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The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich are Rich, the Poor are Poor--and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car! [Paperback]

Tim Harford
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 30 2007
An international bestseller, The Undercover Economist is an entertaining and pain-free introduction to the key concepts of economics, by a popular Financial Times writer.

Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor – and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!

Tim Harford’s bestselling debut is part field guide to economics and part exposé of the economic principles lurking behind daily events. Showing us the world through the eyes of an economist, Harford reveals that everyday events are in fact intricate games of negotiations, contests of strength, and battles of wits.

He explains:
-Why picking stocks is like picking a line in the supermarket
-The connection between a drunken frat party and getting stuck in traffic
-How coffee companies use fair trade products to skim money from customers

This book offers the hidden story behind these and other questions, as Harford reports back from Africa, Asia, Europe, and your local Starbucks. Written with a light touch and sly wit, The Undercover Economist turns
“the dismal science” into a true delight.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Nattily packaged-the cover sports a Roy Lichtensteinesque image of an economist in Dick Tracy garb-and cleverly written, this book applies basic economic theory to such modern phenomena as Starbucks' pricing system and Microsoft's stock values. While the concepts explored are those encountered in Microeconomics 101, Harford gracefully explains abstruse ideas like pricing along the demand curve and game theory using real world examples without relying on graphs or jargon. The book addresses free market economic theory, but Harford is not a complete apologist for capitalism; he shows how companies from Amazon.com to Whole Foods to Starbucks have gouged consumers through guerrilla pricing techniques and explains the high rents in London (it has more to do with agriculture than one might think). Harford comes down soft on Chinese sweatshops, acknowledging "conditions in factories are terrible," but "sweatshops are better than the horrors that came before them, and a step on the road to something better." Perhaps, but Harford doesn't question whether communism or a capitalist-style industrial revolution are the only two choices available in modern economies. That aside, the book is unequaled in its accessibility and ability to show how free market economic forces affect readers' day-to-day.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

"Required reading."
—Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics

"A playful guide to the economics of everyday life, and as such. . . something of an elder sibling to Steven Levitt’s wild child, the hugely successful Freakonomics."
The Economist

"A book to savor."
The New York Times

"The Undercover Economist is a book you must pick up if you want a fresh perspective on how basic ideas in economics can help in answering the most complex and perplexing questions about the world around us."
Business Today


“[Harford] is in every sense consumer-friendly. His chapters come in bite-size sections, with wacky sub-headings. His style is breezy and no-nonsense. . . . The Undercover Economist is part primer, part consciousness raiser, part self-help manual.” --Times Literary Supplement

"Anyone mystified by how the world works will benefit from this book – especially anyone confused about why good intentions don’t, necessarily, translate into good results."
The Daily Telegraph (UK)

"Harford writes like a dream – and is also one of the leading economic thinkers of his generation. From his book I found out why there’s a Starbucks on every corner, what Bob Geldof needs to learn to make development aid work properly, and how not to get duped in an auction. Reading The Undercover Economist is like spending an ordinary day wearing X-ray goggles."
—David Bodanis, author of E=mc2 and Electric Universe

"Popular economics is not an oxymoron, and here is the proof. This book, by the Financial Times columnist Tim Harford, is as lively and witty an introduction to the supposedly 'dismal science' as you are likely to read."
The Times

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Most helpful customer reviews
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Lively Look at Beginning Economic Theory July 15 2006
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By J. Tupone TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
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.
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