Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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Six unconventional introductions to economics

My list of five of the best introductions to economics wasn’t exactly the usual suspects, but I wanted to stray a little further off the obvious territory and recommend six books you might want to read to give you an unusual introduction to economics.

A couple of years after the financial crisis I came across Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents (UK) (US). Perrow is a sociologist who became fascinated by particular kinds of system, ones which were “complex” (meaning that consequences of error are unpredictable) and “tightly coupled” (meaning that the consequences unfold quickly and irreversibly). His case studies include terrible accidents such as the Challenger disaster and Chernobyl – hauntingly described – but I increasingly came to realise that economic and financial systems could and should be studied with the same eye.  (For the same reason, I’d also recommend anything by James Reason. (UK) (US).)

Yoram Bauman and Grady Klein’s Cartoon Introduction To Economics (UK) (US) is perfectly conventional in many ways – except that it’s a cartoon, and also pretty funny, as you might expect from Bauman, a stand-up comedian. Good stuff.

Cory Doctorow’s For The Win (UK) (US) made me question whether I shouldn’t be trying to write about economics through fiction. My conclusion so far has been “no”, partly because Doctorow already does it so well. For The Win describes a a struggle between the young protagonists who work inside multiplayer computer games, and Big Business trying to run a cartel. Learn about globalisation, unionisation, virtual gold mining, and enjoy the thrill of the chase too.

James Owen Weatherall’s Physics of Wall Street (UK) (US) is a fine tour of how physicists and mathematicians from Bachelier to Mandelbrot to Jim Simons have tried to understand how markets work – and profit from their understanding. In the dock: economists, for not getting it. Harsh, I feel – but a very interesting and readable book anyway.

If you want to read an account with novelistic qualities that’s a true story, pick up Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (UK) (US). You’ve probably read it anyway, but read it again. He’s a superb writer and he really understands Wall Street.

Finally, I found Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science (UK) (US) simply revolutionised the way I thought about numbers, evidence, and the newspapers. Like Lewis’s book this will be familiar to many of you, but it bears reading again and again.

And one more suggestion; my freewheeling history of technology tells the story of particular inventions or ideas, and uses each one to teach us a lesson about how the economy works. In the US it’s Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy and in the UK, Fifty Things That Made the Modern EconomyEnjoy!

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25th of June, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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The best economics podcasts in 2018

My favourites are:

  1. NPR’s Planet Money remains an outstanding show, with stories, humour, very clear explanations and high production values. But – horrors! – they’ve poached the amazing Cardiff Garcia from the FT, and Cardiff is co-presenting (with Stacey Vanek Smith)…
  2. NPR’s The Indicator which is basically a shorter, chattier version of the same thing. Available daily. Works very well.
  3. A new entry is Tyler Cowen’s Conversations with Tyler. This is so wide-ranging that it barely qualifies as an economics podcast, but it’s a joy to listen to. Tyler’s questioning style is unique and he has a remarkable range of people on the podcast – Martina Navratilova, Charles Mann, Garry Kasparov, Agnes Callard, Matt Levine…
  4. Freakonomics Radio remains a favourite. Stephen Dubner asks questions that others don’t think to ask, slips between serious and silly topics and generally gets a top-notch line-up of interviewees.
  5. Slate Money, presented by Felix Salmon, who is great but still interrupts his (changing crew of) co-hosts a little too too much. Always very smart and sometimes very well informed too.
  6. Behavioural economics enthusiasts should try The Hidden Brain with Shankar Vedantam. Guests have included Daniel Pink, Phil Tetlock, Alison Gopnik, Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman… even me.
  7. Try the Trade Talks podcast with Chad Bown and Soumaya Keynes for a nerdy (but witty) dive into the details of how trade negotiations and agreements work. Ordinarily I would suggest that this might be a little too geeky, but this is a fast-moving subject at the moment, and Bown and Keynes have a light touch, too.
  8. Russ Robert’s EconTalk offers long, searching conversations between Russ and a wide variety of guests, often with interesting books or essays to discuss. The sound quality can be patchy and the tone of the interviews varies a lot depending on whether the subject is the evidence for education, or the importance of meditation. But it’s a very good source of smart ideas.

