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The Undercover Economist

(The Undercover Economist #1)

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  27,022 ratings  ·  1,273 reviews
An economist's version of The Way Things Work, this engaging volume is part field guide to economics and part expose of the economic principles lurking behind daily events, explaining everything from traffic jams to high coffee prices.
The Undercover Economist is for anyone who's wondered why the gap between rich and poor nations is so great, or why they can't seem to find
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published November 1st 2005 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2005)
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Average rating 3.81  · 
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 ·  27,022 ratings  ·  1,273 reviews

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Oct 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: economics
There was a point at the start of this book when I thought I wasn’t going to make it to the end – or even past the start. It was when the market economy was described as The World of Truth. ‘Oh god’, I thought, ‘this can only mean one thing…’

But I was wrong. This was a much better book than I thought it was going to end up. It was quite slow at the start when he was talking about Starbucks and pricing policies – but my interest picked up when he discussed two computer printers made by IBM in wh
Jul 29, 2009 rated it it was ok
Harford says he's going to tell you how the world really works, how economics provides insight into our activity. What he really tells you is how awesome the world would be if it was run by economists and everybody always acted rationally, if by 'rationally' you mean the economics jargon of 'assigning a monetary value to every single action/object in life' and not the common usage of 'according to the rules of logic'.

You can also find out how poverty is easy to fix (you just move the starting b
Aug 18, 2022 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
An insightful and accessible introduction to economical concepts. The trust in free markets feels a bit overly optimistic, but the overall mechanisms being explained by real life examples make this an enjoyable book

In a very accessible manner Tim Harford illustrate economic concepts, using coffee as a starting point, including the Power of scarcity, Bargaining power and Marginal (lands) underpinning all the prizes. I liked the accessibility and the tangible examples, but the elegance of the econ
Jun 03, 2007 rated it it was amazing
I'm a sucker for pop books about economics, and this is the best of the breed -- better, even, than that NYT bestseller Freakonomics. Why? Because Harford, unlike Levitt, actually explains the reasoning and the data he used to follow a problem from its formulation through to its conclusions. He also addresses classic economic problems--why is it hard to buy a used car? why do all the restaurants in Times Square suck? etc., as compared to why you should name your child "Tova". His chapter on heal ...more
Feb 11, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
An introduction to economics for the everyman and everywoman? I think the parts where they just explain how things are meant to work are fine, but when the book tips over to ideology which it does quite often, I'm not so sure. This book did feel like a softly-softly, but not that really softly promotion of American capitalism, which would work if we all behaved rationally right?

Still worth a read to see how it all works / meant to work in the United States, but I'm OK with free healthcare, orga
Jun 18, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Like a bad cup of coffee, I'm already struggling to force this down. As a former World Bank employee and Financial Times editor it will come as no surprise that Hardford thinks trade unions and free healthcare are bad, sweatshops are good and the free market will fix everything. There's something to be said for knowing your enemy, but The Undercover Economist's smug, patronising tone and Harford's self-avowed preference for armchair reasoning will have you grinding your teeth in frustration. ...more
Richard Newton
A long time ago I did an economics degree. Like most of the stuff I studied on my various degrees it has mostly passed back out of my brain through a lack of active use. I found this book to be a useful reminder of some basic economics packaged up in easy to understand every day concepts. I put this in that category of making complicated subjects easy to understand. Nicely written and not to difficult to follow.

The book was published in 2006 - and at some points it does feel a little quaint. Que
Mar 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
In the UK Tim Harford presents a radio show called "More or Less", which debunks the sort of dubious and selectively presented statistics peddled alike by governments, opposition politicians, NGOs and pressure groups. I occasionally catch the show and it was this knowledge of the author that led me to get this book. As a layman to the subject I found this a thought-provoking read. I didn't read it that quickly, mainly because I would often stop and think about the implications of something I had ...more
Amit Mishra
Jul 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
An essential one for every economics students. The practical approach towards everyday walk of life. There are no any conventional ideas that can let you down or give you the feeling of reading a boring academic book.
Jan 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reread2012
Rereading it several years later, and with a bit more background in econ, I still find it informational and entertaining, but it highlights some of the frustrations I have with econ: great for revealing insights, a struggle when it comes to applying it to public policy. Sweatshops are better than the alternative, and given time (decades) lead to prosperity, but people are still suffering today, right now, so how do you address that without throwing off the progress over time? (Note: I don't know ...more
Dustin Allison
Mar 21, 2008 rated it liked it
From buying a used car to purchasing health insurance, Harford takes a look at a variety of situations that can have a real pratical impact on how we look at some of our everday activities. His take on health care, and how it is dealt with differently in Britain and the United States, was perhaps the most meaningful topic for me.

