Book Report: The Economic Naturalist

May 25, 2009

book economic naturalist.jpg
Frankly not nearly as interesting as I had hoped it would be based on an excellent introduction and the precedent set by Tim Harford’s Undercover Economist (XXXX). The book consists mainly of writing assignment prompts that the author, Robert H. Frank, gave to his intro econ classes at Cornell. It asks a number of moderately interesting questions – Why is it more expensive to transfer funds between banks electronically than send a check through the mail? If we have a Blockbuster Video why don’t we have a Blockbuster Book? Why might an appliance retailer hammer dents into the sides of its stoves and refrigerators? – but answers them only in brief. In fact its not entirely clear if Frank is using his student’s proposed questions and then answering them himself or if the entire book is a patchwork of his student’s essays answering their own questions. In either case they aren’t answered with nearly the rigor or detail that they really seem to deserve. Damn, because armchair economics has the potential to be so interesting.
By far the best part of the book is the introduction, which begins with a grammar joke:
“A woman lands at Logan Airport, grabs her luggage, jumps into a cab, hungry for a good New England seafood dinner. “Take me to a place where I can get scrod,” she tells the diver. Eyebrow arched, the cabbie turns and says, “That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone say that in the pluperfect subjunctive.”
Frank then goes on to explain that the joke only really works because most people don’t know exactly what the pluperfect subjunctive is (I didn’t). But then also that it doesn’t matter. He extends this into a criticism of traditional language courses. “If learning to speak a new language is your goal, the time and effort required to learn the explicit technical details of this tense would be far better spent in other ways. Courses that focus most of their energy on such details are no fun for students, and they’re also astonishingly ineffective.” He compares his experience in high school and college language courses to the stripped down and more effective crash course he was given in Nepalese before being sent out by the Peace Corps. The analogy – linguistics to economics – is that it’s much more important to understand a few basic principles and illustrate them with useful examples then to focus all your study on abstruse and obscure technical details.
Frank, Robert. 2007. The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas. New York: Basic Books.

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