Audiobook Review: The Undercover Economist Strikes Back

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How To Run—Or Ruin—An Economy, by Tim Harford, read by Cameron Stewart and Gavin Osborne

Although this book is called an unabridged audiobook, the author clearly makes some comments here that he likely did not make in the original printed version of the book, at one point near the conclusion of the book commenting on the decoupling between energy use and economic growth by pointing out the fact that ebooks or audiobooks are nearly entirely nonmaterial, as opposed to the paperbacks and hardcover volumes that I tend to read most often. The fact that as an audiobook it comes in at 6 disks and only seven and a half hours of material also suggests that this book is likely not very long in its original form, if this version captures its contents completely. One of the great strengths of this book is the way that its two readers, of whom one represents the author, a microeconomist speaking about the related discipline of macroeconomics [1], and the other represents the reader or listener who is being placed in a position of authority over an imaginary nature wrestling with the difficulties of keeping a modern economy working well and understanding the principles of macroeconomics.

In terms of the book’s contents, it is relatively clear that this book is written from a European (specifically a British) centrist or somewhat left-of-center perspective. The author praises economist Paul Krueger as being a scourge of Republicans, for example, and spends the first three chapters of the book or so speaking about Keynesian economics, and only one fairly short chapter speaking about the classical view. In general, the author shows a great deal of cynicism towards the failure of many macroeconomic theories to show an adequate relationship to empirical data even if he is somewhat kind towards the struggle of macroeconomics to answer the concerns of its subject, showing towards the close how it often fails to deal effectively with questions of inequality, how its insights can be undermined by a lack of either credibility or flexibility in approach, such as the difficulties in showing flexibility with regards to inflation and monetary policies, and how macroeconomics has ignored the insights of fields like behavioral economics and safety engineering. Although the book is fairly short, it manages to provide an entertaining if rather biased view of macroeconomics, pointing out that it is difficult to measure economies effectively and that a basket of targeted measurements is better than one vague catch-all, and that one should be very cautious about the motives of those who produce different kinds of lists and indices for specific political purposes.

Although the book is entertaining, it is unclear what sort of value the book has as far as a practical guide to understanding macroeconomics. The author’s clear bias towards the Keynesian approach, which focuses on activist tinkering with the government, and the call for governments to behave counter to the circumstances of their time, tightening the belt when times are good and loosening it when times are bad, are likely to either confuse or upset many readers. The author’s frequent digs at politicians, and the implicit statement than an ordinary person on the street is likely to be able to be taught now to be a more effective economic czar than many of the politicians of our contemporary world, are likely to offend many of those who are most interested in macroeconomics, as is the fact that the author spends a great deal of time and attention speaking about the importance of addressing inequality both between and within nations, and the difficulties that one has in measuring inequality effectively. The book strikes a tone that is both somewhat technocratic and also populist, and those who are offended either by envious declamations against the wealthy among Anglophone nations or by calls for economic tinkering by elite bureaucrats in independent central banks are likely to find much against this book, offenses which are unlikely to be entirely countered by the author’s witty text and the humorous interplay between the two perspectives the book shows.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Audiobook Review: The Undercover Economist Strikes Back

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Domesday | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: What Is Economics? | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Poverty Of Nations | Edge Induced Cohesion

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