Weekend Reading: The Undercover Economist Strikes Back

Undercover Economist Strikes Back

Financial Times columnist and bestselling author Tim Harford tries to show us that macroeconomics is not that hard in The Undercover Economist Strikes Back.

In order to fix the economy, we need to understand the economy. The book is a “practically minded poke-around under the hood of our economic system.” It’s a sequel to The Undercover Economist, which looked at microeconomics. The first book looked at the cost of coffee and other focused topics that affect an individual’s behavior.

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back tackles the world and the uncertainty of macroeconomics. These are the big forces of gross domestic product, inflation, and unemployment. Rather than a droll, laborious discussion of complex theories, Harford keeps things witty and perky.

The book is not about bashing big banks or pointing fingers at who caused the financial crisis of 2008. But he does discuss the macroeconomic forces in light of the recovery (or lack thereof) from the 2008 crisis.

He does not try to oversimplify the topics. He cautions that they are difficult to understand, difficult to calculate, and difficult to get right. He offers advice and lessons from history.

He explains the theory of currency with the extraordinary example of the rai used by the Yap islanders in Micronesia. Each rai is a stone wheel, the biggest of which is nine feet across and weighs over four tons. That will help you buy land. Smaller ones, a mere foot or two across, will buy you a pig. The islanders still use the currency even if it has sunk to the bottom of the bay while being transported in a boat. Given the small number of transactions, the islanders can just keep track who owns which stone, without having to move the big ones. But is the Yap system any crazier than the use of gold?

He tackles the thornier problem of the cause of recessions. Is it a shortage of demand or a shortage of supply? Or both? Was the 2008 recession a demand shock or a supply shock? It’s surprisingly fun to get to the answers with Harford leading the way.

I was happy to accept a review copy from the publisher.