Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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My recommendations for top podcasts, tweets, videos and anything else that makes economics fun.

Marginalia

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
Marginalia

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
Marginalia

How To Have Fun

When I’m not writing about economics or talking about numbers, I’m having fun – which means playing games.

 

Role-Playing

The standout at the moment is Amazing Tales by Martin Lloyd – a wonderful role-playing game for parents and young children. I have, from time to time, run role-playing games with simple systems (a favourite is the classic Dragon Warriors – currently available as a pay-what-you-want pdf). But somehow with young children the system always gets in the way; there are too many things to keep track of both for them and for me. Amazing Tales radically strips back the system (name four things that your character is good at doing, anything from “making friends” to “escaping”) and encourages gameplay that can easily be done in 15 minutes, snuggled up at bedtime instead of a story. My son (six) loves it. My daughter (11) enjoys the odd game too. Congratulations to Martin for figuring out how to make this work.

(And if you want a grown-up RPG, for me, it’s GURPS (UK) (US) every time, ideally in Dave Morris’s eerie world of Legend (UK) (US).)

Best role-playing podcast? Feel free to suggest a few; I enjoy Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice when I’m in the mood for a slow burn. I’m sure there’s much more out there.

 

Gamebooks

I endorsed – and absolutely loved – Dave Morris’s Can You Brexit Without Breaking Britain? (UK) (US) A Brexit gamebook sounds like satire, and there are certainly touches of satire here and there. But it is also an attempt to get to do something our politicians haven’t done, and get to grips with the details of Brexit. From the customs union to citizen’s rights, how do you manage the negotiations while keeping the voters happy? (Or are you secretly planning to reverse the decision? The choice is yours.) Deal with the aging leftist leader of the opposition, Barry Scraggle, and the Edwardian darling of Brexiters, Tobias Tode. It’s very funny, very well-researched, and very difficult to complete. Enjoy!

Speaking of Dave Morris gamebooks, his series with Oliver Johnson, Blood Sword (bad title, great books) is perhaps the most ambitious and best series of gamebooks ever written – and back in print. You can play solo or with a small group; the plot is excellent, the setting full of atmosphere, and there’s even a satisfying combat and magic system. (UK) (US)

I could recommend many more, but for another left-field recommendation, try Michael Stackpole’s City of Terrors (UK) (US), best enjoyed with the vintage Tunnels and Trolls system.

 

Boardgames

If you want to read about the time I interviewed Michael Lewis over a game of St Petersburg, here’s the piece; if you want to read about the time I went to the boardgames festival in Essen and spoke to the creator of Settlers, Klaus Teuber, I’ve got your back.

But if you just want my boardgame recommendations, then:

  • Agricola is the best boardgame ever made, although it takes time to chew over the rules and time to play. Works well for two as well as larger groups; my wife and I play and play and play. (UK) (US)
  • Puerto Rico is also the best boardgame ever made, and the same caveats apply. Quite similar to Agricola, tactically it is perhaps even more interesting. (UK) (US)
  • Carcassonne is a magnificent entry-level game; quick, easy to play, satisfying domino-style mechanic. Also, it has the original Meeples. (UK) (US)
  • Settlers of Catan is the modern classic – the game that Monopoly wishes it was. If you’ve never played a modern boardgame perhaps this should be the one. (UK) (US)
  • Dominion is a game I keep coming back to. My 11-year old particularly likes it; it’s quick; the expansions are actually good rather than distractions. And as a bonus, it is easy to handicap by tweaking the opening hands. (UK) (US)
  • For sheer Germanic atmosphere, Shadows in the Forest is your perfect family game. For a start, you need to play by candlelight in near total darkness. Also, adorable dwarves hide behind trees. Glorious. (UK) (US)

 

Craft

Viviane Schwarz’s “Welcome To Your Awesome Robot” (UK) (US) is fantastic, if you can get your hands on a copy. It’s a splendidly conceived book explaining how to turn a cardboard box into a robot. Every now and then – when a suitable box arrives – this book comes out, along with sticky tape and scissors and other accessories. An afternoon of fun is guaranteed.

