- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: McGraw-Hill Education; 1 edition (January 22, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0070067090
- ISBN-13: 978-0070067097
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 23 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #869,776 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life 1st Edition
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"The great majority of people are more rational and make fewer mistakes in promoting their own interests than even well-intentioned government officials," writes this impressive couple (Gary won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Economics). The short, column-length essays that make up this volume first appeared in Business Week magazine and show for a popular audience how market incentives influence human behavior in countless ways. The Beckers criticize centralized planning, racial quotas and trade tariffs, and endorse drug legalization, privatized social security and school vouchers. They also veer into unexpected terrain, addressing religion, sports and marriage with keen insight. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
``Mr. Becker ranges widely across the current scene, examining goverment spending, taxation, gun conntrol, and even sports and religion.'' (Henderson, David R. The Wall Street Journal 1996-11-19) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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I think that the best use of this book is as a test of predictions that were made by economists. The conclusion that we come to is one that many other people have come to before. And that is: Economists have a poor track record of predicting, and they can give you ideas about general principles but they will not make specific predictions about exactly what will happen.
As just a couple of examples (found on a SINGLE page--41): 1. Taxing Company health benefits will increase federal and state revenues by perhaps sixty billion dollars annually and remove a tax incentive for companies to overinsure. If their company health benefits were taxed, many more employed persons will get their insurance from unions, churches, professional associations, and clubs that will be able to compete effectively against smaller companies and offer cheaper coverage. 2. To eliminate the resulting temptation to take a free ride on the insurance and taxes of others, a federal mandate should require all families that can't afford it to buy a basic package that covers major medical expenses and perhaps some preventive care also.
Those exact two things were enacted under the patient protection and Affordable Care Act in current times - - both the individual mandate, and the Cadillac tax on certain insurance plans. And we see how that worked out.
Consider also that people talk about things that should be done as a hot topic of the day. 20 years later, they are still a Hot Topic and still nothing is done. (p.46): " Consider the gathering momentum behind recent proposals in the US to mandate paid leaves to men and women after a child is born or adopted and to require companies to provide child care facilities at work. "
All of this was written between 20 and 30 years ago, and still here we are twenty years later without any such policy in place.
If you were someone who reads about economics as a dilettante, none of these Notions are particularly new. So, the benefits of deregulation, privatization and free trade are things that we all know about.
Verdict: Not recommended. It's too dated.
Sadly, it's not very representative of the rest of his work.
For starters, it's not really a book, it's a compilation of 800-word essays he wrote for Newsweek in the late eighties and early nineties. The timing here is critical. These essays were written at a juncture when "free market" ideology, of which Becker was a prominent preacher, was at its apogee, possibly even its moment of hubris. Keen to give a "coup de grace" to the mortally wounded ideology of central planning and hyper-regulation that suffered its biggest blow with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Becker is having his own "end of history" moment here. There's nothing that cannot be left to the market according to these essays:
Becker takes aim at every possible form of government participation in the economy, from the public school system, subsidised tuition at state-run colleges and the government monopoly on postal services, all the way to the minimum wage, affirmative action and drug prohibition. He speaks in favor of workfare over welfare, advocates the post-Vietnam status quo when it comes to voluntary (professional to you and me) military service over the draft, and puts in a big plug for NAFTA. There's also some stuff that already identifies him as an old man, like when he wants to turn back the clock on no-fault divorce or when he cannot drop the point on what he perceives to be pay restrictions against college athletes.
With twenty to thirty years' hindsight, one would have to say he scores no better than 50:50 on his judgements.
Becker very accurately predicts the student loan debacle we are about to find ourselves in today: the trillion dollar market for unserviceable debt cannot be regulated away neither by having the government stand behind it nor by making it impossible to write off; his recommendation (coming from the right, funnily enough) that people ought to be forced to buy health insurance (p.41 in the book) has found its embodiment in Obamacare; affirmative action is now deemed to have run its course as minorities have made it to the highest echelons of academia and society; even leftists today are prepared to agree that there are undeniable benefits from free trade, while the wealthy are now pretty much ready to accept that government handouts will have to be means-tested, just like Becker says they should be.
But history has been less kind to his fixation on education vouchers, society is groaning under the weight of higher state-school college tuition (that has come to pass due to busted state budgets rather than ideology), workfare, instituted under Clinton, has been a disaster for the children of the single mothers who were forced to take on jobs and even the "voluntary" nature of the military, while impossible to reverse, is blamed by many as one of the main causes for the way the US sleepwalked into two wars it could only lose.
All that said, these Newsweek columns are not without merit. At the time when they were written they provided to many readers their first exposure to a way of thinking about the economy that was not yet taught in college. If you were a college student in 1985, your main Economics text, Samuelson, had a prediction for the date the Soviet economy would surpass the American. In that context, these columns would have been a breath of fresh air.
And if Becker had hung on a bit longer, I suspect he'd finally see his (rather premature) prediction that the "time is ripe" for drug legalisation come true.
From where we stand today, however, you are well advised to look up in the table of contents the date on which every essay was written, or else you will be disappointed. So while the book scores well as a historical document, or a place to establish what the "free market" book-end could be defined on this wide variety of topics, it fails (and if fails rather dismally) to rise to the standard of analysis, let alone humility, that you would be used to if you were a regular reader of the author's blog.