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on August 11, 2007
Tyler Cowen is an economist, aptly self-described "curious intellectual nerd polymath," and a gifted blogger. His new book is the only one I've ever pre-purchased through Amazon. This in itself is a tribute to Cowen's capacity to mobilize appropriate incentives: He secreted a second blog, and advertised on Marginal Revolution that access was available only to those who wrote to say they'd pre-purchased a copy of DYIC. I spent this afternoon reading the book, and my overall impression is that "Sometimes, a bunch of appetizers does not make a meal." Because Cowen's brain brims with creative ways to approach life from an idiosyncratic angle, his blog has marvelous little jags, lists, apercus gleaned from his vast reading. This book is not quite a blook, but it would have greatly benefited from a co-author whose strength was more inclined to thoroughness. While he admits that his habit is to "stop writing just a bit before I have said everything I want to. I find it better to approach the next writing day 'hungry'..." (123), I was left hungry for more detail or resolution on almost every topic. As a troubling example, he introduces the concept of the "Me factor", and deploys it in several instances, but the only explanation provided was this very skimpy account, that focusing "our attention on ourselves ... is in fact our favorite topic. Me, me, me. ... [T]he 'Me factor', as I will call it." (52-3) There are tons of ideas broached here, and the chapters on Art and Food are particularly stimulating. The defense of self-deception felt self-indulgently sketchy, and the final account of how to deal with torture piffles into "Quite simply, it is hard to show other people, in a convincing manner, that we are telling the truth. In the meantime, file this problem under 'Difficult to Solve' and stay out of the wrong cities." (104). If truth in subtitles were enforced, it should be noted that Cowen offers very little to help survive your next meeting, nor do his thoughts on motivating your dentist inspire much confidence.
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on September 18, 2007
This book falls into a trap several recent best sellers have (Blink comes to mind): books that are just random collections of interesting ideas or stories. Like Blink, Cowen advertises a thesis that is supposed to run throughout the book. However, after the first couple of chapters the idea of discovering your Inner Economist is basically discarded. Instead, Cowen throws around interesting ideas that are of varying degrees of interest, shallow and short. The Inner Economist continues to make cameos, but only so Cowen can stroke the reader's ego with comments similar to "Of course, you and your Inner Economist already knew this."

The book is still worth reading. But go in understanding it will not change the way you think and is a compilation of observations more than anything else. Also understand it doesn't measure up to the leader in the collection-of-economic-observations genre: Freakonomics.
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HALL OF FAMEon November 7, 2007
Cowen gives readers three principles for distinguishing good economics from bad:

1)The Postcard Test - It should be possible to take a good economics argument and write it out on the back of a moderate-sized postcard.

2)The Grandma Test - Most economic arguments ought to be intelligible to your grandmother.

3)The Aha Principle - If the basic concepts are presented well, economics should make sense.

Unfortunately, Cowen violates these less than stunning principles. The book rambles, communicates little if anything about economics, has no integrating thread, and is boring. My guess is that he simply decided to get on the "Freakonomics" bandwagon. If so, it's long past time to move onto another fad.
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on September 16, 2007
This book is a collection of barely-related factoids which the author does not successfully link to a thesis on incentives. The book simply isn't cohesive. Although a number of the author's observations are interesting and surprising, he rarely elaborates upon any of them, and they almost never contribute to a useful conclusion. I was particularly distressed to find that by the end of the second chapter the author had already dismissed two of the three teases in his subtitle. It was difficult to read beyond the point where he admitted that one actually CANNOT use incentives either to survive a meeting or to motivate one's dentist. I should add that nearly every interesting revelation in the book is informed by the fields of history, sociology, and psychology, NOT economics. In summary, this is a very disappointing book with a very misleading title. My inner economist advises you not to buy it.
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on October 2, 2007
Ok. I have a problem with the book. Does it suggest any way you can use incentives to survive your next meeting? No, in fact it says none of them work. How about motivating your dentist? Nope.

