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on March 13, 2003
This introduction to economics is a good overview of the subject, but it has its flaws. I believe that an important goal of a nontechnical book on economics is to communicate how economists think, primarily to counter news reports and other descriptions of economic matters that tend to be brimming with inaccuracies and misunderstandings of the most basic principles of economics.
The two chapters on the positive role of government in the economy are probably the best in the book. Wheelan effectively describes the many scenarios where market economics simply fails to provide the proper incentives for mutually beneficial activity. This part of the book is a nice contrast to some other economics books that sometimes seem as if they were ghost written by the Libertarian party.
However, the text, even in those two chapters, includes several statements presented as undisputed fact but which are actually open to substantial debate.
Early on, the book claims that "cigarette smoke can .. harm those who happen to be lingering nearby" without mentioning that little evidence of actual physical harm from secondhand smoke is available. However, the next paragraph does make the nice point that cigarette smokers do perform good for the rest of us: they die quicker, generally after a full working life but before collecting much Social Security. Maybe it would be a fair exchange for nonsmokers to breathe a little annoying second-hand smoke in exchange for the larger old age payments that come courtesy of the nicotine addicts among us.
Later, Wheelan says about drug couriers, "It's good to have goverment officials blocking the road when the 'entrepreneur' is carrying seven kilos of cocaine" but presents absolutely no argument as to why this is true. Many economists would feel that it is the government that should be blocked from interfering in the cocaine market. This would almost surely include the economist mentioned a mere two sentences later, Milton Friedman, who has long made clear his opposition to drug prohibition.
Finally, it is asserted without evidence that, compared to a sports car, "a college education makes a young person more productive for the rest of his or her life." I'm not sure that's true all or even most of the time. While I guess that most students learn something in college, it is also true that many college students spend substantial time, effort, and money on things like parties, sports, clubs, and other similar activities that probably don't provide a productivity benefit later, but that are simply a hell of a lot of fun.
This may sound like I'm favoring sports car-driving, cigarette smoking drug dealers over law-abiding, non-smoking college students but that's not my point. I simply mean that it would have been better had the author pointed out some of these nuances because it would help readers to think more like an economist.
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on October 13, 2002
First, I'd like to say that this book MOSTLY does what author Wheelan set out to do -- to make the science of economics understandable and exciting to the average person without an advanced math degree. Wheelan does that, for the most part. He uses real-world (and recent) examples to illustrate economic principles. The first third of the book, I could not put it down.
The only thing really that bothered me (and it is throughout the book, so I had to ding it two stars) is that the author mixes political views of people and issues that I think have no business being in an economics book. For example, he mentions having caddied on the golf course, notably for George W. Bush, "before he became the mature leader he is today." I don't begrudge him his right to his opinion, but where does that comment belong in a book explaining economics? There are a number of people who question the maturity level of Bill Clinton, but I would not put that in an economics book! You would I think if Wheelan would have tried a little harder to be evenhanded -- certainly there are things to criticize on each side, but can we please leave the personal attacks out of it? -- I would have enjoyed the book more.
Still, the book is good at explaining something I have always regarded as a foreign language.
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