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The Undercover Economist Paperback – January 30, 2007

4.1 out of 5 stars 231 customer reviews

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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 Amazon.com 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. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 265 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (January 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345494016
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345494016
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (231 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,166 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback
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 slate.com 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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Format: Hardcover
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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