on August 6, 2001
If you're remotely interested in economics, you should read this book; it's a hoot.
Not too many books on economics could be described as a "hoot." But Steven Landsburg, an economics professor at the University of Chicago when he wrote this book (now he's at the University of Rochester), has a delightfully sharp sense of humor and a gift for clear, logical exposition. He also doesn't in the least mind naming names when it comes to egregious economic fallacies and the people who commit them: he keeps a "Sound and Fury file" consisting of economic gaffes from the op-ed pages and he devotes a chapter to exposing the culprits.
His theme is easily stated, and he states it on the first page: the substance of economic science is that people respond to incentives. "The rest," he writes in deliberate imitation of Rabbi Hillel, "is commentary."
Landsburg fills the rest of the book with such commentary. His witty and occasionally sarcastic exposition deals neatly with such topics as why recycling paper doesn't really save trees; why certain statistics are not reliable measures of the "income gap" between rich and poor; why the GNP is not an especially accurate measure of national wealth; why unemployment isn't necessarily a bad thing; why taxes _are_ a bad thing; why real economists don't care about what's "good for the economy" or endorse the pursuit of monetary profit apart from personal happiness; and lots of other points that will no doubt be profoundly irritating to people who just _know_ he _can't possibly_ be right.
For example, Landsburg is delightfully allergic to the claims of the "environmental" movement and recognizes it quite clearly as a strongly moralistic religion. And contrary to the opinions of some not terribly careful readers, he does distinguish firmly between the actual harm caused by pollution and the psychic harm caused by (e.g.) the use of automobiles to people who object in principle to such technology.
Interestingly, Landsburg recognizes a problem here for his own cost-benefit approach: if economic efficiency with regard to utilitarian/consequentialist goods and bads were really the whole story, he notes, he should care about _both_ the physical harm and the psychic harm, and yet he doesn't.
Which leads neatly into the other notable feature of this volume: Landsburg is stunningly forthright about the nature -- and the limits -- of cost-benefit analysis. Unlike some economists who like to pretend such analysis is value-free and involves no commitment to any particular view of morality, Landsburg is clear that cost-benefit analysis is quite unambiguously committed to one particular moral outlook (which he characterizes and describes very neatly). And he is keenly aware of its limitations, though he is not at all confident about what should replace it.
The problem, roughly, is this (the following characterization is mine, not his). As Landsburg notes several times, cost-benefit analysis does not regard "theft" as a cost, since it merely transfers existing stuff from one person to another; society is no worse off on net after the theft than before it. (Of course theft entails _further_ costs that _do_ leave society worse off, but that's not the point here.) Economics, as Landsburg describes it, looks only at _outcomes_ and not at how we got to them. And even at that, it looks only at one abstract feature of such outcomes, namely, how much "good" there is in the aggregate.
And yet most of us would say that "society" _is_ somehow worse off after a theft -- that there is some sort of "moral cost" involved in the theft itself quite apart from its further consequences, and that it makes a difference whose "good" is rightfully achieved or acquired and whose is not. (Some of us might even say that there is something illegitimate in comparing the thief's gain to the victim's loss in the first place.) In ordinary moral discourse, it matters very much how we arrived at a given state of affairs.
If so, then economic science has two choices (this is still my opinion, not his). (1) It can throw those "moral costs" into the mix and deal with "rights and wrongs" in the same way it deals with "goods and bads." In that case, the total "good" will take account of the number and quality of right acts vs. wrong acts. (2) It can ignore those "moral costs" and continue as before.
In either case, economic science _as Landsburg presents it_ is simply insufficient as a guide to policy decisions. (Landsburg tends to acknowledge this, maintaining only that cost-benefit analysis is an important _part_ of whatever it is we need to make policy decisions.) And it is certainly not -- as Landsburg also recognizes in a wonderfully forthright chapter -- sufficient as a guide to personal conduct.
So this volume gets five stars even though Landsburg doesn't have much to say about what should supplement cost-benefit analysis. It's a terrific introduction to economic thinking genreally, and it's also a clear and frank recognition of the limitations of such thinking at least as practiced by many mainstream economists.
on April 23, 2002
"Why do rock concerts sell out in minutes -- couldn't the promoters raise the ticket prices?" "Why does movie popcorn cost so much?" "How much harm is caused by government debt?" "Why is it hard to measure inflation? Output? The rich/poor gap?"
This book is a series of loosely organized essays about "how economists think." The target audience appears to be people like myself, who are interested in economics, but are not highly trained in the field. It's a good companion to "The Economics of Public Issues," which focuses on real-world illustrations of basic economic concepts. This book focuses on how to approach analyzing the real world for yourself.
