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Economics: The User's Guide Paperback – October 20, 2015
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“The dismal science rendered undismally, even spryly . . . lively, intelligent, and readily accessible.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“This excellent economics primer is written 'in plain terms' for a college-educated reader; it follows efforts by some academics to seek a readership market beyond the classroom.” ―Booklist
“A practical guide that shows the importance of the subject as a worldview and how it fits into everyday life.” ―Library Journal
“This book should be the poster child for the word 'tweener.' Not quite an introductory text (although that is the category into which the author places it), the book is 'a mile wide and an inch deep' and includes 'everything but the kitchen sink' in terms of level of detail and scope of coverage [ . . . ] an interesting, entertaining, and worthwhile contribution that offers a picture of the global economy and how and why it affects daily life. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers.” ―A. R. Sanderson, University of Chicago CHOICE
About the Author
Ha-Joon Chang teaches in the Faculty of Economics at Cambridge University. His books include the international bestseller Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, Kicking Away the Ladder, winner of the 2003 Myrdal Prize, and 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism. In 2005, Chang was awarded the Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.
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Top customer reviews
Peter Boettke claims (with cause) that “mainstream” economics left the path of “mainline” economics after World War II, when mathematical economics rose to dominate the field. This resort to “mathterbation” has, IMO, weakened the discipline by making most research both inaccessible to lay readers and inaccurate in terms of “findings” (read Skidelsky). Such weaknesses explain why experimental, behavioural and institutional economics have grown so quickly in the past 20-30 years — mainstream economics just doesn’t help with important questions or facts.
I downloaded this book on the prodding of one of my students as well as my own curiosity. I wanted to read a book that “gives us the tools we need to understand our increasingly global and interconnected world often driven by economics.”
The short answer is that it does not.
Chang's book is not going to be helpful to the average reader with little knowledge of economics as Chang’s method of listing many schools of economic thought (before discussing the pros and cons of each school) will leave most readers confused. Worse, in my opinion, is that Chang oversimplifies — often to the point of caricature — complex sets of ideas that few economists buy into 100 percent. Chang, in other words, is battling with paper tigers in front of an audience that may not know what a real tiger looks like, and without the realities that a real tiger-fighter might need to consider.
In my review of Freakonomics, I say that that book presents a series of entertaining “just so” stories that will be good for cocktail conversation but counterproductive to anyone seeking to understand how economists think. Chang’s book has the same problem but for different reasons. Freakonomics fails because it puts too much weight on case studies. Chang fails (in terms of educating readers) because he puts too much weight on theoretical quibbles.
My advice here is the same as there, i.e., that readers seeking to understand the economic way of thinking read Economics in One Lesson [free download].
Putting that heavy remark aside, I DO recommend this book to graduate students in economics seeking a quick and dirty overview of the various schools of thought and how they overlap and contradict with each other. I would advice they read it AFTER reading Heilbronner’s Worldly Philosophers because his “history of economic thought” explains how the current schools emerged. After reading these two books, it makes a lot of sense for those students to read primers or handbooks in each school as a counterpoint to the neoclassical (often more mathematical than useful) perspective they might get from Mas Colell, Whinston and Green — the doorstopper we used in graduate school that was as rigorous as it was useless.
I would NOT recommend this book for non-economics gradate students because they will walk away with the (mistaken) opinion that “economists can’t agree on anything, so I can ignore economic thinking and make up my own version of human behaviour.” For those students, I would recommend Heilbronner (to see the depth and evolution of economic thinking) in combination with a course in microeconomics (to understand why demand slopes down), with a finisher looking into the economics of non-market goods. (I’ll be reviewing Ostrom et al.’s book on common pool resources soon!)
For readers looking for more detailed criticisms, I’ll give only a few because I make over 70 notes in the text and don’t want to bore all of us with so many details.
Early on, Chang notes that Europe’s GDP grew by less between 1000 and 1500 than China’s did between 2002 and 2008, but this measure of “material progress” (growth) misses much of what people care about (development). I doubt that any historian would agree that Europe did less in 500 years as China did in six (read this).
Chang is a “macro guy” and Keynesian from South Korea, so he’s clearly got a different perspective from me (a micro guy and institutionalist from California), but I found myself constantly amazed by his oversimplified explanations for large scale events (e.g., how declining colonialism lead to World War I or that “Soviet industrialization was a big success… due to its ability to repel the Nazi advance”). In these cases — and many more — I had counter examples to his claims. That doesn’t matter in terms of who’s wrong or what school is right, but it indicates a deeper problem: Chang’s habit of oversimplifying in ways that cannot be generalized (the same problem that Freakonomics had). This may be my perspective as a “micro foundations” guy, but Chang is the one who needs to substantiate (or more carefully state) his claims, and his lack of caveat or rigour undermines both those claims and the rest of his “reasonable perspective.”
I would have loved to read more of Chang’s insights into South Korea’s development as an competitive exporting economy led by conglomerates under a military dictatorship, but that discussion was not in this book (perhaps it is in others). That said, his summary of economic policies in the Reagan years is a shallow and partial caricature that leaves out the importance of higher interest rates in reducing inflation and the role of trade (including imports of Korean cars!) in producing America’s Rust Belt. It was frustrating to miss so many important facts (and perhaps even economic policies!) in those discussions.
I could go on, but I’ll stop.
Bottom Line I give this book THREE STARS because it does not “explain how the global economy actually works--in real-world terms” (and so on), but instead offers a series of mini critiques on economic thought that would be useless — or misleading — to the average reader. I recommend that anyone interested in a quick and entertaining summary of Chang's main message watch this 11 minute RSA video.
expect of what is essentially something of an economics text.
This is the third book by this author I've read. Each has been an eye opener. There are simply so so many
ideas and "facts" we all hold about economics which do not really stand careful scrutiny. In each of the three
books by Ha-Joon Chang I've read he has really stripped away at false assumptions, naive ideas, simplistic
viewpoints, all with an accessible style of writing.
Honestly, I wish we could somehow take all of our politicians and force them to read his works. Our world
would be better for it.
If only for its sucicnt and stratforward explanation of Asset Backed Securities, Collateralized Debt Obligations and Default Swaps this is a great book. And that is a small part of the book. This is the most fair-minded explanation of the various theories of economics I have ever read. It didn't change my point of view a great deal, but I've always been skeptical of the arguments offered by the right and the left. I do have a greater understanding of the weaknesses of my default positions on economic ishues and the rational behind positions I tend to dismiss.
The book takes a pragmatic approach, it presents different point of views and schools of economics as well as the impact they have had (and still have) in different parts of our changing history.
A must read for anybody interested in economics (even a little) and history.