The Undercover Economist himself, Tim Harford, says you can find economics lessons in the most unlikely places, including the virtual world of computer games You’ve chosen books that contain economic lessons, but are outside the mainstream of pop-economics literature. Tell me why? Do you feel it’s important that people are better informed about economics?
Yes, and your first choice is seemingly not about economics at all. It’s called Normal Accidents and is by Charles Perrow. He is, I believe, an expert on the safety of systems and, in this book, argues that as technology gets more complex, the odds of tragic accidents occurring are increasing.
Yes. Charles Perrow is still going strong: I think he is now in his eighties. He is a sociologist, but got very interested in unintended consequences, and from looking at those, got very interested in technological disasters.
Let’s move onto For The Win. I was intrigued to see this was classified as young adult fiction, and the assurance that it would “appeal to any enthusiastic player of MMO [Massively Multiplayer Online] games.”
Yes. The author, Cory Doctorow, is a really interesting guy. He is one of the founders of [the blog and former magazine] Boing Boing. He’s a campaigner for internet freedom and fair dealing in intellectual property rights. And he’s also an author – writing these young adult novels. I read this book because I was writing a column about the economies inside computer games – because these games are now so complex they do have their own economies. I read the novel for background, but I really grew to admire it.
Next on your list is a book that certainly is an economics lesson, but takes the form of a cartoon.
This is by Yoram Bauman, who is perhaps better known as the stand-up economist. He sprang to fame because of this lecture – you can see it on YouTube – which was a stand-up comedy routine, based on a parody of one of the most famous economics textbooks, Greg Mankiw’s Principles of Economics. Bauman has a PhD in economics, so he knows a lot of economics, and there’s actually quite a lot of wisdom woven into the comedy routine, but he just lays into economics.
Which takes us onto your next book, The Big Short by Michael Lewis.
This is probably the most popular book on my list, and many people will already have read it.
Lastly, you’ve chosen the Bad Science book by Ben Goldacre. Again, not obviously to do with economics. He’s a medical doctor who also writes a column for the UK newspaper The Guardian.
This is really one of the best books I have ever read. It’s been hugely successful in the UK, and has now been published in the US as well. I thought it was just going to be Ben laying into silly tabloid newspaper stories about how everything in the world either cures cancer or causes it. And he does do that. But if you go through the book as a science writer, which I am (I’m writing about the science of economics, and what economists do) I started becoming increasingly ashamed of myself, at the standards that Ben holds up for writing about what’s going on in academia, versus the standards that I was holding myself up to. You read a paper, you understand a paper, you write a paper up. Ben is saying, “What about the contrary papers? What about the research that contradicts it? How is it that you found this particular piece of research? Have you looked widely enough? Have you thought about publication bias?” He is really thinking about all the different ways we can deceive ourselves that something is true when it really isn’t.