 

 

Excellent not-quite-economics podcasts include:

  1. Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell
  2. Start Up
  3. Reply All
  4. Radiolab
  5. TED Radio Hour
  6. 99% Invisible
  7. Akimbo
  8. WorkLife
  9. The Digital Human
  10. Stephen Fry’s Great Leap Years

 

 

My employers at the FT have some very fine podcasts at the moment. I particularly recommend:

  1. FT Banking Weekly
  2. FT Money
  3. FT Brexit Unspun

 

 

Then there are MY PODCASTS:

  1.  More or Less, a weekly guide to the numbers that surround us.
  2. Pop Up Economics, mostly by me but also featuring guests including Gillian Tett and Malcolm Gladwell. 13 episodes, currently dormant but enjoy the archive.
  3. 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy – although there are actually 52 episodes. Series 1 is complete, but subscribe and watch this space.

 

That should be plenty to be going on with.

And if you want to make your own podcast, have a listen to some of the recommendations above and grab yourself a microphone (UK) (US). “Out On The Wire” (UK) (US) is a superb guide to how some of the top shows are made.

Previously: Best economics podcasts 2016, Best economics podcasts 2011.

 
My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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5th of June, 2018MarginaliaRadioResourcesComments off
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Speeches in London

In case of interest, I’m giving a talk at the IEA’s “Think IEA” event in London on Saturday 30th June 2018.
I’m speaking at the FT Weekend Festival, also in London, on 8 Sep 2018.
Perhaps I’ll see you there!

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27th of May, 2018MarginaliaSpeechesComments off
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Understanding the wisdom and madness of crowds

James Surowiecki’s modern classic The Wisdom of Crowds (UK) (US) set a very high bar for the field. (Why has James not written another book?) This is one of those books that gets talked about a lot, with the emphasis on the idea that the average opinion of the crowd can be very smart indeed – hence prediction markets, etc. etc. etc. All that is true and interesting, but in fact Surowiecki discusses lots of other situations where a group needs to make a decision and covers groupthink and all that good stuff. In short it is a messier and more complex – and also deeper and more interesting – book than many people realise. Well worth a read, or a re-read.

Then there’s Philip Ball’s superb book Critical Mass (UK) (US) – which really lit my fire when I read it back in 2005. Ball’s book asks what social scientists can learn from ideas in physics and chemistry about how large groups of decision-makers behave. Lots and lots of interesting ideas and good stories. A good alternative, although I do not recall it so vividly, there is Steven Strogatz’s Sync (UK) (US); it has been commercially successful so the wisdom of crowds suggests you might take it seriously.

Michelle Baddaley’s new book Copycats and Contrarians (UK) (US) is a good accessible survey of what different academic disciplines have to say about herding, fashion, group dynamics and all such things. I blurbed the book and said, “‘A wide-ranging cross-disciplinary perspective of why we run with–or avoid–the crowd, and why it matters, from choosing a restaurant in a tourist trap to believing fake news. I learned a lot, and you may too.”

 

Then on the psychology of group decision-making there is Wiser (UK) (US) by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie. I love this book – my favourite by Sunstein, even better than Nudge. Lots of fascinating ideas about polarisation, echo chambers – and plenty of intriguing research.

Or, try Scott Page’s The Diversity Bonus (UK) (US)Page writes with great clarity about complex ideas in algorithms and complexity science, so you’ll learn a lot about those subjects. But the book is also an excellent argument in favour of embracing cognitive diversity in problem-solving teams.

Next up: the always-interesting Francesca Gino has published a brand new book about breaking out of groupthink called Rebel Talent (UK) (US). It’s next on my list to read.

My own book Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World discusses group dynamics and creative friction in the second chapter, and that’s one of the chapters that seems to have struck a chord with readers.

Come for the complex network analysis of the teams which made the best computer games in history, stay for the mind-blowing “Lord of the Flies” research into 10 year old boys at summer camp. The book is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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8th of May, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Understanding Algorithms

You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of algorithms about these days, doing everything from recommending a walking route to figuring out how to beat the world’s best players at Go. But what are they, really, how do they work, and how will they change the world?

I’ve read some excellent books recently on the subject and have a few recommendations.

 

For a fun and memorable discussion of how specific algorithms work (even how you might use them yourself to sort out your sock drawer or find a nice apartment) then try Algorithms to Live By (UK) (US) by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. I enjoyed this book very much, although not quite as much as Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human (UK) (US), which is all about how to have a better conversation, whether you’re a human or a bot. It’s one of my favourite books, ever.

