Moneyweek book review: The Undercover Economist

Tim Harford's book, The Undercover Economist, is a lively and witty introduction to the seemingly baffling claims of economics.

"Few mothers are thrilled to learn that their daughter is dating an economist," says John Kay in the FT. Most people think economists are obsessed with interest rates, GDP statistics and other tinder-dry issues often discussed with dizzyingly complicated graphs. Enter Tim Harford, who over the past few years has written weekly articles in the FT applying economic principles to everyday life issues have ranged from flossing teeth to buying leeks and has now produced a book to show that economics is far more intriguing and relevant than most people believe.

Harford's "concise and elegant" book is a "lively and witty" introduction to the subject, showing that popular economics needn't be "an oxymoron", says Paula Hawkins in The Times. Harford explains why a good second-hand car is almost impossible to find and why organic bananas are never displayed next to normal ones on a supermarket shelf. He also explores why we pay so much for coffee, especially in key locations such as railway stations, a discussion he bases on David Ricardo's 1817 treatise on agricultural rents.

Just as meadows command high rents if the grain they produce is valuable, prime location coffee- bars cost their owners a bundle in rent because customers are prepared to fork out more. "Rush-hour customers are so desperate for caffeine and in such a hurry that they are practically price-blind," says Harford. Furthermore, coffee-bar owners are adept at teasing out price-insensitive customers by offering small variations to drinks at virtually nil cost to the company at vastly different prices. In short, it seems high coffee prices are largely our own fault. Harford also goes beyond the everyday, tackling China, environmentalism, development and globalisation, outlining why boycotting firms using sweatshop labour is counterproductive and how struggling developing countries can escape poverty.

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Harford's book "leads the reader to the point" where seemingly "outrageous" statements by economists seem sensible, says Tim Worstall in The Daily Telegraph. Anyone confused by "how the world works" will benefit from reading it. The FT's Martin Wolf agrees: Harford shows that the "powerful underlying ideas of economics can illuminate every aspect of the world we inhabit".

The Undercover Economist is published by Little, Brown, and costs £17.99

Andrew Van Sickle

Andrew is the editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He grew up in Vienna and studied at the University of St Andrews, where he gained a first-class MA in geography & international relations.

After graduating he began to contribute to the foreign page of The Week and soon afterwards joined MoneyWeek at its inception in October 2000. He helped Merryn Somerset Webb establish it as Britain’s best-selling financial magazine, contributing to every section of the publication and specialising in macroeconomics and stockmarkets, before going part-time.

His freelance projects have included a 2009 relaunch of The Pharma Letter, where he covered corporate news and political developments in the German pharmaceuticals market for two years, and a multiyear stint as deputy editor of the Barclays account at Redwood, a marketing agency.

Andrew has been editing MoneyWeek since 2018, and continues to specialise in investment and news in German-speaking countries owing to his fluent command of the language.