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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!
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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! [Hardcover]

Tim Harford
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (211 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 1, 2005
An economist's version of The Way Things Work, this engaging volume is part field guide to economics and part expose of the economic principles lurking behind daily events, explaining everything from traffic jams to high coffee prices.
The Undercover Economist is for anyone who's wondered why the gap between rich and poor nations is so great, or why they can't seem to find a decent second-hand car, or how to outwit Starbucks. This book offers the hidden story behind these and other questions, as economist Tim Harford ranges from Africa, Asia, Europe, and of course the United States to reveal how supermarkets, airlines, and coffee chains--to name just a few--are vacuuming money from our wallets. Harford punctures the myths surrounding some of today's biggest controversies, including the high cost of health-care; he reveals why certain environmental laws can put a smile on a landlord's face; and he explains why some industries can have high profits for innocent reasons, while in other industries something sinister is going on. Covering an array of economic concepts including scarce resources, market power, efficiency, price gouging, market failure, inside information, and game theory, Harford sheds light on how these forces shape our day-to-day lives, often without our knowing it.
Showing us the world through the eyes of an economist, Tim Harford reveals that everyday events are intricate games of negotiations, contests of strength, and battles of wits. Written with a light touch and sly wit, The Undercover Economist turns "the dismal science" into a true delight.

Editorial Reviews

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 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.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Harford exposes the dark underbelly of capitalism in Undercover Economist. Compared with Steven Levitt’s and Stephen J. Dubner’s popular Freakonomics (*** July/Aug 2005), the book uses simple, playful examples (written in plain English) to elucidate complex economic theories. Critics agree that the book will grip readers interested in understanding free-market forces but disagree about Harford’s approach. Some thought the author mastered the small ideas while keeping in sight the larger context of globalization; others faulted Harford for failing to criticize certain economic theories and to ground his arguments in political, organizational structures. Either way, his case studies—some entertaining, others indicative of times to come—will make you think twice about that cup of coffee.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195189779
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195189773
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1.1 x 6.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (211 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #205,776 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tim Harford is the author of the bestseller The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life and a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times, where he also writes the "Dear Economist" column. He is a regular contributor to Slate, Forbes, and NPR's Marketplace. He was the host of the BBC TV series Trust Me, I'm an Economist and now presents the BBC series More or Less. Harford has been an economist at the World Bank and an economics tutor at Oxford University. He lives in London with his wife and two daughters.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
230 of 240 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Orthodox Economic Thought November 18, 2005
If you read only one pop economics book this year, The Undercover Economist should be it. Harford, a columnist for the Financial Times among other distinctions, has written a book that could almost serve as a textbook for an Economics 101 course. But it's emphatically not dry or dull. Instead, what Harford has done is convey the excitement, the power, and the often counter-intuitive results of economic thought. In so doing, he has written more or less the economic equivalent to The Selfish Gene.

Many recent books (notably Freakonomics) have dealt with the more exciting realms of economic research, such as the application of certain economic models to what most people would consider non-economic behavior. And far more books have talked about "economics" in the context of even trendier ideas like globalization (think The World is Flat or even No Logo). Such books, however, are reflections of marginal (in the case of the former) or unsophisticated (in the case of the latter) economic schools of thought.

Harford presents the orthodoxy in all its glory, and reminds readers that economists really do see the world in a different--and fascinating--way. He explains simple, but often misunderstood, concepts like adverse selection (that is, why health insurance costs too much), as well as even simpler, but far more consequential, economic models, such as David Ricardo's explanation of why landowners, and not farmers, make money from rising crop prices. Along the way, he explains why the prices at Safeway and Whole Foods are about the same--and why the prices for items on the top shelf are higher than prices for the same goods on the bottom shelf.
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72 of 74 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Economist as Detective September 19, 2007
Ever since the surprise success of "Freakonomics", a flood of economics books for the general public have been published, all trying to cash on the success of that peculiar best seller. According to the principles explained in Tim Harford's book, that is probably a mistake: profits come from scarcity - so further books about `the economics of everyday life' face diminishing returns. And yet, Harford offers several explanations as to why such books may continue to be published: one is that if everyone thinks that economics books are going to be best sellers, an editor who wouldn't publish economics books may lose her job. I'm merely speculating, of course, but this is what happened (with dotcom stocks instead of econ books) to Tony Dye, chief executive of Phillips & Drew (pp. 135-137).

Tim Harford's stuff, though, is worth reading. A regular contributor to and the financial times, Harford has the gift of explaining complicated economic ideas in accessible language.

Although the comparison to "Freakonomics" is made prominently by the book's cover (which in my version includes an endorsement from Freakonomist Steven Levitt himself, as well as a description as the "elder sibling" of Freakonomics by `The Economist'), `The Undercover Economist' is the better economics book. Freakonomics, after all, doesn't teach too much economics: beyond emphasizing that "people respond to incentives" (an important message, for sure) it answers such questions as whether Sumo wrestlers cheat (They do) and what name should you give your child (It doesn't matter).
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100 of 112 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finally, an economist speaks my own language! November 3, 2005
I just finished this book, which is a bit like a real life cheat-sheet. Give this guy the Nobel prize: he made economics INTERESTING AND FUN for me!!! A dreading challenge, believe me!

Economics is everywhere. We're surrounded by it, but most people do not think about it in they're daily lives. That's unfortunate: one would certainly learn to drive before standing behind the wheel of an automobile. So why not learn about the economic incentives that actually drive most of our own behavior before getting out and getting hit by that $2.90 latte?

Learning about those incentives is not only worth it, as the examples in this book prove again and again; it also helps you make sense of what is happening around you, and therefore make better, informed choices. If one understands how most things are driven by the invisible laws of trade, competition, inflation and cost/spending or tax incentives, then one has less chance to get abused by such a system. Even better: this book shows how to ride that system and take advantage of the inherent value one holds as a consumer.

I am finishing writing this review and am going out get a latte and do some grocery shopping. Now that I've read Tim Harford's book, I know where to go and how to make the best use of the scarce money I have (but I won't reveal the tricks here, as it would be like revealing a surprise end to a good book).

My bet is that I'll be able to save what I paid for the book by the time I log back in to Amazon to see if my review has been picked up or not!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Exactly what I wanted and expected, and the product got to my house quickly.
Published 15 days ago by Hambz
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Fun book. Really enjoyed it. At times a little repetitive.
Published 27 days ago by Kristina Astone
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent combination of depth and readability
Readable, in fact, extremely readable, to a non-economics major like me. His analysis, and/or that of the economists he cited, may not be entirely correct. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Forrest
4.0 out of 5 stars Economics made relatable
Overall a good read. Very insightful and certainly improves your understanding of basic economic principles by using easily understandable and relatable examples. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Fergal Twomey
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Explanation for Non-Econ Major
What I felt has been said by many reviewers, I just want to give it a 5 star from my true feeling to bump its ratings.
Published 3 months ago by Y. Zhang
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
good book
Published 3 months ago by Samantha Stento
4.0 out of 5 stars Good writing but a dense subject
I believe the author did a very good job in taking the reader through kind of a story, even though economics is a very dense subject he explains everything in a simple manner. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Chucho Díaz
4.0 out of 5 stars It explains a lot of wishy-washy things in life through ...
It explains a lot of wishy-washy things in life through the eyes of an economist. This is a much more rational thought scheme than your run-of-the-mill cable news butt-flapping.
Published 4 months ago by whatsaninternet045
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
This was really interesting.
Published 5 months ago by Jason Hadley
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read
Excellent read. I thoroughly enjoyed this was backtracking after reading Adapt. Fascinating discussion of real issues in our everyday lives from an economic perspective. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Simon Fritsch
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