 

 

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13th of March, 2018MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

The best books about failure

I wrote Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure (UK) (US) several years ago, but I’ve not stopped thinking and talking about the idea. So often we’re told to “learn from our mistakes” or “fail forward”, but the truth is that this advice isn’t easy to take: failure is painful and denial is common.
Here are a few of my favourite books on the topic:

I encountered Little Bets (UK) (US) by Peter Sims just as Adapt was coming out, and loved it. Peter had come to similar conclusions but had a totally different range of examples (from Chris Rock to Frank Gehry, if I recall correctly) and a winning, informal style.

Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong (UK) (US) is beautifully written (Schulz later won a Pulitzer prize) and a fascinating discussion of the history and psychology of wrongness.

To go deeper into the psychology of wrongness, try Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) (UK) (US) by two academics, Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson. (Aronson was a research assistant on one of the most famous studies of wrongness, Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails.) The book is highly accessible and full of interesting testaments to the power of denial.

And for a more recent synthesis, try Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking (UK) (US), which focuses in particular on the importance of examining and learning from our errors (as with an aeroplane black box).

Happy failing!

My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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31st of October, 2017MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

Behavioural economics books to enjoy

Congratulations to Richard Thaler, who has been awarded the Nobel memorial prize in economics “for his contributions to behavioural economics”. Thaler is a worthy winner. In addition to his academic contributions, alongside the likes of Daniel Kahneman and Robert Shiller, he has been the leading evangelist in the profession for behavioural realism in economics.

Thaler’s influence on policymakers has been unparalleled, in part thanks to his book Nudge (UK) (US) with Cass Sunstein. I wrote a quick appreciation of Thaler for the FT (subscription req.) and this much longer piece a couple of years ago asking what lay in store for behavioural economics.

Here are a few of my favourite behavioural economics books:

Daniel Kahneman Thinking Fast and Slow (UK) (US) – now the bible of behavioural economics, full of fascinating experiments and examples.

Michael Lewis The Undoing Project (UK) (US) – a touching biography of Kahneman and Tversky. Skip the first chapter, but the rest is beautiful storytelling and insightful.

Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie Wiser (UK) (US) – the best book I know about group decision-making and how to overcoming polarisation and groupthink.

For inside stories of behavioural economics try Thaler’s Misbehaving (UK) (US) and David Halpern’s Inside the Nudge Unit (UK) (US).

And for behavioural science to brighten your day, there’s Think Small (UK) (US) by Halpern’s colleagues Owain Service and Rory Gallagher, or How To Have A Good Day (UK) (US) by Caroline Webb.

Enjoy! And if you’d like a reminder that the old rational choice school of thought has some intriguing insights to contribute, may I (ahem) recommend my second book The Logic of Life (UK) (US).

 
My new book is “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy”. Grab yourself a copy in the US or in the UK (slightly different title) or through your local bookshop.

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9th of October, 2017MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

Books about how to see into the future

Walter Friedman has a fascinating history of economic forecasting in the early 20th century: Fortune Tellers (UK) (US). Well researched, full of interesting detail, and some of these guys (Irving Fisher, Roger Babson) were remarkable characters. For an insight into Fisher’s rival as an economist and investor, John Wasik’s Keynes’s Way To Wealth (UK) (US) is a fun light read.

Paul Goodwin’s Forewarned (UK) (US) is a broad survey of different forecasting approaches. I learned a few interesting things – but also felt Goodwin never quite reached a conclusion.

Philip Tetlock, with Dan Gardner wrote Superforecasting (UK) (US). Tetlock is one of the most interesting social scientists alive, and this research project into who does and does not make good forecasts is fascinating. (You might also look up Tetlock’s brilliant earlier, nerdier Expert Political Judgement and Gardner’s earlier polemic Future Babble, books which led to this collaboration.)

People who are interested in an alternative approach, scenario planning, might check out this offering from two of my former colleagues in Shell’s scenario planning team, Rafael Ramirez and Angela Wilkinson: Strategic Reframing (UK) (US). I haven’t yet read the book but I have no doubt about the qualifications of its authors, and the scenario method is a clever approach to an almost impossible future-gazing task.

