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From my interview archive: “Undercover Economist” Tim Harford

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

People get deep into things in college: music, movies, drugs, their previously unacknowledged sexual orientation, take your pick. I got deep into economics. And though I don’t remember what initially sparked my interest (though Tyler Cowen may have had something to do with it), for a few years there I could think of little else. Seldom have I anticipated as any book as much as I anticipated The Undercover Economist, the solo debut from a fellow named Tim Harford that promised to reveal and explain the hidden economic workings behind the transactions in everyday life, whether they involved a Starbucks coffee or a used car or the People’s Republic of China. It came out in my junior year, but I made sure to have it pre-ordered on Amazon so as to receive it in time to power through it on the first day of Thanksgiving break.

Knowing more about the publishing industry now than I did then, I can see that The Undercover Economist came out early in a wider popular-economics book boom, set off perhaps by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, which a few months earlier had revealed and explained the hidden economic workings behind slightly less everyday transactions involving drug dealers, Israeli day-care centers, and cheating sumo wrestlers. That boom still had some life left in it when I started The Marketplace of Ideas a couple years later, so I seized the alignment of a trend and my own obsession to record interviews with authors of popular economics books, economists and otherwise, including Cowen, Steven Landsburg (whose The Armchair Economist had come out more than a decade ahead of the curve), David Friedman, Michael Shermer, and of course Harford as well.

Harford and I first talked on the show about his second popular economics book, The Logic of Life, in March of 2008 — six months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the defining event of what we now consider that year and the previous year’s global financial crisis. Not long after, I started to hear it trumpeted in many quarters that those troubles had disproven all the pat, just-so conclusions of traditional economics — passed straight down unaltered, presumably, from the time and place of Adam Smith — a pronouncement that seemed to overlook the criminal and regulatory issues at the heart of the crisis in favor of indulging a pre-existing resentment of the markets economics accurately described. In other words, it sounded to me like a too-late execution of the messenger, and its driving impulse underscores why I tend to describe myself as a “liberal-bashing liberal”: you may not like the conditions in this world, but refusing to examine or even acknowledge their causes won’t change them.

Still, Harford, an Oxford-trained economist, actually agreed with the chorus declaring economics disproven when we had our second interview in 2011 — or at least he agreed with them to an unexpected extent. By that point he’d already retooled his professional profile somewhat (“pivoted,” if you like, in the language of Silicon Valley) and written a book called Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. His more recent titles have seen him both make a return to the “Undercover Economist” persona and to follow the Gladwellian path further — keeping a safe distance, one hopes, from the terrible Lehererian edge — with last year’s Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, which no less a reader than Cowen himself described as “Tim’s best and deepest book.”

My own interest in economics has pulled through more or less intact, though lately I haven’t seen published many of the kinds of economics books I used to enjoy reading. That’s a bit of a shame, since I would submit that economics, for all its blunt edges, still goes farther to account for How the Word Works than any other single subject, and yet it remains just as poorly understood, and willfully so, by the general public as ever. Yes, economics doesn’t explain absolutely everything, but in many situations it gets you about 90 percent of the way there. Great danger, of course, lies in mistaking a 90-percent understanding for 100-percent understanding, but frankly, it beats the hell out of the alternative.