According to the Introduction, many of the essays have grown out of discussions Landsburg had with his regular lunch group ... and what lunches those must have been! Questions are raised, and explanations batted about and critiqued. Assuming that Landsburg is a typical economist, the book succeeds spectacularly in illustrating "how economists think." Many of the essays retain what must have been the original feel of the lunchtime debates (ideas are raised, then criticized, then rejected or refined) -- a form which sheds considerable light upon how economists approach problems. The essay about why economists are sometimes wrong is very enlightening. It describes why economists thought that unemployment and inflation were inversely related -- until government started acting on that assumption, which destroyed the relationship. While I'm not very good at macroeconomics, Landsburg's explanation of this is simple and persuasive, and creates more insights into how the study of economics works.
As a series of essays, some are better than others. Landsburg slips easily between making arguments about issues to making assertions about issues. Since the target audience is amateurs like myself, it's a little hard for an untrained reader to critically evaluate the assertions, but (after much head-scratching) I think some of them are flawed. Landsburg clearly feels strongly about some topics, and it's possible that when he gets worked up about an issue he loses some of his open-mindedness. The essay on environmentalism beats up on environmentalist excess but provides little in the way of alternatives. (I worked for an environmental group at one point; Landsburg's critiques are largely accurate but veer off-topic and illuminate little.) He ridicules several prominent public figures (Felix Rohaytn, extensively, and several US presidential candidates from 1984-1992) for making statements reflecting economic illiteracy, but fails to address the issue: the public's economic illiteracy would instantly render unelectable a candidate who said the things Landsburg says.
Still, distilling several years of what must have been stimulating lunchtime discussions into a book which can be read in a few hours is a valuable service. The reading is easy, the topics are accessible (for the most part), and the thinking is clear. Also, since these essays came from leisure time, they successfully communicate some of the joy of studying economic issues.
The book feels like one long lunch with a great group. The more standoffish, angrier essays were concentrated near the end, so they feel like one guest had had one too many martinis and should go home rather than back to work. But they'd still be worth eating with again.
(N.B. Landsburg has a monthly column for Slate, if you'd like to sample some of his writing or you liked this book and want more.)
on December 12, 2004
Landsburg's book is entertaining and often witty, and written in a conversational, easy-to-read style. The book is very good at presenting often unintuitive and novel (to the non-economist) ways of looking at things. This is an invaluable book for pointing out common fallacies in arguments about deficits, inflation, unemployment, and other major political issues. At the same time, however, I can't help but think that Landsburg occasional misses significant relevant issues, most glaringly in the final chapter on environmentalism. For example, Landsburg describes a case where Jack wants a woodland at the expense of Jill's parking space and vice versa, and argues that the desires are exactly symmetrical. While environmentalists claim that the wilderness should take precedence "because a decision to pave is 'irrevocable'", Landsburg says "a decision _not_ to pave is _equally_ irrevocable" because "Unless we pave today, my opportunity to park tomorrow is lost as irretrievably as tomorrow itself will be lost" (p. 224). While this is correct, this misses the environmentalist's point that it is much easier to convert woodland to parking lot than to do the reverse. The environmentalist fears taking actions that are irrevocable in the sense that they cannot be undone in the future. Landsburg's perspective throughout the book seems to me to ignore the possibility of actions taken which may have consequences which may adversely effect the very existence of mankind (or economic institutions).
Another example in the same chapter is when he suggests that the best way for environmentalists to support the existence of cattle is to eat beef: "If you want ranchers to keep a lot of cattle, you should eat a lot of beef" (p. 225). This presumes that environmentalists care about the number of cattle in existence, irrespective of their living conditions. Would Landsburg have told abolitionists during the Civil War to buy more cotton as a way of improving the plight of slaves?
Yet a third example in the same chapter is about preservation of the Amazon rain forest, because a new species of monkey was discovered there in October 1992. Landsburg writes that this gives him reason _not_ to preserve the rain forest, since he "lived a long time without knowing about this monkey and never missed it" (p. 226). Would he make the same argument if it was a tribe of people whose existence depended on the rain forest rather than a species of monkey? If not, then he's missing the point of those who argue that animals (or the environment) have inherent value. It is clear from his writing that he disagrees, yet his own position does assign inherent value to the interests of people and so is not neutral. He seems to admit at the end of this chapter--in the letter he wrote to his child's teacher--that his view on environmentalism amounts to a religious view that is not subject to discussion (just as he thinks environmentalism itself amounts to a religion being inappropriately taught to his child).