 

On the economic and social implications of artificial intelligence, I strongly recommend Prediction Machines (UK) (US), by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb. Since I wrote “What We Get Wrong About Technology”, I’ve been telling people not to overlook simple, cheap innovations (paper, the shipping container, concrete). Space travel and supercomputers get all the press. Just being cheap doesn’t. But being cheap can transform the world. “Prediction Machines” gratifyingly chimes with this idea: the authors argue that artificial intelligence is best thought of as a way of producing super-cheap predictions; predicting what you might buy, predicting whether a shadow on a scan is cancer, predicting what the Japanese translation of this sentence might be.

Implication 1: good predictions reduce uncertainty, and lots of things we do are a response to uncertainty. For example, freezers (uncertainty about what and when I will want to cook) Airport lounges (uncertainty about how long it will take me to get to the airport means I show up early). AI is therefore bad for airport lounges.

Implication 2: sufficiently good predictions are game-changers. If Amazon’s recommendation engine gets good enough, they can take the risk of shipping me stuff I haven’t yet bought.

Implication 3: “judgement” becomes an important complement to predictions. How bad is a false positive when I predict a fraudulent credit card transaction and annoy my platinum card holder? What about a false positive diagnosis of cancer?

Implication 4: AI rarely replaces an entire human job directly. It tends to replace specific tasks – small slices of what we think of as a job. Reimagining/reengineering workflow will be an important competitive advantage.

As a bonus, the book has lots of good examples and is written clearly. I learned a lot.

 

For a sceptical take on the limits and the toxic side-effects of machine learning, there’s Cathy O’Neil’s passionate, political and very readable Weapons of Math Destruction (UK) (US) or the new book Artificial Unintelligence (UK) (US) by Meredith Broussard, which I have barely skimmed but seems to contain a very good mix of storytelling, history and technical ideas. Promising.

 

 

 

Finally, I’ve been fortunate enough to read the manuscript of Hello World (UK) (US) – out in September – by Hannah Fry. This is really a superb overview: lots of good stories, clear explanations, and it’s wide-ranging. I think if you want a general guide to the new world of data-driven computing you couldn’t do much better than this.

 

 

 

My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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30th of April, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Books to make you feel better about the world

I recently reviewed the excellent Factfulness (UK) (US) by the late Hans Rosling, his son Ola and his daughter-in-law Anna. It’s an absolutely terrific, inspiring, and wise book, which among many other things is likely to make you feel better about the world. This is not because everything is rosy, but because most people’s perceptions of the world are badly skewed by a mixture of outdated ideas, dramatic media stories, and our own instincts to spot the worst and most frightening facts about the world. Hence “Factfulness” is a relaxing condition.

Bravo – everyone should read this book. But there are some others to look out for.

Charles Kenny, in Getting Better (UK) (US), also points to dramatic progress in achieving some (not all) of the goals that really matter, and in showing the connections between economic growth and progress on health, education, freedom and happiness. He also explores what else needs to be done to get the most out of development aid and to make development work for everyone; this is a nice complement to Factfulness, which is more focused on helping people understand the world.

Steven Pinker, in Enlightenment Now (UK) (US) also reviews this progress. But where Pinker differentiates himself is in Better Angels of Our Nature (UK) (US), which even for an optimist like me is surprising in its message that violence, torture and cruelty – measured in a variety of ways – has been in widespread decline for centuries. Well worth your attention, and I found Pinker persuasive in rebutting many of the obvious objections.

Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell (UK) (US) takes a different tack, telling stories of the way people respond to disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina or the Blitz. Solnit argues that the famous “stiff upper lip” is a common response across communities. We scare each other with tales of looting and anarchy, but in fact most communities pull together.

One of the best and most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read – although sadly it did not make me feel as good about the world as the others – is David Mackay’s Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air (UK) (US). David, who died far too young, goes step by step through the way we consume and produce energy, teaching us how to make estimates, what really matters, and what the most promising sustainable energy sources might be. Spoiler alert: sustainable energy will probably involve some very hard choices. Utterly brilliant book and it is available online as a free resource.

I suppose I should mention my own Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy (UK) (US) – although I don’t see the book as making an argument for progress as such, it’s impossible to ponder the list of ideas and inventions, from the contraceptive pill to the cold chain, the S-bend to the light bulb, without feeling grateful for those who went before us. It’s true that barbed wire was a bit of a mixed blessing and leaded petrol was an unmitigated disaster – but still, where would we be without paper, or beautiful beautiful concrete? A French journalist told me that the book put me squarely in the category of optimistic Anglo-Saxons, so there.