The book needed an honest copywriter and a strong editor.

It is entertaining, but it rambles. Better, stronger structure, clearer logic and theory and tighter examples would have really helped.

It has some good points swimming in the sea of stream of consciousness writing, but darn it, I bought this book new to get more than that.

As the author advises, you need not finish every book. I'd add to that, you need not buy every book either, interlibrary loan is more than enough to pick up the good points of this book and to let you save your incentives, your dollars, to encourage another writer.
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on November 18, 2007
I rarely come across a book that inspires me to write a review. This one has that exceptional quality of being so bad that I feel compelled to post my opinion here.

The whole book has the air of the smug, overly talkative guy at the cocktail party who loves to hear himself talk and just won't shut up. Tyler Cowen is like a cross between Cliff Claven and Frasier Crane - the two characters from Cheers. He presents himself as an expert on virtually everything, making sweeping statements that appear to just be random ideas with no basis in fact... and he does so with the pompous air of a "cultured" aristocrat.

Unlike the book's author, I generally DO finish every book that I start, if for no other reason than to give it every possible chance to redeem itself. I kept hoping against hope that this one would have some value, but it never did.

Despite the title, this book says virtually nothing about economics. There are a few pages here and there that mention incentives, but nothing of any substance. A better title would be "Discovering Tyler Cowen's random thoughts about food, art museums, dating, and other topics".

As noted by another reviewer, there is nothing in this book that points to any evidence about any of the author's musings. For example, he spends several pages talking about what kind of strategy you might want to use if you were kidnapped by extremists bent on torturing you. Does he actually mention any case in which anyone was held hostage... what worked, what didn't? Does he mention what the experts have said is the right strategy in such a situation? Has he personally experimented with torture by tying someone to a chair and reading this book to them? Nothing of substance here... just random thoughts with virtually no direction.

It is worth noting that most of the thirteen 5-star reviews for this book (as of the date I'm writing this) were written within a week or two of the book's release, and at least three were written by people who live in Cowen's hometown of Fairfax, VA (and a fourth by someone in nearby Washington DC). I'm not a statistician, but it does seem a bit improbable...
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on November 18, 2008
The author has a few good suggestions about selecting restaurants. The rest of this book is a complete waste of time. The author's primary intention seems to be showing the world what a man of the world he thinks he is, e.g. titles of books he has read; names of countries has visited; names of musicians he knows about; how many different types of foods he has tasted. There is list after list of items. It was nauseating to read.
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on October 1, 2007
"Freakonomics" was a great book; engaging and thought provoking. It lacked detail, but still easily merited a 4.5 to 5 rating. Tim Hartford's "The Undercover Economist" was another excellent sidelong look at economics, with better depth but not as compelling or "freaky" examples.

Sadly, the Inner Economist does not match either of the above. It's not poorly written. Instead, it wanders amiably through topics talking about the role of incentives. When it was done, I found little left to think about, challenge my assumptions, or remember. I give a "3" or better to a book that I don't regret buying or spending the time to read. This one left me with a tinge of regret for both the slight cost and time it took. Buy the others first. Borrow this one from a library -- or eventually find someone else's copy used at a steep discount.
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on March 13, 2008
This book wanders like a stream of consciousness. I did not walk away with any profound understanding of economics' manifestations in everyday life. If you're looking for a book that marries economic principles with social incentives try Freakonomics, The Armchair Economist, or Freedomonics.
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on December 18, 2007
This book is a mish mash of thoughts in search of a common theme. The author claims/aims to liberate the reader's "inner economist." In this effort, he covers such universally critical sbjects as how to order at an ethnic restaurant and how to respond when questioned while being tortured by a terrorist. Unlike the author, who freely admits to not finishing many books, I did read this book to the end, hoping for some grand synthesis. But I found none. The book just wanders from place to place.
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