Finally, this BBC Radio program about economic forecasting is good fun.

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28th of September, 2017MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

Remembering the holocaust

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading some books about the holocaust. I never dreamed that all this would become so relevant.

Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus (UK) (US) is brilliant, devastating, and occasionally very funny. Spiegelman’s father and mother, Vladek and Anja, survived Auschwitz against dreadful odds. Anja later killed herself. The contrast between the elderly Vladek – weak, needy, apparently socially clueless – and the younger Vladek – strong, ingenious, and socially nimble – is striking. And the details come alive in Spiegelman’s brutally direct telling.

Elie Wiesel’s Night (UK) (US) seems to be required reading in the US but I’d not read it until recently. It’s simple, excellent, unremittingly bleak. I think the figure of Moishe the Beadle – who has witnessed an atrocity but cannot get any of his fellow Jews to believe him – is the most tragic I’ve ever encountered. Grim and brilliant.

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning (UK) (US) has, I’m told, changed people’s lives. Like Wiesel, Frankl survived life the camps. Unlike Wiesel he has a message of inspiration and redemption. It’s an interesting contrast. (Both books are very short.)

Then there’s Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. (UK) (US) It’s heartbreaking.

I’m glad I read these books. I’ll be reading others – histories as well as memoirs.

17th of August, 2017MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Marginalia

Three great books about getting the important things done

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about getting things done, and at the top of my list is Cal Newport’s remarkable book Deep Work. (US) (UK) Newport makes a persuasive case that our success in the world of work is often dependent on the amount of time we can devote to serious, deep thinking. This isn’t true for every job, of course, but it’s true for many. (Management is an obvious exception, an example of a knowledge-economy job that requires decisiveness and judgement rather than depth.)

One thing I appreciated about Newport’s book is that while he’s uncompromising in his belief that deep work is essential both for productivity and for happiness, he’s quite flexible in his understanding of how it’s to be achieved, and gives a variety of examples from Walter Isaacson, who seemed to be able to snatch focused time in twenty-minute chunks, to coder-hermits who shun email and deal with most mail in quarterly.

Another powerful observation – one that hit home for me – is that for many of us, the productivity-sink isn’t watching YouTube videos or gossiping on Snapchat. It’s ostensibly-serious stuff like emails and meetings. Email, in particular, is a severe temptation for me – I find it easy and it feels and looks like work. Swift, decisive email etiquette feels very professional – but all too often it’s just an excuse for avoiding the real work.

Deep Work is a brilliant book and I unreservedly recommend it.

 

For a playful take on related themes, I turned to Robert Twigger’s wonderful little book Micromastery. (US) (UK) Twigger – among other things an explorer, prize-winning poet, and Aikido master – makes the case for mastering many deep-but-narrow skills. Learn how to do an Eskimo roll, or a racing turn, or how to draw a smooth circle by hand. Don’t aim to become a brilliant cook; start instead by mastering the omelette. Twigger offers a cornucopia of little tricks – the kind of thing that you might find in a “how to amaze your friends and win bar bets” book – but far more interesting and compelling is his idea of micromastery, which he sees as empowering (because you remember how to learn and discover), as a source of creativity (because you acquire an ever-larger range of insights) and as a step towards broader mastery (because learning one narrow skill well is a fun, motivating way to begin in a new field). A really fun book – and a wise idea explained well.

Micromastery also bridges an apparent conflict between Deep Work and my own book Messy, which sings the praises of switching from one project to another. Twigger argues that if you want to go deep you need variety: master something narrow, but when you feel yourself getting jaded, switch to something else. Day by day you are focused, but month by month or year by year, your experiences and skills are varied.

 

I could hardly finish this without a shout-out for David Allen’s Getting Things Done. (US) (UK) (Not to be confused with Ed Bliss’s classic of the same name (US) (UK) – a great book too, if somewhat dated.) Allen’s book is inelegantly-written and has always felt wordy – but it’s been a huge success because it works. The central ideas of GTD are: take vague incoming issues (a phone message, an email, a meeting, an idea that pops into your head) and turn then into some specific next action, then write the next action down somewhere where you’re confident you’ll see it when you need it. This stops your subconscious constantly churning over the issue.

