Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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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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Society of Business Economists writing prize

I’m delighted to report that the Society of Business Economists has awarded me the  Rybczynski Prize for 2014-15. This is the society’s annual prize for the best economics writing of relevance to a business audience. It”s a great honour.

26th of May, 2015MarginaliaComments off
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Paying to Get Inside A Restaurant

Me, writing in May’s edition of The Atlantic:

The next time you’re fortunate enough to have dinner at a high-end restaurant, take a moment to enjoy not only the food and wine, but the frisson of a really good puzzle: Why do restaurants price things the way they do?

The markup on food makes sense. It takes time and skill to prepare the perfect cold-smoked salmon with balsamic-vinegar sorbet. But why are the wine prices so inflated? How hard can it be to pop open a bottle? Meanwhile, restroom access is free and unlimited for customers—a curious cross-subsidy.

Most mysterious of all: When reservations at hot new restaurants are so sought-after, why are they simply given away?

Why indeed? The full article is here and free to read online.

23rd of April, 2015MarginaliaOther WritingComments off
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Some upcoming talks

A few talks coming up – please contact event organisers for details if you would like to come:

3 Feb 2015: PPE Society, Oxford

5 Feb 2015: London School of Economics: “How to See Into The Future”

25 Feb 2015: I interview Alastair Campbell and Lord Browne: http://event.ft-live.com/ehome/index.php?eventid=116062&

10 March 2015: Queen Mary University of London (tbc)

17 March 2015: Kings College London Economics and Finance Society

23 March 2015 (subject to confirmation): Oxford Literary Festival

27th of January, 2015MarginaliaSpeechesComments off
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Economics commentator of the Year

Yesterday I was named Economics Commentator of the Year. That feels jolly grown up, especially given the splendid people on the short-list and the list of previous winners. I’ll enjoy it, though! (A list of other comment award winners is here.)

26th of November, 2014MarginaliaComments off
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“An evening with Tim Harford”

…sounds like the world’s worst date, but in fact I’ll be talking about my book “The Undercover Economist Strikes Back”, which I hope will be a lot more fun.

It’s on 24 April, 6.30pm in central London – full details here.

Prospect Magazine is organising and I am afraid there is a ticket price, but it’s a small venue and there will be drinks laid on. Come along if you like that sort of thing!

If you don’t fancy paying money, here’s a FREE video of me speaking about “How to Prevent Financial Meltdowns”.

10th of April, 2014MarginaliaSpeechesVideoComments off
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  • Messy
  • The Undercover Economist Strikes Back
  • Adapt
  • Dear Undercover Economist
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