Despite my complaints, I found the book as a whole to be entertaining and informative, and would recommend it along with David Friedman's _Law's Order_ (I haven't read Friedman's _Hidden Order_) for insight into economic analysis of issues of the day.
on January 20, 2006
This short and eloquent book does a mostly excellent job of explaining to non-economists how economic reasoning works in a wide variety of mostly non-financial areas. But it's frustrating how he can get so much right but still demonstrate many annoying oversimplifications that economists' biases make them prone to.
For example, on page 145 he claims that a trash collection company could cheaply prohibit Styrofoam peanuts in the trash by checking everyone's trash once a year and fining violators $100,000. But anyone who thinks about the economics of such fines will be able to imagine massive costs from people disputing who is responsible for peanuts in the trash. Maybe there are cultures in which such fines would ensure negligible violations, but there are probably as many cultures in which disputes over people putting peanuts in someone else's trash cans would produce more waste than the peanuts do.
His suggestion of applying antitrust laws to politicians is almost right, but ignores the public choice problems of ensuring that laws marketed as antitrust laws do anything to prevent monopoly. The details of antitrust laws are complex and boring enough that few people other than special interests pay attention to them, so special interests are able to twist the details to turn the laws into forces that protect monopolies.
On page 183 he says "Flood the economy with money and the nominal interest rate goes up in lockstep with inflation". Given a sufficiently long-term perspective, this is an arguably decent approximation. But he's disputing the common sense of a typical reporter who is more interested in a short-term perspective under which those changes clearly do not happen in lockstep (on page 216 he provides hints at a theory of why there's a delayed reaction).
He makes some good points about the similarities between environmentalism and religion, but it seems these points blind him to non-religious motives behind environmentalism. He says on page 227 about relocating polluting industries: "To most economists, this is a self-evident opportunity to make not just Americans but everybody better off." Maybe if he included a payoff to the U.S. workers whose jobs went overseas, this conclusion would be plausible. But it's hard enough to figure out how such a payoff should be determined that I suspect he simply ignored that problem.
on April 23, 2001
Enough has already been said about the perspective on economics that this book gives, and how it can give laypersons a good insight into the thought processes behind economic analysis. This review is in regards to the final chapter, an out-of-place editorial tirade entitled "Why I Am Not An Environmentalist: The Science of Economics Versus the Religion of Ecology." (This chapter can be taken as an editorial afterthought since, unlike the other twenty-three chapters, it lacks any listed academic sources in the appendix.)
It's possible that this final chapter on the evils of environmentalism is a clever satire not unlike Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (that the author himself references in chapter 15). Or maybe he's merely speaking point blank about his own ideas. Regardless, whether Landsburg intends to or not, he writes the perfect final chapter to a survey of economics: he exhibits the limits of the applicability of economic theory.
What he either demonstrates or merely fails to take into account is that some things have worth beyond their immediate market value. Forests and other natural resources have consequence outside their economically-quantifiable use for paper or recreation. What Landsburg shows is that economics, which explains behavior though simplified models, falls short at the point where it fails to take into account actions that alter the world that contains the model itself.
The ease and comfort (and the world that it takes place in) that economists are attempting to maximize through consumption is put at risk by that consumption itself. Explain the point through models, put a market value on trees, put a market value on oxygen, and use natural resources for their greatest economic potential, but if the ecosystem breaks down, it doesn't matter what the interest rate or money supply is; life quality will be inextractably decreased for the model world as a whole. If you prefer cleaner air, maybe you can move to a higher priced neighborhood as Landsburg suggests, but unless you're moving to another planet, there won't be a piece of real estate that is unaffected from the effects of environmental degredation. The economic model presented in this chapter fails to take this result into account.
But it's not likely that Landsburg's beliefs are a satire. The letter that he sends to his child's preschool against their recycling program only mirrors the fanaticism and righteousness that he rallies against when he uses the analogy of an academic curriculum that includes environmentalism being akin to forced religious conversion.
One of the most telling points of Landsburg's ignorance on the subject is that he continually confuses 'ecology' (a true science, arguably stronger in its hard scientific analysis and ability to predict outcomes than the social science of economics) with 'environmentalism', a social movement. Perhaps Landsburg should best stick to popcorn and avoid showing his ignorance of biology.
on October 29, 2014
I assigned Steven Landsburg's book to students in my Principles of Economics class (their first economics class) because I wanted them to read a "popsci" book that would help them see "the economics of everyday life" (the book's subtitle). I'm glad I did, but I had to make a few corrections of Landsburg's perspectives in class. I don't think that's a problem -- economics is not always a "science" -- but it's worth remembering that some of his assumptions and/or logic may not survive scrutiny. That's probably no great shock to Landsburg, who's presenting an "armchair view" of numerous complex issues.
More important for some of you: I decided against Freakonomics (too pop), The Economic Naturalist (too many just so stories) and Economics in One Lesson (too dated) when choosing this book, although all these books have something to recommend them.