 

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23rd of April, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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The past, present and future of banking

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(Business seals; Rishengchang Museum.)

Not long ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Rishengchang in Pingyao – which I tentatively understand to be the oldest “draft” bank in China, allowing merchants to send money across the nation. Pingyao is well worth a visit, if ever happen to be in that part of China. It put me to thinking about some fine histories of money and banking I’ve read in the past few years.

I knew a little about the Chinese system of Feiquan or “flying money” from reading William Goetzmann’s excellent Money Changes Everything (UK) (US), which has a vast trove of material on money and finance in China.

Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy (UK) (US) also described the Chinese inventions of paper, paper money, and forms of banking. I just loved the way that paper money blew Marco Polo’s mind.

For another magisterial take on money and banking, try Felix Martin’s Money: An Unauthorised Biography (UK) (US).  Martin writes deftly and his book, especially the first half of it, is packed with fascinating historical anecdote and colour.

For a take on banking in the great depression, try Lords of Finance (UK) (US) by Liaquat Ahamed. This book won the FT’s Business Book of the Year award a few years back – a riveting account of how the Great Depression could have been prevented, and wasn’t.

And for the present and future of banking, I strong recommend John Kay’s Other People’s Money (UK) (US), which begins with the question: if we were designing a financial system to do what we say a financial system is supposed to do, would it look anything like Wall Street today? (Spoiler: the answer is no.) Kay is an elegant writer, a well-informed historian and a superb economist. This is a terrific book.

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16th of April, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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In praise of Factfulness

“I use normal statistics that are compiled by the World Bank and the United Nations. This is not controversial. These facts are not up for discussion. I am right and you are wrong.”

That was Hans Rosling, delivering a celebrated smackdown  on Danish television to a journalist with an excessively gloomy view of the world. And although the quote displays just one facet of the the late Professor Rosling, it isn’t a bad place to start in considering his posthumous book, Factfulness (UK) (US). Rosling takes something rather ordinary – “normal statistics” – and turns it into a passionate, witty, and encouraging view of the world that also happens to be far more realistic than the “realists” have to offer.

Hans Rosling – perhaps most famous for a series of hugely popular TED talks – was the greatest and most versatile communicator I ever met. He would use spectacular graphics, but also props such as jugs of juice, bayonets (for his sword-swallowing demonstrations) and rolls of toilet paper. He was a magnificent storyteller, an inspiring guide to a complex world, and – when the situation demanded it – could display flashes of righteous anger. He was also much more than a showman: he spent long periods of time living in poorer countries and working for underfunded healthcare systems across the world, most recently participating in the fight against Ebola in Liberia.

Factfulness was co-written with his daughter-in-law Anna and his son Ola, although it is in Hans’s distinctive voice. It is a wonderful guide to an improving world, as well as being a well-stocked source of sound advice as to how to think about factual and statistical claims. The book identifies ten often-unhelpful instincts, such as the Negativity instinct (we, and our media, find sudden bad news more interesting and memorable than slow-burn good news) or the Destiny instinct (we feel that some things never change – that, for example, Nigeria will always be poor for “cultural reasons”, when in fact all societies, including modern western societies, are constantly learning and changing). And it suggests antidotes or reality checks for these instincts.

This structure works well enough, but the real joy of the book is the string of surprising facts and unforgettable stories to illustrate them: the Tanzanian midwife whose dearest wish was for a torch, so that when walking barefoot at night to a birth she could spot snakes more easily; the time Hans Rosling’s student nearly lost a leg because she tried to keep open the door of an Indian elevator (which, unlike Swedish elevators, did not have a safety sensor fitted); Rosling nearly drowning in sewage (in Sweden); Rosling thinking on his feet to avoid eating lavae in Congo; Rosling being humbled by the quality of his fellow medical students in Bangalore; and Rosling confessing to numerous mistakes over the course of his life, some embarrassing and some tragic.

The book is a pleasure to read – simple, clear, memorable writing – and when you’ve finished you’ll be a lot wiser about the world. You’ll also feel rather happier, because while Hans Rosling has seen far more suffering and premature death than most of us ever will, he also saw that suffering and premature death are on the retreat almost everywhere. Hence, “Factfulness” – the relaxing peace of mind you get when you have a clearer view of how the world really is.

I strongly recommend this book. (UK) (US)

Meanwhile here is a programme about the fight against Ebola that we made with Hans a couple of years ago; here is a radio obituary; here is an interview I conducted with him on our first meeting; and here is my favourite Hans Rosling talk.

