The Logic of Life
The paperback of The Logic of Life is published in the US by Random House in February 2009 and in the UK by Little Brown in March 2009.
“Life often seems to defy logic. When a prostitute agrees to unprotected sex, or a teenage criminal embarks on a burglary, or a smoker lights another cigarette, we seem to be a million miles from what we would call rational behaviour. None of this makes sense – or does it? Tim Harford thinks it does. And by weaving stories from locations as diverse as a Las Vegas casino and a Soho speed-date together with insights from an ingenious new breed of economist, he aims to persuade you that we are all, in fact, surprisingly logical. Reading this book, you’ll discover that the unlikeliest of people – racists, drug addicts, revolutionaries and rats – comply with economic logic, always taking account of future costs and benefits, even if they don’t quite realise it. It even explains why your boss is overpaid…”
The Logic of Life was named a 2008 book of the year by both The Economist and The Financial Times.
The book surveys shelf after shelf of the economics literature but in such skilful hands it does not feel like a dutiful trip to the library. Economists are often too beguiled by elegant theories, but Mr Harford wisely confines himself to ideas that have been carefully tested against real life. Only thorough research could discern that residents of high-rise buildings are more likely to be victims of crime, because stacked tenants make for poor monitors of the surrounding streets. Even the excellent chapter on game theory has a practical hero: the card player, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, who applied its lessons to win the poker world championship in 2000.
Mr Harford, who works at the Financial Times, is an amiable guide for the non-specialist reader, neither too lofty nor dumbed-down. The book’s tone is breezy, but his command of the subject is such that even a well-schooled economist will discover much that is new.
The world is a crazy place. It makes perfect sense only to conspiracy theorists and economists of a certain stripe. Tim Harford, a columnist for The Financial Times and the author of “The Undercover Economist,” is one of these, a devotee of rational-choice theory, which he applies ingeniously and entertainingly to all kinds of problems in “The Logic of Life.” …Mr. Harford has a knack for explaining economic principles and problems in plain language and, even better, for making them fun.
[Tim Harford and Jane Jacobs] are cast from similar molds. Perhaps his ideas seem so intuitively resonant because his arguments, like Jacobs’, can be so elegantly spare in their construction, so brilliantly simple, that you swear you must have thought of them before… Aside from its myriad insights, the book is nothing if not entertaining: Highly readable, funny and daringly contentious, it’s an intellectual’s idea of a whopping good time.
In a world where you can watch a 30-second commercial for 25 seconds before you know what it is selling – or where newspapers spend more time on politicians’ personalities than their issues – it is refreshing to read a book that argues that people are more, rather than less, rational than we thought…
…if you loved [The Tipping Point and Freakonomics], you’ll love this one. And, even better, you may find yourself working to discover the rationality in all kinds of people’s behaviour – your kids, your colleagues or your mother-in-law – that you used to just write off as crazy.
MILTON FRIEDMAN EXPLAINS MR BIG…
The world is a complex place, and any approach that lets us lay down some sort of a grid that makes sense of all that confusion seems pretty good. People are often ready to accept approaches that are fairly obviously bogus (astrology? aura readings?), so a simplifying and clarifying approach that has academic respectability is even more appealing.
It helps even more that this approach often works. Lots of things that are confusing turn out to make sense in a reliable way when you apply economic reasoning. The laws of supply and demand matter; things seldom turn out to be worth more (or less) than the discounted present value of their future revenues; and people generally put out more effort for their own behalf than they do for the benefit of others. Systems structured around these truths tend to succeed, while systems that deny them tend to fail.
Even better, it’s fun. Much that seems on the surface inexplicable turns out to make perfect logical sense once you understand the incentives and how people respond to them. And that’s the approach of Harford’s latest work.
Harford has drawn together and simplified the research of many economists who belong to what he calls ‘the new breed’. He is certainly unafraid to ask some big questions. And he often answers them to dazzling effect.
The great merit of The Logic of Life is that it can roam among the other big beasts of the field (such as Gary S Becker and Thomas C Schelling) as Harford uncovers “the new economics of everything”… The Logic of Life is an enjoyable read, and Harford presents complex arguments with unfailing clarity and wit.
Harford sets off on an enormously entertaining yarn backed by the findings of expert economists. He spins playfully, but smartly, across matters of sex, crime, gambling, addiction, marriage, racism, ghettos and politics, and he makes it all, well, titillating at times. Really.
“The Logic of Life” will attract readers who’ve snapped up the growing number of anecdote-driven books aimed at making economics more accessible and more fun. Like “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner and James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds,” this book is charming and informative, breezily blending Harford’s gee-whiz passion for his subject with the work of Nobel Prize-winning economists and trips to the playground with his two-year-old daughter.
HOW ECONOMICS LIGHTENED UP
Perhaps it is time [academic] economists learned from authors such as Harford how to make their work more relevant and accessible. Some may disagree, but one thing is clear: economics has never been this cool.
Tim Harford’s follow-up to his bestselling book The Undercover Economist is a riproaring survey of the application of such revolutionary thinking in the last 60 years. It’s a sparky mix of pure and applied, of history and current affairs, of biography and the geography of knowledge. After a quick introduction to a figure like Johnny Von Neumann, the genius behind games theory, we meet poker champ and Vegas icon Chris Ferguson, who finally put those theories into action at the table. Even a chapter on the workplace – on pay, productivity and incentives – fizzes with insight and variety… Harford is a sickeningly talented young man.
Australian Financial Review
A fascinating work with many “aha” moments.
The economics and the writing are first class, and The Logic of Life is both entertaining and enlightening. Picking it up, I assure you, is quite the rational course of action.