Growing up, I constantly heard how poor the health care was in socialized medicine and how we should protect our market system. The problem is that our health care syst
Dec 03, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-i-have
This book was a fantastic overview of (what I think is) basic economic theory, but told in a way that made it incredibly readable. Harford is a great writer and manages to frame his topics in a way that is both highly relevant to real life while being simple enough that anyone can understand. It ranges from the small (the economics of Starbucks and how to prevent traffic jams) to the huge (why poor countries stay poor and how china became rich). I imagine that someone with a serious background i ...more
Dec 30, 2008 rated it it was ok
The best bits are at the start (price targeting in coffee) and at the end (China's economic success). Best-selling, but not particularly brilliany by any means. The book's success - as it's author might testify - is probably down to the supply and demand ratio for economics books that aren't bloody dull. ...more
Mar 12, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pub-2005
Whoever calls Tim Harford a die-hard free market fanatic should really do some research. For an economist this guy is almost a communist!
Really decent book. Quite informative even it had me thinking "doh, I knew that" on a couple of occasions.
And now I don't feel cheap when buying Tesco value products. I feel smart!
Jun 08, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Harford offers a decent little introduction to some of the more basic applications of economics. I finished it in two days and I read slowly. The Undercover Economist is a short, easy, but ultimately forgettable read.

Perhaps it's my own fault for reading essentially the same narrowly focused nonfiction book on economics over and over and over again, but I literally received no new information here. Thomas Sowell's "Basic Economics" covers the same ideas in more intellectual depth while Levitt's
Izzy E
Feb 08, 2021 rated it did not like it
I was set against Tim Harford on the very first page of this book, where he details his habit of reading books he has not yet purchased in the bookshop cafe, to see if he'd like to buy them. He writes as if this is normal behaviour and not the antics of a psychopath. Get your croissanty hands off the nice new books, Tim.

My opinions on Tim Harford's unfortunate bookshop habits aside, this is an overly simplistic book which relies far too heavily on anecdote. The writing style is unbearably pompou
Tyler Jones
Jul 11, 2015 rated it liked it
I know what you are thinking; Am I interested enough in this topic to pay $21.00 for this book? Will the benefits I will enjoy in the pleasure of the reading experience and the knowledge I will gain outweigh the loss of money? Will the benefit to the economy of Canada from my cash injection into publishing industry outweigh the growth to my personal debt levels? Should I borrow a copy from the library?

These are exactly the kinds of questions reading this will help you think your way through.

Oct 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
This book was good. Surprising. It is because it dealt mostly with coffee, beer, poker and game theory - some of the things I'm obsessed with. Tim did a great job revealing about Cameroon, Nepal, India and yeah China's economy. Every pop economics book that I've read have said something about China's rise, here there is a chapter dedicated to it.

A worthy read.
Sairam Krishnan
Mar 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Read it as a re-introduction to a few economic concepts I was introduced to at business school. Enjoyed it. Perhaps if the subject had been taught this way, I would have retained and used a lot more of what I had studied.
Aisha Ayoosh
May 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a nice light read for anyone interested in economics explained in Layman’s terms.

Tim Harford explains fundamental facts about free markets and decision-making.

These ideas are easy to grasp as he illustrates with an impressive number of examples, some of which include buying second-hand cars, game theory in auction settings, why healthcare works in very different ways among countries, the impact of corruption on growth etc.

