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Book Review

Book Review: by Lang Reid

The Undercover Economist

Economics has always been a subject to produce somnolence in me. Probably because I have yet to find out how to make sufficient money that I have to hedge, pledge, or indulge in leverage. However, in a fit of masochism I plucked The Undercover Economist (ISBN 978-0-349-11985-4, Abacus publishing, paperback 2007) from the Bookazine shelf and scuttled back to my impecunious lair. Perhaps author Tim Harford could propel me to the riches I feel I so rightly deserve?

All the reviews on the back cover pointed towards this book being an enjoyable read, “A playful guide to the economics of everyday life,” wrote The Economist, “Lively and witty,” said The Times.

By half way through the first chapter, I was hooked. This book on economics was intensely readable, and used everyday examples to demonstrate economic principles. Take, if you please, the power of scarcity from the first chapter, explaining easily the nexus between railway stations, coffee bars and the price of a cup of coffee.

And whilst this was all stuff that you and I could relate to, author Harford also let the cat out of the economic moneybag, by demonstrating that this was something that had been written down in 1817 by a David Ricardo, a rather rich English gentleman, despite his European sounding name.

The principles and effects of competition between businesses are also covered. Page 24 regales you with, “people have to find other ways to prevent competition. One popular method is through violence, which is particularly popular in the drug trade and other organized crime.” Once again, great verbal imagery to brighten up any didactic discourse on dry subjects like economics.

One hot economic topic here is the dual pricing that is pervasive throughout Thailand’s tourist attractions. Is this a local phenomenon to add to all the others which make up Amazing Thailand? Certainly not, if you read page 37, where Harford writes, “Disney World in Florida offers admission discounts of over 50 percent to locals. They simply know that for a reduced price, locals are more likely to come regularly. But tourists will come once, and once only, whether it is cheap or expensive.”

The chapter called What Supermarkets Don’t Want You To Know made for very interesting reading, and those who subscribe to the organic vegetable theory of nutrition should take great note of just how much you are being ripped off. Organically, of course.

Every economic facet of health insurance, drug companies, share markets, globalization and more are covered. “A simple message,” writes Harford, “if you would like to be rich, then it is a good idea to forge close links with the rest of the world.” Perhaps this is something that certain governments might like to ponder!

At B. 450 this is undoubtedly the best economic text book you can buy. It does, as the front cover suggests, “Reading this book is like spending an ordinary day wearing X-Ray goggles.” You do get a new (economic) point of view. But now, can I put all this into practice? Will my bottom line be better? Only time will tell!