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The Undercover Economist successfully avoids mind-numbing equations, boring examples and abstruse subjects.

Using ten themes, Mr. Harford provides a popular platform for the latest thinking on economics.

In Who Pays for Your Coffee? he looks at how a desire for quick access to caffeine allows landlords along commuter routes to charge high rents for take-out coffee locations.

In What Supermarkets Don't Want You to Know? he explores how item choices and pricing are used to create the appearance of competitiveness while encouraging the price insensitive to pay as much as they like. He also explains the theory of why you pay so much more for fancier coffee drinks . . . and even possibly for fair trade coffee.

Perfect Markets and the "World of Truth" considers how economic policy can influence how people make decisions and allocate resources more efficiently such as by raising taxes on fuel while subsidizing the poor with a "head start".

Crosstown Traffic looks at the ways that social problems can be solved by a judicious use of fees, such as by charging for the right to pollute.

The Inside Story examines how imperfect information causes costs and prices to soar . . . as those who know what's good and bad take advantage of those who don't. People sell used cars that are lemons and hold on to ones that are peaches. Those who need health insurance because they are sick buy it while those who are well avoid the cost.

Rational Insanity describes talks about irrationality in economic decisions such as the recent Internet bubble.

The Men Who Knew the Value of Nothing is about describes the brilliant and not so brilliant auctions that economists set up to sell radio spectrum for new services around the world.

Why Poor Countries are Poor contains an unforgettable tale of what it's like in Cameroon and why the economy isn't likely to get better anytime soon.

Beer, Fries and Globalization makes the case for free trade.

How China Grew Rich is a nice study in government policy in China and how it overcame the worst problems of being a centralized economy.

If you know economics, all that will be new in most of these chapters will be the examples, which are fairly new and interesting.

If you don't know economics, you probably won't follow some of the chapters such as Beer, Fries and Globalization.

So this book will be most appealing to those who know a lot about economics and will be interested to see how key ideas can be explained more simply and in a livelier way.

For those who don't know economics, it's a lot better than my economics professors in explaining key ideas. But you may end up learning more than you wanted to know. Many of the chapters are of more interest to economists than the typical non-economist reader. I suggest you selectively read the chapters to focus on the ones that seem interesting to you.

I thought that the last chapter on China had the most interesting material and explained it very well.

Some people will compare this book to Freakonomics. That's a peculiar comparison to make. That book uses economics to provide new perspectives on old problems. This book, instead, tries to teach economics. The two books have substantially different purposes and perspectives as a result.
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on July 3, 2008
This is an entertaining and interesting book by Tim Harford: a man who is part of what I like to call the New Generation Economists. Many people interested in economics are familiar with the likes of Milton Friedman, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek or the fathers of economics Adam Smith and David Ricardo; individuals who explained several macro economics concepts that tend to affect societies more so than individuals. The new generation economists are people like Steven Levitt, John Lott and Tim Harford (to name a few) who look at things that happen in our world and affect us regularly as individuals and create ramifications for the societies we make up.

This book is essentially an introduction to micro and macro economics, with a greater emphasis on microeconomics I would say. For those who have never studied economics it will require more concentration than a relaxing pulp fiction novel but as you get into the groove of Harford's writing style you will find that the book flows nicely and is easy to follow. People who have taken economics will understand things more clearly and pick up some interesting, practical examples for explaining economic theory; Harford spares us any discussion of manufacturing and selling widgets, for example and is effective in avoiding the one product universe to explain supply and demand.

This book moves beyond an introductory economics course in that it uses more qualitative elements to explain why things are the way they are. In my experience (as an economics major), undergraduate economics tends to analyze the world using equations and simple graphs. While that can be quite useful and relevant, it's difficult to find it as interesting as a discussion about scarcity put into terms that pretty much any western consumer can relate to; e.g. Hartford uses expensive coffee (e.g. Starbucks et al) bars as an example of how scarcity causes high prices.

Some readers may not agree with what Harford has to say about why things are the way they are. Fair enough. That doesn't change the fact that Harford does an excellent job of communicating economic principles without using rather dry and fairly asinine examples like the manufacture of widgets and simple graphs to explain how supply and demand of widgets affects their price. There is room for disagreement and whether you agree with Harford's explanations or not, this book is well written and quite original.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon November 2, 2008
The science behind this book is, in the end, a dumbed-down version of what you would learn in Economics 1 at any college or university. The author explains basic principals such as externalities and Adam Smith's "unseen hand"; there are no break-through insights here.