This book will not make you into an economics expert, but, as i
Jun 24, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
- enough with the free market propaganda!!
- the entirety of the second half was just harford writing about ‘oh poor little third world countries’ and ‘oh look how white countries have helped they world they’re so holy!!!!’ he legitimately said that the us singlehandedly has helped reduce pollution. get a grip!
- he defended sweatshops.
- oh also
- enoUGH with the free market propaganda

@white men, y’all really think you help everyone and know everything huh
George Rigby
Jul 25, 2020 rated it liked it
After stumbling across a dusty copy on my Old Man’s bookshelf, I thought I’d give it a gander and found it to be a pleasantly intriguing read.
Jun 12, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economia

"In the end, economics is about people. And economic growth is about a better life for individuals - more choice, less fear, less toil and hardship"

"Countries that are rich or rapidly growing have embraced the basic lessons of economics: fight scarcity power and corruption; correct externalities; try to maximize information; get the incentives right; engage with other countries; and most of all, embrace markets, which do most of these jobs at the same time".
Paul Weiss
Nov 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: economics
An upbeat version of Economics 101!

Using Ricardo's theory of rent seeking as a jumping off point, Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist is an upbeat introduction to microeconomics couched in language that is accessible to the layman without being trite or boring for those that already have a solid grasp of the subject.

The first half of the books deals with a somewhat more modern version of standard theories of supply and demand, rent seeking, perfect and imperfect information, externalities and
Jun 10, 2022 rated it liked it
a glorified intro micro and macro, mansplained in great detail. But I guess I learned a few things so thanks sir.
Dec 13, 2020 rated it liked it
I picked this book up on a whim. I knew I would have to get myself into an economics frame of mind for the future, and this seemed like the perfect one to do it. The book is basically trying to get you to look at the world through the lens of economics. Does it succeed? Somewhat.

Tim Harford did do a good job of reiterating the fundamentals of some economic thought. Scarcity power, incentivization, margins, etc. - these were all locked away in my brain somewhere and this book brought them back in
Dec 30, 2009 rated it liked it
Following my recent interest in books on the psychology of decision-making and behavioral economics, I thought it might be interesting to read up on some actual economics. I had gotten some of this out of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner, but Tim Harford's Undercover Economist is a little less afraid to throw in actual economic theory and terms. So you get explanations of "perfect" markets, inefficiencies, externalities, and other economic jargon.

Which isn't to say that th
Philip Hollenback
Oct 30, 2010 rated it liked it
The first half of this book was great. Harford laid out some economic principles, then showed their real-life application. For example, due to problems with information quality on both sides of the deal, it's basically impossible to buy a decent used car at a reasonable price.

However, the last part of this book was... unsettling. The author veered in to a long discussion of why China is becoming such an economic powerhouse. Then he asserts that it's ok we are losing jobs to China, and in fact we
Sep 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: money, non-fiction
More fun than getting hit by an economics textbook yet still quite illuminating. Unsurprisingly, the Undercover Economist talks up his profession but he is pretty convincing and even at times inspiring.
this books gives you the first intuitions about economy conundrums and gives visions to widen up our views to those problems, it is entertaining and easy( maybe too much) to read, I enjoyed reading it.
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Tim Harford is a member of the Financial Times editorial board. His column, “The Undercover Economist”, which reveals the economic ideas behind everyday experiences, is published in the Financial Times and syndicated around the world. He is also the only economist in the world to run a problem page, “Dear Economist”, in which FT readers’ personal problems are answered tongue-in-cheek with the late ...more

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29 likes · 15 comments
“There is much more to life than what gets measured in accounts. Even economists know that.” 18 likes
“Hours are long. Wages are pitiful. But sweatshops are the symptom, not the cause, of shocking global poverty. Workers go there voluntarily, which means—hard as it is to believe—that whatever their alternatives are, they are worse. They stay there, too; turnover rates of multinational-owned factories are low, because conditions and pay, while bad, are better than those in factories run by local firms. And even a local company is likely to pay better than trying to earn money without a job: running an illegal street stall, working as a prostitute, or combing reeking landfills in cities like Manila to find recyclable goods.” 13 likes
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