BRILLIANT INSIGHTS OF THE DISMAL SCIENCE
Harford… argues persuasively that unless we understand the economic motivations of those who seek out predominantly white neighbourhoods, we’ll never reach any policy prescriptions that may offset them. He shows how game theory can explain the dynamics of population shifts, and gives clues on to how to respond… And Harford tells these stories lightly, with wit.
People who like the book
Tim Harford is an economist but—thanks be to God—he doesn’t write like one. The Logic of Life is as lively as it is smart, charming, penetrating, and wise. If you are at all interested in knowing much more than you do about how the world works, you couldn’t ask for a better guide than Harford.
Stephen J. Dubner – co-author of Freakonomics
The Logic of Life offers a fascinating discussion of the use of modern economic reasoning to explain humorous and serious aspects of everyday life. Harford shows, among many other things, that this logic explains why punishments deter crimes, why ‘johns’ have to pay more to prostitutes to get unprotected sex, and why divorce rates have risen but then stabilized after the contraceptive pill was introduced, and after many married women began working. I strongly recommend this book, especially to those who want their economics to be fun as well as important.
Gary S. Becker – 1992 Nobel Laureate in Economics
In this witty, intelligent book, Tim Harford illuminates the hidden social order behind sex, Las Vegas, divorce, your boss–in short, all the things you care about in life. Quite simply, The Logic of Life will help you see the entire world in a new light. I love this book!
Tyler Cowen – author of Discover Your Inner Economist and MarginalRevolution.com
Like his 2006 book, The Undercover Economist–if you haven’t got it, get it–this book uses the basic theory of rational choice to make transparent the logic behind common but important puzzling phenomena. Even a trained economist can enjoy discovering what he already knew but didn’t realize he knew it. I did.
Thomas C. Schelling – 2005 Nobel Laureate in Economics
This is a terrific read. It’s one those books that forever changes the way you look at things. It proves economics is not a subject for dull textbooks; but is really a way of thinking that can shed light on all aspects of life.
Evan Davis – BBC Economics Editor
What the blogs say…
With this book, Tim Harford has established himself as perhaps the world’s leading economic journalist. If you read one economics book this year among the stack recently produced, this would be it.
In the Introduction to The Logic of Life, Tim Harford alludes to “The new economics of everything.” It’s an apt phrase and takes in a slew of recent books of which the first was probably Freakonomics. But that was followed (alphabetically) by Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist, Tim Harford’s other book in the genre, The Undercover Economist, Arnold Kling’s Learning Economics, Steven Landsburg’s More Sex is Safer Sex, John Lott’s Freedomnomics. There are others of earlier vintage, some that I have missed and still others that are awful.
But in my view, Harford does this best. He takes us through more than 200 recently published and worthy research papers (and some books) in applied economics and presents it all beautifully and in just over 200 pages. That’s efficiency for the reader.
Anyone can have quibbles. I think that Harford is only partially right about New York… But the book is a joy to read.
The Logic of Life is not only an excellent summary of the current state of the art in behavioural economic research and a treasure-trove of fascinating factoids, but a warm and engaging book, a rational man’s attempt to share with the reader his obvious love of the world and its rational foundations. Perhaps the truth won’t make you free, but understanding how the world works through the lens of The Logic of Life will make you appreciate it a whole lot more.
“The Logic of Life” can be described as a book that takes the standard assumption of rationality in economics for a ride. In essence, Harford examines a whole collection of diverse stories – most of these outside the standard topics covered in economics – by assuming first that people are making choices rationally. …The Logic of Life is simply a page turner. I am not a particularly fast reader and I was still finished with this book in a couple of days. This book managed to keep my interest and attention. And when it was over, I was already looking forward to Harford’s next book.
If you read nothing else today, flip over to Slate and read the excerpts from Tim Harford’s new book, The Logic of Life. The first excerpt was published yesterday, about the effect of current factors on marriage — utterly fascinating look at the economic reasons behind what armchair pundits are quick to label ‘Black Culture’… but Harford’s argument is compelling and utterly logical.
A phenomenally fun-to-read, incredibly informative book… This fits in the genre of pop economics books, but the thing that I think is special about The Logic of Life is that it doesn’t just cover the same set of economic puzzles that other books go over… you actually delve into a lot of brand new economic research.
The Logic of Life is so compelling not just because of Harford’s sleuthing, but because he is such a powerful storyteller. Writers of popular thrillers would be proud of the narrative momentum he maintains in his chapter on game theory, “Las Vegas: The Edge of Reason”, which brings to life fascinating people like John Von Neumann, Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson and Thomas Schelling. But it is packed with insight as well—it explains how addiction can be a rational thing, how it involves warring parts of our brain, and how I can explain my coffee addiction to my partner—hopefully without altering her incentives too much.
The heart of the book is a mazy journey through any number of intriguing aspects of ‘rational choice theory’. This is not usually a subject that can be described as fun especially when it smothered from head to toe in complex mathematics. Mercifully ‘The Logic of Life’ is completely free of equations and calculus; instead we can relax into some intelligent, lucid and confident economics from a natural communicator… This is a great page-turner that will cement Tim’s well-earned reputation for bringing economics alive to a much wider audience around the world. I can now justify my addiction to his writing as a perfectly rational act!
I’d recommend The Logic of Life to anyone, including business people, with an interest in why things are the way they are. However, the people who absolutely should read this book are our elected representatives and the policy analysts who serve them.
In case after intriguing case – ranging from the curtailment of criminal activity by urban juvenile delinquents facing prosecution as adults, to the adoption of safe practices by Mexican prostitutes, to the reliance by over-eaters on improved availability of health care to lessen the effects of their obesity — Harford outlines the experimental evidence that people know and act on the benefits and risks of their choices, re-calibrating as incentives, rewards and penalties may change…congenial and accessible.