On the other hand, this is no college textbook. It is much more fun to read and much more accessible. There are no formulas or math. The concepts are explained in simple English, and then immediately applied to everyday life situations such as the price of coffee at Starbucks, health care and traffic. Whether or not you know anything about economics, you won't be bored.

Most importantly, this book helps people think in rational terms about hot-button issues like free trade and the environment. The author has his own views -- we all do -- but his approach to issues is rational. He encourages us to think critically, rather than simply reacting emotionally. For that reason, if no other, this is a worthwhile book and the world would be a better place if everyone read it.

Note: my undergraduate degree is in economics, although that was a long time ago and I have not studied economics, nor used it in my job, for about 20 years.
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on July 21, 2011
Economics is sometimes called the dismal science. I'm not sure who coined the term but it's an accurate statement as far as most people are concerned. And frankly who can blame people from making this generalization?

Most of us have had negative interactions with Economics in one form or another. The more educated people might have been subjected to post secondary torture - in the form of a Macroeconomics or Microeconomics course given by a burnt out monotone teach-bot. Think Ben Stein "Bueller, Bueller, Bueller".

Others experience Economics as part of the nightly spectacle that is the news in the form of the talking head. On some slow night a trivial economic happening or political event gets prognosticated on by "the expert" spouting technical jargon as either a justification or rebuttal for its occurrence. The only people really concerned with this broadcast are the producers of Ambien who worry that a worthy rival has come into the market.

Finally, you might have encountered the Economist as part of Business section in the newspaper. They attempt to predict the direction of the economy or stock market but invariably fail much to the delight of the journalists. The Economist now has become the whipping boy, an object of satire to be ridiculed, to the pleasure of bloodthirsty readers everywhere.

But are any of these depictions truth? Tim Harford campaigns passionately on behalf of all Economists everywhere in The Undercover Economist - making the argument that economic thinking and the underlying theory does have worth, and is needed to solve the current, evolving and future problems that humanity faces.

And after reading the book I happen to agree with him. In fact I would say that Economists as a whole would do themselves a great service if they simply stopped trying to predict the vicissitudes of the stock market. They should leave that particular job for the astrologers, oh my apologies, I mean Technical Analysts.

In his book Harford eschews the polish of academia to achieve the results of a practical application of theory: understanding. He introduces economic concepts like scarcity, price elasticity, comparative advantage, market efficiency, market signals, game theory, trade theory, externality costs, marginal cost, economies of scale and auction theory without intimidating, irritating and confounding the reader. What is astonishing is that he manages to be interesting while doing all this.

In fact the whole experience reminded me of my childhood. I recall being a small child and getting extremely excited because the dessert on one particular night was ice cream. I waited in anticipation until my mom finally brought out a big bowl for me. I started eating it but to my surprise under the cool goodness of the treat lay a pile of fruit. Of course I didn't like fruit at the time but I ate it anyway because not doing so would mean forgoing pleasure.

The Undercover Economist is much the same. You get interesting stories but at the same time buried beneath is a smattering of economic theory. You recognize that it's there but you consume it all and digest both with equal vigor.

My favorite chapter had to be on the comparison of auction processes and the game theory it was based on, used to sell 3G licenses. It was interesting to see how different countries received vastly different rewards based on what they did. Of course I may have been influenced by an actual intelligent poker example and not the usual tripe I usually encounter when I read "You got to know when to hold'em, know when to fold'em"/barf.

I really enjoyed this book and encourage everyone to read it. I would not buy it though as I think one read through is sufficient to absorb the essence of the book. I would be happily surprised if my less thrifty brethren arrived at a different conclusion however.
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on March 25, 2013
While I don't personally like how the author chooses to accept altruism and the general notion of the "greater good" in his arguments, I absolutely love the economic side of all of his arguments. If it were purely a book about how economics works without delving into the author's moral point of view, I would have given it 5 stars.

To reiterate the heading of my review: This book is a must-read for everyone -- especially those who haven't formally studied economics.
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on October 6, 2010
The author manages to make the subject easy and entertaining. I actually enjoyed every chapter of the book. An interesting point of view on many important (and less important but very common) facts about our society.
Definitely recommended
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on November 21, 2007
Frankly anyone who has taken introduction to college economics will find this book redundant, oversimplified and dull. His explanation of why poor countries are poor is valid (cites corruption as a major cause) but ignores other important factors such as post-colonialism, agricultural subsidies, geopolitics and debt.

If you have actually been to university I suggest you skip this one.
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on September 20, 2008
Alas, I had to stop reading part way through -- the book is merely a collection of undergraduate thought experiments regarding eocnomics of everyday activities -- a bunch of just-so stories. Quite a lot of the conclusions are probably wrong, all are simplistic, and all are unsupported.
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