The economic naturalist

Robert H. Frank

Why I looked at this book

Economics can look very technical to outsiders, but the ideas it encapulates should be familiar to us all - it is based on human behaviour. I hope that this book will give an informative and entertaining introduction to economic ideas. Whether it tells you anything useful, that is ideas you can apply in your life rather than just anecdotes, is something I'll have to see. I'm also interested to see how it compares to Freakonomics

First impressions

The book starts with a look at teaching methods rather than economics per se, the point being that the way economics is taught corresponds to teaching languages by learning about the pluperfect subjunctive, rather than getting skill in using the language in real life situations. The author thinks the way economics is taught should correspond more to the latter, real-life method. From what I've read so far it looks likely that the book will succeed in doing that.

Main review

One of the main aims of this book was to enable the reader to think like an economist. I'm not sure how well it does that. Certainly the short essays which make up the book provide some interesting insights into various aspects of our lives, but I'm not convinced that they necessarily deserve to be called 'economics', unless one takes the view that everything can be included in the scope of economics. To take a couple of items from the cover: 'Why is there a light in your fridge but not in your freezer' and 'Why did Kamikaze pilots wear helmets', the answers are interesting enough, but I wouldn't call them economics.

That said, there are parts of the book that might be useful in making economic decisions in our lives. The chapter 'Why some buyers pay more than others' has examples of why businesses are often keen to attract extra custom by offering a discount, as long as this doesn't have too great an effect on existing custom. For instance on hotel gave a significant discount and all the guests had to do was to ask for it. This sort of information could save you a lot of money if you can persuade businesses you are in the 'extra custom' category. Other essays of interest dealt with the concept of 'arms races'. For instance, a retailer would probably do better if they could wait until nearer Christmas before displaying Christmas merchandise - but then another retailer would take some of their business by displaying it before them.

The essays are short, and this means that they don't go into as much detail as the question sometimes deserves. For instance, why can a parent carry a young child on their lap during air travel, but be obliged to fit a special seat in a car. To me it seems that there are many reasons that weren't mentioned, such as that air travel is considerably safer than car travel, but most important of all, that in a car the parent is often doing the driving.

Overall, I would say this book is worth reading if you're looking for light reading which may turn out to be useful to you sometime. It is also probably useful for the context in which it is written - getting economics students to look at the real world rather than getting lost in abstract equations. But don't expect to get a particularly deep understanding of economics from reading it.

Reviews Elsewhere

The Amazon Reviews are positive overall, but some criticise the book for lazy thinking. The Goodreads reviews are a bit less positive, with some finding the book a bit too trivial, compared with Freakonomics for instance. Of other reviews, I felt that the Newmark's door blog gave a well thought out look at the books problems and benefits.