Economics

Discovering Your Inner Economist

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A nice profile/review from New York magazine of occasional reason contributor Tyler Cowen and his new book, Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist . Excerpt:

Not so long ago, economists not named Milton Friedman mostly kept to themselves, impressing each other with their inscrutable theories. Now they're the pop stars of academia….Among this new crowd of economists, Cowen, a 45-year-old professor at George Mason University just outside D.C., is a cult hero…..With Discover Your Inner Economist, Cowen attempts to put serious economics in the service of self-help. He starts by arguing against money as the prime shaper of human behavior. "The critical economic problem is scarcity," he says. "Money is scarce, but in most things the scarcity of time, attention, and caring is more important."

…..In a highly discursive style, Cowen rockets from topic to topic, covering everything from how to talk your spouse out of buying a warranty on a new purchase (sound economics is on your side, but the cost to marital harmony is likely to exceed the cost of the warranty; so in other words, don't fight over peanuts) to the reason a Malaysian woman spent 32 days in a glass room filled with 6,000 scorpions (she was attempting to "signal" her status in the world).

The best sections of the book concern tactics for maximizing one's cultural consumption, or what amounts to imitating Cowen. He lists eight strategies for taking control of one's reading, which include ruthless skipping around, following one character while ignoring others, and even going directly to the last chapter.

Cowen blogs at Marginal Revolution.

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  1. “With Discover Your Inner Economist, Cowen attempts to put serious economics in the service of self-help.”

    Economists are writing self-help books now?

    That’s it. My beloved dismal science has jumped the shark. *sob*

  2. Skipping directly to the last chapter? Does he recommend doing this with his book? If Amazon put that chapter online as a teaser, then perhaps people wouldn’t buy the rest of his book at all!

  3. Well, Ottawa, you might remember that Hazlitt’s Economics In One Lesson is a kind of “self-help” book, in that it attempts (and succeeds) in making economics intelligible to the average human who cares to think.

  4. He lists eight strategies for taking control of one’s reading, which include ruthless skipping around, following one character while ignoring others, and even going directly to the last chapter.

    Oh, right. All the enjoyment I get out of Tom Jones and Pride and Prejudice came out of reading the last chapter and ignoring Blifil, Thwackum and Square.

  5. I’ve been wondering how to get my reading under control for years. But must I resort to ruthlessness?

  6. …tactics for maximizing one’s cultural consumption, or what amounts to imitating Cowen. He lists eight strategies for taking control of one’s reading, which include ruthless skipping around, following one character while ignoring others, and even going directly to the last chapter.

    Yeah, but what about maximizing one’s lame pop-culture references?

  7. From the review…

    Spurred on by Freakonomics, the 2005 best seller by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, economists realized that, if only they can learn to communicate normally, they have the tools to explain people’s lives to them.

    Actually, Steve Landsburg’s “The Armchair Economist” popularized economics first and better.

  8. If you’re going to skip, do so ruthlessly, it could save your life.

  9. After seeing that photo of Cowan that accompanies the article, I finally realized something: Tyler Cowan is the Anthony Bourdain of economics.

  10. Another GMU grad, Peter Leeson, wrote about the matter of self-governance and piracy.

  11. I haven’t read Freakonomics. My impression from a distance is that it’s not worth my time. Is there anyone here who has read it and cares to comment on whether it is any good?

  12. Derrick, it’s great as long as you ruthlessly skip around, follow only one character, and read nothing but the last chapter. or possibly paragraph.

  13. Franklin—This question is half-rhetorical, as I may have just missed the phenomenon, but was Landsburgh’s book on the NYT bestseller list for over 19 months and did it sell over 2 million copies? Because that’s what FREAKONOMICS did…

  14. Brian, you’re point is well taken, but it really depends on what one is trying to say. My point is that lots of people have been writing moderately successful popular-economics books since Landsburg’s came out. And, of course, they’ve have been writing wildly successful ones since “Freakonomics” came out.

  15. My first exposure to a book of this nature was Stephan Landsburg’s “The Armchair Economist”. I have enjoyed reading all his subsequent works as well. Freakonomics and this new work by Cowen seem to run in the same vein.

    They are fun, will make you think at least a few times, and give you lovely explanations that confound and astound your debate opponents.

    I still use some of Landsburg’s analogies years later. Nothing like chatting about Iowa Car Farmers or How to Get Rid of Punts on Fourth Down for the win!

  16. I read Freakonomics. A fun, fast read. Interesting take on several subjects. One and three quarters thumbs up.

    CB

  17. Freakonomics is quality airplane reading. Highly recommended.

  18. Thanks for the input. I’ll give it a read.

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