Monthly Archives: November 2005

More on the Undercover Economist

I figured out why I was so dissatisfied with The Undercover Economist.

Harford treats everything in economics as a solved trivial problem. Trying to incorporate the costs of pollution in a transportation policy? Dealing with externalities will make it simple. Want to prove that free trade is best? It’s obvious. Sweatshops on your conscience? Fuggadaboutit.

Now, I agree with just about all of Harford’s conclusions. But he makes economics seem pretty pallid when there are no debates or ideas left to wrestle with. I’m hoping to find more nuance and engagement with the latest book on my shelf, Thomas Schelling’s Choice and Consequence.

Who invented podcasting?

Tom Friedman really needs to check his facts.

Here’s an excerpt from today’s Financial Times:

This month, for instance, the audio version of The World is Flat became the top-selling podcast album on Apple’s iTunes audio downloading site, says the author.

“That got me enormous juice with my teenage daughters. But what’s really interesting is that when I started this book in March 2004, podcasting didn’t exist.

“And what’s even more interesting to me is: who invented podcasting? No­body. It was an application that just emerged from the network.”

Um, no. If Friedman just looks at his often-cited Wikipedia, he’ll find that there are inventors of podcasting. Sadly typical of Tom’s fast and furious approach to things. I like the critique the FT’s own Martin Wolf had of The World is Flat: “A bad, good book.”

Update I wrote a letter to the editor of the FT about this distortion:


You quote Tom Friedman saying, “Who invented podcasting? Nobody. It was an application that just emerged from the network.”

If Friedman looked at the Wikipedia, which he admiringly cites in the same interview, he’d see that podcasting does have inventors. Credit should be given to Dave Winer and Adam Curry.

Networks are wonderful things, but inventions don’t just spontaneously emerge.

Dave Winer has also commented: “Analogously, who wrote Tom Friedman’s latest book? No one, it just popped off the printing press.”

Headlines I didn't expect to see

French business hits out at farm lobby.

Breaking business’s traditional silence on agricultural matters, Laurence Parisot, the new head of Medef, France’s powerful employers’ federation, last week launched a debate in which business leaders expressed their fears about an impasse in the negotiations.

In a meeting with farmers’ representatives, Thierry Breton, finance minister, and Christine Lagarde, trade minister, Ms Parisot said the talks were “vital for growth and employment in France and Europe”. The debate was a clear effort to draw attention to the needs of business in the face of a powerful farming lobby.

Ms Parisot’s concerns are repeated by some of France’s most respected industrialists. Guy Dollé, head of the world’s second largest steel group, Arcelor, criticises the level of support for an industry that in France employs fewer than 4 per cent of the population. “Is it realistic to have so much of the European budget devoted to agriculture? It is not and the position of my country is not very modern,” he said

Underwhelmed by the Undercover Economist

I was quick to purchase Tim Harford’s Undercover Economist when it was published the other week. His small column in the Financial Times, Dear Economist, is witty, wears its knowledge lightly and reveals important aspects of economic thinking.

Sadly, the new book has little of the wit and originality of the column. The Undercover Economist is an easy-to-read overview of some of the main themes of modern economic thinking: marginal cost, comparative advantage, asymmetric information, the benefits of free trade. If you have ever studied economics, I suspect there will be little new in the book. If you haven’t studied economics, but keep up with key writers like Brad DeLong, Martin Wolf and Paul Krugman, you’ll still find little new.

My guess is the publishers, Oxford University Press in the US, Little Brown in the UK, are hoping to repeat the success of Freakonomics. I didn’t much like that book either, but it certainly introduced me to a host of new ideas and research.

China's troubling statistics

Guy de Jonquieres has a pithy column in the Financial Times about China’s dodgy economic statistics (subscribers only). The conclusion:

China’s economy has opened up dramatically. But its government has not. A pervasive culture of secrecy inhibits communications even between ministries. At all levels, information is viewed as a resource to be hoarded and as a means to exercise power, not as a public good.

Free and accessible information flows are a modern economy’s lifeblood. Without them, markets will not work properly, nor will rational investment decisions be made. Unless Beijing creates trust in its methods of monitoring the economy’s pulse, by making them more transparent as well as more accurate, they will act as a tourniquet, not a health check.

Antidote to Friedman's simplicities

Stephen Roach: “The hyper-speed of an increasingly asymmetrical globalization is hardly the stuff of a flat world.”

Update Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat (a statement I don’t agree with) won the first Financial Times/Goldman Sachs business book of the year award today. It’s odd. I don’t think Tom’s generalizations (in a category that someone today described to me pejoratively as “good reading for undergraduates”) would pass muster on the FT’s own op-ed page.

Forget aspirin

Derek Lowe:

As a drug discovery researcher, I can tell you something that might sound crazy: many of these older drugs would have a hard time getting approved today. Some of them would never even have made it to the FDA at all.

The best example is aspirin itself. It’s one of the foundation stones of the drug industry, and it’s hard to even guess how many billions of doses of it have been taken over the last hundred years. But if you were somehow able to change history so that aspirin had never been discovered until this year, I can guarantee you that it would have died in the lab. No modern drug development organization would touch it.