So here are a few comments on Armchair Economist*
Overall, I found the book to be breezy, but sometimes too breezy. I recommend readers pursue their favorite topics on blogs, which are now far more dynamic, detailed and accessible
Landsburg gives lots of great, common sense explanations for everyday phenomena, e.g., the role of asymmetric information with insurance, why weird people are the best ones to trade with, who really earns monopoly rents (the owner of scarcity), that BOTH sides -- exporters and importers -- benefit from trade, and so on
He also spends some well-deserved pages explaining how economists are far more interested in happiness than wealth (something that regular folks should also consider more often), how a good policy may not be a great policy compared to alternatives (opportunity cost), and the most important policy question: you enact a policy that changes rules "...and then what happens?" I try very hard to impress these ideas on my students as they are perhaps the most useful economics can give
Landsburg covers Rawlsian justice, the opportunity cost of the draft ("free" labor isn't free), and the useful tool of redistributing wealth among citizens rather than (inefficiently) redistributing opportunities. These discussions -- and others -- should help readers see the "fair" side of a discipline which is often (ignorantly) characterized as a "neoliberal justification for exploitation"
I enjoyed his (macroeconomic) discussions of taxes, spending and debt as well as his simple but powerful defense of free trade (and attack on special interests)
Landsburg sometimes misses critical elements, e.g., the importance of work per se over the wages that work deliver, the positive externalities of literacy (educated citizens), and/or the the "irreversability problem" that makes it much harder to return a parking lot to rain forest. His last chapter -- "Why I am not a [ideological] environmentalist" -- is useful for its analogy to religious zealotry, but a failure when we compare the impact of religious people (reading old fiction) to the impact of "earth killers." Overall, Landsburg should spend a little more time on negative externalties that cannot be addressed by simple Coasian (common law) methods, due to their large scale (transaction costs)
Most readers will be interested in some of these issues. Landsburg's contribution is to present a different -- often original -- perspective on their incentives and impacts, which will keep curious readers engaged and biased readers enraged.
Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS for its engaging and provocative discussion of many important areas of our everyday life.
* I realize that my reviews tend to be "note heavy" and structure light, but this is easier for me. Look up the table of contents (or wikipedia for well-known books) if you want more on the structure.
on August 10, 2007
This is a very good book for those looking to learn fundamental economic principles and the way they are applied in practical terms every day. Some of the analysis is deft and subtle and surprising while in other places he either ignores practical behaviour (he assumes that people consume an evening at the movies without regard to the movie being shown and that popcorn eaters always eat popcorn and make their movie decisions based on this). Most surprising is his abandonment of economic principles during his alarming rant against environmentalists and their "hysteria" where he admonishes a primary school teacher for preaching environmental conservation to children. I agree with the fundamental point of not indoctrinating youngsters but Landsburg overreaches and attacks environmental concerns as a form of mass hysteria rather than focusing on the economic principle of negative externalities and their social costs when the overwhelming majority of scientists (and economists for that matter) agree that there is a long term social cost which needs to be addressed by either a forced market (cap and trade for instance) or government regulation (less desirable from an economists standpoint). A good book though and he would be a lively, convivial and intelligent dinner guest at an intellectual banquet.
on August 30, 2015
Easy to read, interesting, a bit dated in some of its references but not bad.
Some of his conclusions are a bit unexpected: if you drop a dollar bill you should let it go as your microscopic contribution to fighting inflation. His rationale is carefully laid out, but all along you know it is a tongue-in-cheek exercise and at the end he admits to picking his dollar back up anyway.
The book is full of short stories and scenarios like this one, fun to read and think about.
on January 6, 2000
Landsburg hits the nail on the head with this book. I was looking for a short and to the point explanation of economics for the benefit of my 17 year old daughter when I picked up this book and found that and more. His premise is that "people respond to incentives and the rest is just commentary." Landsburg takes off from there and explains economic concepts with simple but apt examples and deflates quite a few myths in the process(using no formulas or complicated math in his presentation but including endnotes with references for readers inclined to look behind the words).
College students would do well to read through this book before plunging into macro- or micro- economics because it puts the theory into perspective with real world examples and stories. Everyone else can benefit from having a better understanding of how our economy works.
I highly recommend this book as informative, thoughtfully written, and thoroughly entertaining.
on December 18, 2014
I'm a college student and usually do not enjoy the bland textbooks teachers assign. This book, however, was amazing! I kept it after the semester instead of selling it and read it again :) Really helped me gain an intelligent grasp on economics. I was able to meet Landsberg in Dallas a year ago and he was also the nicest person ever! Most economists and academics are so pretentious but he was so willing to answer my questions and discuss policy issues.