My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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11th of April, 2018MarginaliaComments off
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My favourite indy projects

I am, of course, not sure what the definition of “indy” really is these days, but I’ll leave that one to the philosophers.

I’ve written before about Can You Brexit? (Without breaking Britain) (UK) (US) – a fabulous, well-researched and very funny choose-your-own-story gamebook by Dave Morris and Jamie Thompson. It casts you in the role of the Prime Minister the morning after the Brexit referendum, in a parallel but highly-recognisable universe. (The leader of the Labour party is the dishevelled hard-leftist “Barry Scraggle”, while one of the leading Brexiters is the near-Edwardian “Tobias Tode”.) The book achieves two notable feats: it makes the chewy details of Brexit engaging, and one starts to sympathise – or at least empathise – with the plight of the Prime Minister who has the impossible task of keeping all sides happy.

For music, try the remarkable loops of Duotone, aka Barney Morse-Brown. It’s hypnotic, and he is the most astonishingly talented musician. (One of his side gigs, I believe, is that he plays cello for Birdy.) Ropes (UK) (US) was my introduction to Duotone, but his new album “A Life Reappearing” is out very soon – here’s the single, “Martha”.

I’m still loving Amazing Tales by Martin Lloyd, a lavishly illustrated, simple and elegant role-playing game for parents and young children to enjoy together – often in the time it might take to enjoy a bedtime story. My 6 year old has just created a new character, “Death Man”, whose special skills include “Smashing” and “Eating”. Marvellous. Martin has pared role-playing to its essentials, designed a system that involves rolling funny-shaped dice (indispensable), and offered many ideas for keeping things fast and fun and not too scary.

And while my podcast feed is packed with high-production-value shows assembled by large production teams with talented presenters, somehow whenever Futility Closet drops into the feed, I pause everything to listen to Greg and Sharon Ross chat about the latest quirky historical story, go through an increasingly thought-provoking mailbag, and solve a lateral thinking puzzle. Production values have improved, but the show still sounds a little amateurish in the best possible way. Unique, engaging, and well worth a listen.

 

My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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10th of April, 2018MarginaliaComments off
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Five of the best introductions to economics

I’m often asked which economics books I recommend to someone who wants to get a good introduction to the subject. There are some obvious choices – a good textbook, for example – and of course I wrote The Undercover Economist (UK) (US) and The Undercover Economist Strikes Back (UK) (US) to be the very best introductions to microeconomics and macroeconomics I could manage.

But of course there’s so much more, and I wanted to make a few suggestions.

Thinking Strategically (UK) (US) by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff is the book that made me fall in love with economics. Without it I’d have dropped the subject completely at university. Thinking Strategically is an introduction to game theory – a mathematical analysis of human vs. human interaction from a tennis match to a salary negotiation. There’s not much maths in the book, but just enough to make the point. The writing is lively and the insights are full of counterintuitive wisdoms. Excellent stuff.

Money Changes Everything (UK) (US) by William Goetzmann was a real inspiration for the financial sections of Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy (UK) (US). Goetzmann goes deep into the history of financial ideas from money itself to insurance to banking. A detailed and scholarly book, but never a dull moment.

Hidden Order (UK) (US) by David Friedman is a brilliant alternative to a microeconomics textbook. Friedman is a libertarian – even more so than his father Milton – and the politics emerges from time to time in this book, but there’s no shame in that. It is scintillatingly clear about how economic theory fits together, and full of clever thought experiments. [EDIT 12 June 2018. Some people have asked, “Why not ‘The Armchair Economist’ by Steven Landsburg?” Well, why not indeed? It’s a superb book: (UK) (US). But I see it as a close substitute for Hidden Order; the two books share some of the same ideas and tone. I like them both very much.]

The Truth About Markets (UK) (US) by John Kay presents the flip side to Friedman: where Friedman sees simplicity, Kay warns that markets are a little messier and more socially embedded. Unlike many critics of classical economics, Kay understands exactly what he is chipping away at, and both the genius and the limits of the market. A wonderful book – and prescient in many ways.

Grand Pursuit (UK) (US) by Sylvia Nasar is a magisterial history of economic thought: Marshall, Robinson, Keynes, Fisher and the rest. A real education for a history-of-thought ignoramus like me. (On a similar theme, I’m looking forward to reading the brand new The Great Economists (UK) (US) by Linda Yueh, which looks good.)

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3rd of April, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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