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Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception Hardcover – September 22, 2015
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George A. Akerlof, Co-Winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics
Robert J. Shiller, Co-Winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economics
Winner of the 2016 Gold Medal in Economics, Axiom Business Book Awards
One of Foreign Affairs’ Best Economic, Social, and Environmental (Economics) Books of 2016
Selected for Bloomberg View’s “The Writing that Shaped Economic Thinking in 2016”
One of The Times Literary Supplement’s Books of the Year 2016, chosen by Paul Collier
Honorable Mention for the 2016 PROSE Award in Economics, Association of American Publishers
One of The Independent’s Best Economics Books 2015
One of LinkedIn’s Best Business Books of 2015
One of BusinessInsider.com’s Best Business Books of 2015
One of Legal Theory Bookworm’s Books of the Year 2015
Longlisted for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year 2015
"[Akerlof and Shiller] want to go far beyond behavioral economics, at least in its current form. They offer a much more general, and quite damning, account of why free markets and competition cause serious problems. . . . They are intellectual renegades. . . . Akerlof and Shiller make a convincing argument that phishing occurs because of the operation of the invisible hand, not in spite of it. . . . [This] extraordinary book tells us something true, and profoundly important, about the operation of the invisible hand."--Cass Sunstein, New York Review of Books
"No question, Phishing for Phools is a radical book. It may also be a radically important one."--Fortune
"Entertaining, readable and provocative."--John Lanchester, London Review of Books
"I highly recommend this, even for those who might disagree with the authors' outlook. Their case studies are illuminating, and their insights on the way markets work are fascinating. When you consider the sorry state of the personal finances of the median working age family in the United States today, it's hard to disagree with their central thesis that our current system isn't working properly."--John Reeves, The Motley Fool, USA Today
"A needed call for skeptical economics and financial mindfulness."--Nature
"Using compelling examples of flawed decision making from advertising, health care and personal finances, the authors identify our rational weak spots and arm readers with the ability to resist manipulation."--Scientific American Mind
"As you would expect, it's a very clearly written book with tons of examples. And it makes a simple and powerful point about the fragility of the normative, welfare economics conclusions economists tend to draw."--Diane Coyle, The Enlightened Economist
"Akerlof and Shiller present convincing evidence of how tobacco, pharmaceutical, and liquor companies and politicians weasel a chapter of their own into our life stories, abusing the mutual storytelling--with all its signs and wonders--that is elemental to our humanity."--Peter Lewis, Barnes & Noble Review
"With accessible language and everyday examples, Shiller and Akerlof are taking on the powerful belief that aside from a few blemishes (like widening income inequality) only fools advocate interfering with the free market."--Chris Farrell, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"The book's central message is certainly thought-provoking."--The Economist
"Phishing for Phools forswears technical language, making this book accessible not only to economists but to consumers and policymakers. It should make everyone rethink the unfettered free-market model."--Brenda Jubin, Investing.com
"It's a very clearly written book with tons of examples. And it makes a simple and powerful point about the fragility of the normative, welfare economics conclusions economists tend to draw."--Enlightened Economist
"Its critique of conventional economics is more powerful and comprehensive--and more paternalistic--than that of Animal Spirits."--Carlos Lozada, Washington Post
"[Akerlof's and Shiller's] insight is a powerful one."--Economist.com's Buttonwood blog
"Akerlof and Shiller show that unregulated free markets systematically make people worse off by providing the unscrupulous with opportunities to take advantage of the unwary."--Adam Bouyamourn, The National
"[Phishing for Phools] serves the important purpose of holding up a mirror to economics, a subject that prides itself on (supposedly) being the most sophisticated of all the social sciences. Economics may look sophisticated on paper, but it is often completely out of touch when it comes to reality."--Victoria Bateman, Times Higher Education
"The book offers powerful support for a skeptical view of free markets, but it's also a helpful guide for consumers to avoid getting ripped off in the course of making important purchases."--Chris Matthews, Fortune
"An interesting and entertaining new book by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller looks at the role of trickery in market economies. Phishing for Phools explains that sellers are often out to deceive you, and shows that this isn't an occasional glitch in the market system so much as an intrinsic and pervasive trait. . . . Phishing for Phools aims to help readers understand their psychological weaknesses, so that the phishermen can be phended off more ephectively."--Clive Crook, Bloomberg View
"Where Akerlof and Shiller break new ground is the sweeping application of the idea of the ‘phishing equilibrium' to finance. . . . The style of Phishing for Phools will be familiar to fans of Shiller's work: light on jargon and pacy enough not to outstay its welcome. The authors tell some engaging tales."--Robin Harding, Financial Times
"[A] surprisingly readable yet highly original book . . . the evidence and explanations marshaled by Akerlof and Shiller are compelling and they have profound political implications . . . an enlightening read by two expert economists. It should be required reading for policy makes and for consumers (which is to say, all of us. . . . [An] important, sobering book."--Oliver Kamm, The Times
