Shane's book thirteen: The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

Inevitably this book has been compared to Freakonomics, which I read last year, but the two books don't have much in common. It's clear though that Freakonomics, which uses economic theories to explore quirks of modern life, has paved the way for the publication of this book, which is essentially an accessible introduction to economic theory. To emphasise the link, a quote from Steven D Levitt, author of Freakonomics, is printed at the top of the front cover, just above a quote from David Bodanis (no, me neither) who explains how reading this is like "spending an ordinary day wearing X-ray goggles". The publishers liked the second quote so much they used it on the back too, though I can't help wondering how a day could be described as "ordinary" if one spends it wearing X-ray goggles.

Anyway, Harford begins his explanation of everyday economics by starting with the price of a coffee at Waterloo station, then works up to supermarket price trickery and auctions for 3G mobile networks, before dropping us off at globalisation and an explanation of "why poor countries are poor".

The final section is somewhat discomforting. Harford explains that exploiting poor people through sweatshop labour is fine because it's better than the life they would have had otherwise. He dwells for a moment on a horror story or two - the woman who dropped dead after one 16-hour shift too many, for example - and asks "is this the price of economic growth? Is it worth paying?" Yes it is, he concludes, which is a pretty easy conclusion to reach if the price will never be paid by you or your family.

That aside, there are plenty of insights to be found here. Harford's style is easy to read, though at times he comes across like a trendy vicar trying a little too hard to convince you that what he's talking about is "cool". It's far from essential but it's quick and informative.