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Keywords: Economics, politics, sociology, current affairs

Title: The Undercover Economist

Author: Tim Harford

Publisher: Little, Brown/OUP (US)

ISBN: 0316732931

 

The promise of 'The Undercover Economist' is that it will show you the world through the eyes of the economist. On the face of it that doesn't sound like a thrilling prospect. After all, economics is about abstract and arcane matters to do with exchange rate policies, interest rates and obscure aspects of something called monetary policy. The surprise of course is that the book does succeed, and that far from being a dull affair, seeing through the eyes of an economist is a pretty interesting experience after all.

The book opens not by considering matters related to 'big economics' but by wondering about the price of a cup of coffee at Waterloo Station, in London. Why does a cup of coffee cost what it costs there? What factors govern the price? What influence does the fact that it's a busy station have on the price? These everyday considerations lead directly to thinking about the basic economic principles at play all around us. And, with concrete situations to hand the discussion uses everyday language to explain and illuminate the sometimes surprising ways that economic interactions manifest themselves.

It's not just coffee bars that get the 'undercover' treatment. Ever wonder why supermarket 'value' brands look so awful? There's an explanation here for that too, and it too relates to coffee bars and the proliferation of different types and sizes of coffee on offer to the confused customer. The examples that Tim Harford gives are engaging, and explanations he offers are simple without being simplistic.

More weighty matters are not ignored. Having grounded the reader in the rudiments of economic thinking early on, Harford tackles some of the bigger issues. Globalisation, development economics, poverty, the rise of China as an economic super-power are all tackled. And it's not just international issues, he also looks at domestic British issues such as the National Health Service.

While the book is clearly aimed at the general reader, there are plenty of pointers and references for those who are intrigued and want to learn more. Like Freakonomics, the book is intellectually engaging and goes a long way to showing that economics is not some dry academic discipline but is a vital tool for understanding the world as it is (and not necessarily as we would like it to be).

This book is, needless to say, highly recommended.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published July 5 2006