to the EU in 2014 and got £6bn back. The net membership fee, then, was £8.3bn, less than half Farage’s number.

But even the correct number is little use without context. It is, for example, just over 1 per cent of UK public spending. Not nothing, but not everything either. And non-member states such as Norway and Switzerland pay large sums to the EU to retain access to the single market, so Brexit would not make this bill disappear.

The membership fee is small relative to the plausible costs and benefits of EU membership, positive or negative. If EU membership is good for Britain then £8.3bn is cheap. And if the EU is holding Britain back, then a few billion on membership is the least of our worries.

 

Written as a sidebar for “How Politicians Poisoned Statistics“, and first published in the FT Magazine.

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16th of April, 2016MarginaliaOther WritingComments off
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What I’ve been reading in March

Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis – a remarkable short novel about a mysterious uncle who tries to solve a great mathematical mystery. Apparently he failed – or did he? What does “failure” look like? A lovely book about how we make the big choices in life. (Also, you’ll learn some maths.) (UK) (US)

Getting Organised in the Google Era by Douglas Merrill. Good sense about how to use email, calendars, cloud backups etc. Personally I didn’t learn that much from this book, but only because I’m already following much of the advice. I think Merrill knows his stuff. This book is a few years old now (2011) so some of the specific topics about software are dated. Still, recommended. (UK) (US)

Logicomix by Doxiadis and Papadimitriou. How did I not know that this book existed? It’s a masterpiece – a graphic novel about logic, mathematics and the life of Bertrand Russell. I learned a lot even though this is an area I’ve studied. The art is excellent and so is the storytelling. Way, way above the usual “Comic Book Guide to XXX” format – a great achievement. (UK) (US)

Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan. Wheelan wrote the excellent “Naked Economics” (UK) (US) – he really knows his stuff and is a witty writer. Excellent. (UK) (US)

And if you’re in the mood for reading, there’s always my latest: The Undercover Economist Strikes Back.

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4th of April, 2016MarginaliaComments off
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The five best economics podcasts of 2016

It’s been a while since I revisited my list of the best economics podcasts. Here are my current top five.

  1. NPR’s Planet Money remains the very best economics podcast out there. Great production values, very creative, serious economics topics treated with a light touch. The team also produced the superb economics documentary, The Invention of Money.
  2. A new entrant on my list, the FT’s Alphachat podcast is a smart, well-informed and economically literate discussion of the economics and finance news of the week. (Disclosure: I’m employed by the FT so have a clear bias. But I don’t know the Alphachat crew, who are based in New York.)
  3. Freakonomics Radio remains a firm favourite. Stephen Dubner’s relentless curiosity keeps us rolling along, with a variety of serious topics (how can we fix education, or close the gender pay gap?) and the lighter stuff (can economics help us understand what makes a suspenseful screenplay?).
  4. If you like Alphachat, you’ll love Slate Money, presented by Felix Salmon with Cathy O’Neil and Jordan Weissmann. Imagine Alphachat, but everyone’s had a glass of pinot noir before they started, and you get the idea. Feisty yet highly intelligent.
  5.  If you’re more of a behavioural economics fan, try The Hidden Brain with Shankar Vedantam, featuring Daniel Pink. Recent episodes included a live show with Richard Thaler.

 

 

I’m a big podcast fan so let me give a shout out to a few others, including my own program More or Less, a weekly guide to the numbers that surround us – and the thirteen short episodes of Pop Up Economics, mostly by me but also featuring guests including Gillian Tett and Malcolm Gladwell.

 

Russ Roberts’s EconTalk is pure economics: Russ, a professor at George Mason University, has strong views of his own – he’s a Hayek man through and through – but brings on a wide range of guests and gives them a sympathetic hearing. Some great recent conversations with the excellent young blowhard Noah Smith and with Nobel laureate Jim Heckman.

Radio 4’s Analysis often covers economics topics, as does Peter Day’s World of Business (in depth, on location) and Evan Davis’s The Bottom Line (studio discussion with business leaders).

The London School of Economics has a stellar collection of speakers and releases many events as podcasts.

The FT produces a range of podcasts but I particularly enjoy the FT Money Show and World Weekly.

Finally, in the hidden gems category, check out No Such Thing As A Fish, and Futility Closet – both addictive podcasts that have nothing whatsoever to do with economics.

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2nd of February, 2016MarginaliaRadioComments off
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AIB Award for Radio Journalism 2015

I’ve just been told that the BBC World Service has won this year’s Association for International Broadcasting Radio Journalism award for its coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A live special I presented with Solomon Mugera, featuring Hans Rosling and Margaret Lamunu and produced by Ruth Alexander, was singled out for praise. The World Service richly deserves the award and I’m delighted to have made a contribution.

7th of November, 2015MarginaliaComments off
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