That makes GTD sound simple and in many ways it is. But in the messy reality of modern work it’s often easier to appreciate the principle than to make it work in practice. I don’t follow every piece of David Allen’s advice but I follow a lot, because it’s smart, practical and useful stuff.

My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – out last week in the UK and coming soon in the US. Grab yourself a copy in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.

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19th of July, 2017MarginaliaResourcesComments off
Other Writing

Books about calling statistical bullshit

A friend recently emailed to ask me for books that might help navigate a world full of statistical bullshit. Here are some recommendations.

I can’t think of a better science writer than Ben Goldacre, who burns with righteous mischief. His Bad Science (UK) (US) isn’t always about statistics, but it’s excellent throughout and an essential read for anyone who wants to understand some of the faults of modern health and nutrition journalism. Wonderful book.

Of course you should subscribe to the More or Less podcast, but you could also enjoy The Tiger That Isn’t (UK) (US). This is the unofficial book of the series, written by More or Less founders Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland. A highly readable guide to making sense of numbers in the wild.

Also very good – with more US examples – is Stat-Spotting (UK) (US) by Joel Best. Best’s book has given me some of my favourite examples of bad stats, but it currently seems a bit overpriced on Amazon, alas.

The classic of the field is, of course, Darrell Huff’s How To Lie With Statistics (UK) (US). There’s a sad coda that will tarnish your view of Huff; but this is still a terrific book.

Brand new book by the very splendid Evan Davis is called Post Truth (UK) (US) – haven’t yet read much but looks good.

And finally try Naked Statistics (UK) (US) by Charles Wheelan, who with wit and clarity wrote the similarly excellent Naked Economics (UK) (US).

Best, Dilnot, Huff and Wheelan all cover quite similar ground. If I was picking just one of them I’d go for Dilnot for a UK audience and Wheelan in the US.

My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – coming very, very soon and available for pre-order. Grab yourself a copy in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.

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26th of June, 2017Other WritingResourcesComments off
Marginalia

What are the best books about the history of technology?

I’ve had such fun working on the book and radio series, Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy – and along the way I’ve had the opportunity to read some great books about the history of economics, finance, innovation and technology. Here are some of my favourites.

Alison Wolf The XX Factor (UK) (US) – Fun yet rigorous exploration of women’s participation in the workforce, and how and why it’s been changing over the years.

David Edgerton The Shock of the Old (UK) (US) – An appreciation of the humbler innovations in life, and a reminder that old technologies often stay with us a long time.

Felix Martin Money: An Unauthorised Biography (UK) (US) – Well-argued alternative history of money, packed with great stories.

Frank Trentmann Empire of Things (UK) (US) – An epic history of retail and consumerism.

Marc Levinson The Box (UK) (US) – The nerd-history to end all nerd-history. Levinson loves shipping containers and after reading this book, you will too.

Mark Kurlansky Paper (UK) (US) – I loved this book. Paper is even more underrated than shipping containers.

Mark Miodownik Stuff Matters (UK) (US) – Also good on paper – and concrete, and all sorts of miraculous materials we take for granted.

Robert Gordon The Rise and Fall of American Growth (UK) (US) – Magisterial history of technology and productivity. Closely-argued with lots of data but still feels rich and alive.

Steven Johnson How We Got To Now (UK) (US) – Stylishly-told history of six key innovations. You can’t fail to enjoy technological history the way Johnson tells it.

Steven Levy Hackers (UK) (US) – A modern classic, essential reading on the origins of modern computing.

William Goetzmann Money Changes Everything (UK) (US) – Like Gordon’s book, this is another academic read whose rich storytelling transcend the rigorous foundation. Great book.

Not the only sources for Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy – but important ones. Enjoy!

 

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19th of June, 2017MarginaliaResourcesComments off
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Books

  • Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy
  • Messy
  • The Undercover Economist Strikes Back
  • Adapt
  • Dear Undercover Economist
  • The Logic of Life
  • The Undercover Economist

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