"Narratives in this impressive book tell how to avoid being tricked by means of better enforcement and being told of pending scams. . . . [O]ne of the few titles dealing with fraud in the marketplace."--Library Journal
"The authors provide is a . . . unifying theory for all kinds of trickery, an economic explanation for why deception is so rampant. It takes many of our scattered findings about humanity's blind spots--both psychological weakness and a lack of perfect information--and weaves them into a comprehensive framework that has the potential to be devastating for free market fundamentalists."--Victoria Finkle, Washington Monthly
"Its central idea is an important one and merits more attention."--Emran Mian, Prospect
"Phishing for Phools is packed with examples--including subprime mortgages, pharmaceuticals, political campaigns, gym memberships, credit cards, cars and cranberry juice labels--of the pervasiveness of deception and manipulation in our economy and the price it exacts on individuals and the society at large."--Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World
"This interesting book is written by economists mainly for economists, but it includes many entertaining stories about business behavior (and some disturbing ones), told in lively and accessible prose."--Foreign Affairs
"The book is easy to read and relate; and more importantly will make you start thinking of the number of times you have been phished. The list would be endless!"--Madan Sabnavis, BusinessWorld
"This unusual book offers a simple but challenging corrective to the assumptions made by most mainstream economists. . . . Probably not every reader will agree with every interpretation or argument--but every reader will find something that enlightens and stimulates."--James Ledbetter, Yale Alumni Magazine
"This book was enjoyable to read, and the expertise and knowledge of the authors are abundantly evident."--William Holcomb, PsycCRITIQUES
"Bob and George urge us to slap Adam Smith's invisible hand when it steals from everybody's cookie jar. They ask us to ponder those situations, economic or political, that provide particularly tempting opportunities to phish for phools. . . . Penetrating insights rendered in accessible prose."--Marlene Lang May, Commonweal
From the Back Cover
"In an entertaining and lively account, Akerlof and Shiller show that while the pursuit of profits may lead to products that enrich our lives, it may also lead to manipulation and deception. Much of recent innovation has led to products that make cheating the public easier. The implications are complex and profound."--Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics
"Phishing for Phools is an intellectual tour de force. It may change your image of the invisible hand into an invisible phoot, always looking to trip you up. Read it for phun; read it for wisdom."--Alan S. Blinder, author of After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead
"A phabulous book! This is economics after the behavioral revolution at its best."--Samuel Bowles, Santa Fe Institute
"Akerlof and Shiller provide a phenomenal guide to the pitfalls of the phree market. This redemptive revision of economic theory explains the built-in risks of rip-offs in a profit-maximizing world."--Nancy Folbre, professor emerita, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
"As Akerlof and Shiller remind us, the same incentives that lead sellers to introduce innovations that improve quality and reduce costs also ensure that no profitable opportunity to cheat us will remain unexploited. This highly readable and insightful book will transform how we think about the role of government."--Robert H. Frank, author of The Economic Naturalist
"Akerlof and Shiller extend the standard ‘market failure' theory--which says that there is a potential role for government intervention when markets fail--by showing that markets fail not only because of the familiar reasons of externalities and unfair income distribution, but also because of the pervasive phenomenon of ‘phishing for phools' (profit-seeking through manipulation and deception). They point the way to a new paradigm freed from the constraints of market failure theory, able to illuminate ‘control by capital' (partly through phishing) and to prescribe for ‘control of capital' (partly by techniques for limiting phishing suggested here)."--Robert H. Wade, London School of Economics
"This insightful book exposes a fundamental contradiction in the market system. Consumers and policymakers beware: profit-seeking businesses foster efficiency and innovation, but have strong incentives to manipulate you and sophisticated new data tools allow them to do so in personalized ways."--Laura D'Andrea Tyson, University of California, Berkeley
"This fun but serious book tells how the standard story about free markets often gets it wrong. Indeed, Akerlof and Shiller suggest that we should drop the view of markets as generally benign institutions. The argument is laid out with the help of fascinating anecdotes, the language is conversational, and the book is easy to read. It is addressed to a broad audience, but economists will enjoy it too."--Dani Rodrik, author of The Globalization Paradox
"Phishing for Phools is a coherent and highly plausible explanation of why markets--although usually beneficial--can lead to undesirable outcomes. The book takes an intriguing approach and gives many interesting examples."--Diane Coyle, author of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History
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Top customer reviews
Without mentioning Marx, nor certainly without being Marxists, Akerlof and Shiller are "rediscovering" many of the basic truths of Marxism and then adding on an informational Marxism (information "haves" vs. information "have nots").
Instability of markets? Check.
Information haves vs. information have-not's? Check.
Opiate of the people? Check.
The production of an ideology to support capitalism that makes even those at the bottom "support" it? A.K.A. Antonio Gramsci? Check.
