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). Harford, on the other hand, explains such valuable economic concepts as rent seeking, externalities and asymmetrical information, and does so in a language that suits both academics and laypeople, with fun examples and a little history of economic though to boot. What more can you ask for in a popular book?
For those with a little knowledge of economics (I have an undergraduate degree in Business Economics) much of it will be familiar. And yet there are enough interesting tidbits that don't make it into your average introductory economics textbook. The chapters about the stock exchange and the application of game theory for auctions were both informative, thought provoking, and fun to read.
For me, the great revelation was the discussion of the environmental effects of globalization. I admit that I have long considered environmental damage to be the most credible counter argument to economic benefits of trade; But Tim Harford makes a good case that that ain't so. "Races to the Bottom" in which countries compete for the worse environmental regulations are unlikely, Harford argues - the advantage in producing "dirtily" is simply not big enough. Rather, Harford shows that protectionism leads to over production, and thus to pollution. And yet, Harford acknowledges that economic growth as such does hurt the environment. And therefore the dilemma of environmentalism or growth is not entirely imaginary - just exaggerated.
There are times when Harford does not raise his opponent's best arguments. In the chapter on free trade, Harford does not discuss various theories of Path Dependencies and learning curve. In the chapter of poverty, he hardly discusses the effects of the environment on economic growth (a major issue in Jeffrey Sachs'The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time), or the questionable legacy of western imperialism. I'm not saying that these are irrefutable objections - quite the contrary - but Harford doesn't quite do them justice.
Still, Harford's book is well written, entertaining, and informative. It targets the economically challenge but has something to offer to all readers, no matter how economically astute.