Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Economics: Dismal versus Soulful Science

Diane Coyle, The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why it Matters. Princeton, 2007.

Freakonomics made books about how economics is relevant to everyday life a hot commodity and, predictably, a number of similar books have appeared in its wake. They have lacked the impact of Freakonomics and I think I know why. Freakonomics was organized around some fascinating real world puzzles (a chapter on gangs, a chapter on cheating schoolteachers) that -- surprise! -- can be unlocked using the tools of economic analysis. The other books (here I am thinking especially of The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford) are ultimately organized around standard economic principles (a chapter on free trade, a chapter on externalities, etc.) and so may be better than Freakonomics at teaching economics principles, but lack the gee-whiz punch of Freakonomics. They appeal more to economist, who already know that economics is relevant, than to non-economist "civilians" (as Robert Solow used to call them) who must be seduced with a mystery.

Diane Coyle is a British journalist and economist and her book falls into this second category. It is organized around some standard questions in economics (why do some nations grow while others don't?) and provides a relatively brief analysis of how economists have answered the question both today and in the past. The chapters provide history and brief biographies of the major figures and personal stories about some of them. Good material to make a subject accessible to a general audience. But I wonder if a general audience is going to pick up a book like this? I think that economists are the more likely audience and for us, well, I think the book suffers from being too brief and superficial. This book is well-written and interesting, but not especially soulful and not nearly seductive enough to reach a broader audience. That Freakonomics target is a hard one to hit!

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