Instabilities, Inequities, and Informational Inbalances
The anecdotes of the book are a tale of instability, inequity and informational imbalance. They make a wonderful read. And to those of us who lived through the Financial Crisis and subsequent Great Recession, remind us of how the reputations of the bond raters were "phished" to make millions for the few yet cause misery for the masses. Not to mention how the capitalist state "came to the rescue" of capitalists and capitalism itself.
I am not a Marxist - don't get me wrong. I am a believer in capitalism and a conservative in the traditional (not American) sense of the word.
Perhaps Phishing for Phools is a small step towards a rediscovery of the instabilities and inequities that bedevil the capitalist system as well as a first step towards an intellectual framework that is non-Marxist yet cognizant of how unstable things really are.
I highly recommend the book. It's fun, it's easy-to-read, and when you really think about it... it gets you to think in a foundational way about what's fundamentally wrong with our current economic and political system.
The father of economics, Adam Smith, wrote in his book, The Wealth of Nations, that in free markets, as if “by an invisible hand … [each person] pursuing his own interest” also promotes the best interest of everyone. The baker sells and distributes bread less expensively and conveniently than a householder could do for herself, so more lives are enriched and the baker makes money.
“If business people behave in the purely selfish and self-serving way that economic theory assumes, our free-market system tends to spawn manipulation and deception,” explain the authors. As our computers need protection against malware, so too do all people need the protection of understanding of how easily we are taken for fools (Phools).
In IT parlance, to “phish” is to perpetrate a fraud on the Internet in order to get valuable personal information from a target. The authors use the computer definition as a metaphor: getting people to do things that are in the interest of the phisherman, but not in the interest of the target. The target of the phisherman is the “phool” (fool).
How pervasive is phishing for phools? As the authors show, it affects our financial lives, our health, the governments we choose, and more.
Consider this analogy offered by the authors. Why do we rarely see one check-out queue at the tills in a supermarket significantly longer than another? Simply because shoppers will move to the shortest till queue. In a similar way, all business people are looking for a way to extract profit from whatever opportunity they can, and like the till queues, these advantages disappear quickly.
Free markets have an incentive to produce whatever people want, as long as a profit can be made from it. This is the “economic equilibrium” – you need or want and are prepared to pay, so I produce and make money.
By the same logic, explain the authors, in free markets business people look for advantage which is often found through the practice of deception and manipulation that lead us to buy, or to over-pay for, products and services that we either want or need.
“We wrote this book as admirers of the free-market system, but hoping to help people better find their way in it,” Akerlof and Shiller explain.
Markets will seize any opportunity to take advantage of our weaknesses. The slot machine, invented in the 1890s, is an obvious example. It soon became evident that it was habit-forming (good for phisherman!) and bad for families and society, but they proliferate wherever regulators left a gap. (In Vegas, deaths due to cardiac arrest in the casinos are an especially serious problem.)
A “phool” is someone who is successfully phished because human psychology leads us there - the greed of winning money not earned, rather than common sense – most people lose on slots. We are phools when we make decisions that no one could possibly want.
Large food companies commission scientific laboratories to calculate consumers’ “bliss points” that maximize their craving for sugar, salt, and fat, the authors report. No one could possibly want to be overweight or obese.
Phishing also occurs because we lack the information available to the phisherman. In the absence of information, we rely on those who have the information.
Consider another analogy offered by the authors. If I have a reputation for selling beautiful, ripe avocados, I have an opportunity beyond selling only beautiful and ripe avocados. If I succeed at selling mediocre avocados at the prices normally only paid for perfect, ripe ones, I will have used my reputation at your expense.
Reputation-mining lay behind the financial disaster of 2008 when bankers with reputations for acting in their clients’ best interests, acted only in their own. Rating agencies whose integrity was used by bankers to assure their clients of the quality of an investment, deliberately or in error, gave outlandish ratings that favoured the bankers who paid them.
In the arena of our health, we rely on reputable pharmaceutical companies in the absence of our knowledge of complex medicine. From 1999 to 2004 Vioxx, an anti-inflammatory, was estimated to have caused between 26,000 and 56,000 cardiovascular deaths in the United States. The “failure” by doctors and pharmaceutical companies to notify women of suspicions about hormone replacement therapy, is believed to have caused 94,000 cases of breast cancer.
The authors contribution to economic thinking is not simply that “there is a sucker born every minute and someone to take him every 59 seconds”. Rather, free markets are not a good to be promoted without government supervision and involvement to contain phishing and protect phools.
Cancer doesn’t have a bacteriological or viral origin which requires a drug or a vaccine to kill the foreign invader. Rather, cancer is caused by the same natural forces as our own healthy functioning. Cancer develops as a mutation of its own cells, and like healthy cells, has defences against attack.
Similarly, the power of free markets give the same power to phisherman as it does to more morally-attuned business people. That is why we need good governments to intervene.
Not only is this an astute insight, but this book is full of examples of how we can be phished for phools. Forewarned is forearmed.
Readability Light -+--- Serious
Insights High +---- Low
Practical High ----+ Low
Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy