28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
A valuable reminder that economics is a means not an end,
This review is from: The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World (Hardcover)
A lively and thought-provoking follow-up to Harford's debut book The Undercover Economist, which used textbook economics to throw new light on everyday life. In this second book Harford moves well beyond the textbook to take us on a tour of some cutting edge research and thinking that's emerging from what he calls a "new breed of economists". Among them is Steve Levitt, whose Freakonomics popularized the notion that economists can have interesting things to say about areas you wouldn't normally expect them to be poking their noses into - but Levitt is only one of many academic researchers who are cheerfully roaming over other people's turf from their economics labs, so Harford's book serves as a timely overview of a newly sexy subject.
The result is a startlingly diverse collection of insights and anecdotes which are all held together by one central premise - that you can explain a lot about life by starting from the simple assumption that people are fundamentally rational. This is not an uncontroversial assertion - among the "new breed of economists" are those melding economics with psychology into a fledgeling discipline of behavioral economics, which focuses on our irrational quirks. Harford's view is not to dismiss these human foibles, but to argue persuasively that they shouldn't be overstated, and that in most important situations we behave rationally - that is, subconsciously evaluating costs and benefits and responding to incentives - to a remarkable extent.
Harford's writing is a joy to read, especially when he's impishly puncturing pomposity - my favorite is the "why your boss is overpaid" chapter, which discusses several theories that could rationally explain the obscenely high wages commanded by modern CEOs (hint: none of them are "because they're worth it"). One great lesson made clear by this book is that individually rational decisions can lead to socially horrible outcomes, a conclusion never clearer than in the discomfiting chapter on "rational racism". It's a valuable reminder that economics is a means not an end - rational choice theory doesn't dictate what society should be like, rather it teaches how we can harness rationality by changing incentives to shape the society we want.