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The Undercover Economist

(The Undercover Economist #1)

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  24,230 ratings  ·  1,115 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, 276 pages
Published November 1st 2005 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2005)
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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
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
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.
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
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
Recommends it for: anyone without an economics degree
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
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.

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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Monthly Book Group
Introducing the book to the Monthly Book Group, the proposer said he had chosen it because his wife was buying a book for a rail journey, and, as there was a two for one offer at the station, he chose this. No, despite the analysis of railway station coffee outlets in Harford’s opening chapter, he had not also succumbed to the temptation to buy an expensive coffee. (He had been brought up to believe that food and drink was something to be consumed at home, not purchased at inflated prices outsid ...more
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
Jan 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Enjoyable read. A well-written, clever view of many of the most practical concepts in economics.
Tawfiq Hamid
Sep 07, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really good read, interesting, informative and nicely written.

Not as fun or easy to read as freakonomics but I think it's a lot more insightful into the modern world.

The author presents a lot of fundamental/introductory economic ideas and then extends them to tackle big social, political and economic problems of the modern world. Really answering some of the big questions about why our current political economic climate is the way it is. Tackles a lot of big misconceptions along the way and hi
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
Kevin Dary
Jun 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
I laughed a little when i finished the book to realized that the book itself was a way to make me buy the book using its own strategy. In a sense , I meant to say that by putting the topic "coffee" as a first topic it attracted my attention such as raising prices and sugar coating products to sell out to price sensitive customers who was willing to buy what was worth more than price.

Tim harford nether less tackles the basics of economics in his book by showing us the first part of his book in a
George Roper
May 17, 2015 rated it liked it
This was an admirable attempt by the author to make economic theory much more accessible to the casual reader of the subject. Harford does a very good job explaining some of the basic fundamental concepts (e.g., law of diminishing returns) and some much more complex ones (e.g., some of the principles of game theory). The chapter on the auctioning of “air” (radio spectrum) was brilliant.

However, the book, after a very strong first half, meanders in the last half and suffers from gross oversimplif
Jennifer (JC-S)
Oct 02, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: librarybooks
‘..the difference between nineteenth century farming and twenty-first-century frothing ..’

This is an entertaining and informative journey through some aspects of economic theory. By using contemporary examples (such as the various factors that influence the price of a cup of coffee), Mr Harford removes some of the mystery and explains how some of the conclusions consumers may draw can be both logical, and flawed. While this won’t make your coffee any cheaper, it may make some decisions more info
Sep 17, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What Mark Miodownik did for material science, Dan Ariely for decision science and Bill Bryson for roughly anything that caught his fancy so far, Tim Harford does for economics with this "it's not boring, I swear" book. Starting with the laws of supply and demand, working through externality charges and the stock market and getting to foreign trade and taxation policies, The Undercover Economist is the perfect half-way point between "Economics for Dummies" (I imagine) and every economics textbook ...more
Satyaki Mitra
An excellent book which is much in the same vein as Steven D. Levitt's Freakonomics, although perhaps a bit more geared towards mainstream topics. Harford throughout the course of this book, engages in insightful discussions on topics as wide ranging and diverse as 'Who pays for your coffee?' to discussing the impacts of globalization and market based reforms in China. The book provides plenty of thoughtful(and thought-provoking) analysis and tries to propose effective and efficient solutions to ...more
Apr 19, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned
I gave up on this one. I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn't already read a few books about behavioral economics, Nudge and Predictably Irrational. I'd also heard Dan Ariely interviewed several times. It would have made more sense to read this first, before those others, which, in some ways, debunk many assumptions in Undercover.

I found his cutesy tone annoying as hell. But, bless him, he admirably keeps it up. Well, at least through the first six or so chapters that I read.

Major points for t
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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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Bryan Washington, the acclaimed author of 2019’s short story collection Lot, has returned with his debut novel, Memorial. The story follows...
15 likes · 4 comments
“There is much more to life than what gets measured in accounts. Even economists know that.” 16 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.” 10 likes
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