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The Economist reads | Economics
What to read to understand how economists think
Our senior economics writer picks five books for those starting to study the subject
(Original Caption) Rushing Business. New York: Caught up in the swirl of heavy trading at the New York Stock Exchange November 21st, a member watches the big board. The stock market staged a dramatic rebound November 21st following the November 20th decline brought on by the devaluation of the British pound.
Aug 9th 2022



This article is part of our Summer reads series. Visit our collection to discover “The Economist reads” guides, guest essays and more seasonal distractions.

Economics has a reputation as a dry, heartless subject, full of boring equations. The reality is much more interesting. Thinking like an economist, as I see it, comprises two main features. The first is always to think about trade-offs. There is no such thing as a free lunch, as Milton Friedman said. When someone gets something, they almost always give something up in return. If you go out with your friends, you won’t have time to go to the gym. If an economy’s wages go up, dividends might go down, or inflation might go up. And so on. The second is to try, when possible, to put numbers on things. When we say that China’s lockdowns are “strict”, what do we actually mean? If you think “job quality is getting worse every year”, how are you going to measure that? Sometimes it is not easy to quantify ideas, but it’s always good to try. In The Economist’s coverage we always try to remember these two lessons. Here are five books that should help you think in this way.

Capitalism and Freedom. By Milton Friedman. University of Chicago Press; 272 pages; $18 and £15

Ignore the fact that Friedman was ultra-libertarian. It does not matter. Very often his arguments were plain wrong. That does not matter either. This book is perhaps the best way to learn to think about trade-offs, because that was how Friedman always thought about the world. For instance, consider minimum wages. Friedman accepts that the people who receive them take home more money. But then the trade-offs come steaming in. What, he asks, about the people who are now priced out of the labour market? Or take regulation of medicines. Unnecessary, he says. Yes, you may save some lives by insisting that pharmaceutical companies jump through hoops before taking a drug to market, as fewer dangerous drugs are sold. But those reviews will also cost lives, he says, by delaying the delivery of safe drugs to patients. (In 2006 we published this article on Friedman and his legacy.)

The Worldly Philosophers. By Robert Heilbroner. Touchstone; 368 pages; $18.99. Simon & Schuster; £8.99

In a cheerful, conversational style, Heilbroner takes the reader through the writings of the earliest economists, explaining why their ideas were so revolutionary. Adam Smith did not have much data to hand, but he put numbers to his arguments when he could. So did Karl Marx, who gathered data from newspapers and parliamentary reports. Marx was also a big believer in trade-offs—he argued, for instance, that the world had to endure capitalism in the short term in order, eventually, to reach a socialist utopia in the long term. David Ricardo tried to think through the trade-offs involved in economic activity—for instance, in his theory of comparative advantage.

More Summer reads
• The perfectionism trap
• Finding yourself in the rivers, lakes and ponds of England
• The world’s most liveable cities
• Our Bartleby columnist picks beach reads for business folk
• Malala Yousafzai explains why girls must be free to learn—and to lead

Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong. By Morten Jerven. Bloomsbury Academic; 176 pages; $21.95. Zed Books; £14.99

It is great to use numbers, but you have to be careful. This book, by a specialist in African economies, shows how important that is. A lot of economists plug data from Africa into huge statistical models, seeking to explain, for instance, why social trust is higher in one part of a country than another. But a lot of this research is based on shoddy data. For instance, in 2015 the gdp of South Sudan was either unchanged from the year before or shrank by 11%, depending on whether you believe the imf or the World Bank. One lesson from the book (which we reviewed in 2015) is to be upfront about the limitations of your data sources. Another is to try less fancy analysis—say, using descriptive statistics rather than attempting to tease out causality. This is less prestigious and less impressive, but it may produce results that are likelier to stand the test of time.

Capitalism, Alone. By Branko Milanovic. Harvard University Press; 304 pages; $19.95 and £15.95

This is the book to read if you want to understand why capitalism—and economists’ way of thinking—has triumphed the world over. By the beginning of the 1990s, it was clear that the capitalist system had defeated the communist one. Today, however, many people yearn to move to a new system, such as “millennial socialism”. A left-leaning scholar, Mr Milanovic sympathises with these feelings. But ultimately he finds many radical prescriptions unconvincing. A country which tried to de-marketise on the scale envisaged by socialists would, he says, be unstable and dissatisfied in other ways. Shifting towards a much shorter working week, for instance, would leave it poorer than its neighbours. For how long would people put up with that? Capitalism is far from perfect, his book shows, yet it is hard to shake the notion that it is the only system that broadly works.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. By Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt. HarperCollins; 352 pages; $16.99. Penguin: £10.99

This book is so famous that it seems a cliché to choose it, but if you haven’t read it, you really should. (We reviewed it, in 2005.) Fundamentally, it is (again) about trade-offs. It goes through lots of fun examples, showing how policies can have unintended consequences. For example, when a nursery imposed a fine on parents who were late to pick up their kids, more parents started turning up late. The fine had inadvertently removed a moral disincentive for parents to be on time. They thought of it as a price. Other examples in the book include the question of why drug-dealers live with their parents, and whether legalising abortion reduces crime. The book is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some of the studies discussed in it have been called into question. But the overall lesson is a useful one: incentives matter. ■


这篇文章是我们夏季读物系列的一部分。请访问我们的收藏,以发现 "经济学人读物 "指南、特邀文章和更多季节性的分心。

经济学被认为是一个干燥、无情的学科,充满了无聊的方程式。现实却要有趣得多。在我看来,像经济学家一样思考,包括两个主要特点。第一是始终思考权衡问题。正如米尔顿-弗里德曼所说,没有免费的午餐。当一个人得到一些东西时,他们几乎总是放弃一些东西作为回报。如果你和你的朋友出去,你就没有时间去健身房。如果一个经济体的工资上升,红利可能下降,或者通货膨胀可能上升。等等。第二是在可能的情况下,尝试给事情加上数字。当我们说中国的封锁是 "严格 "的,我们实际上是什么意思?如果你认为 "工作质量每年都在恶化",你要如何衡量?有时量化想法并不容易,但尝试一下总是好的。在《经济学人》的报道中,我们总是试图记住这两条经验。这里有五本书,应该可以帮助你以这种方式思考。





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非洲。为什么经济学家会弄错?作者:Morten Jerven。Bloomsbury Academic;176页;21.95美元。Zed Books;14.99英镑


资本主义,孤独的。作者:Branko Milanovic。哈佛大学出版社;304页;19.95美元和15.95英镑

如果你想了解为什么资本主义和经济学家的思维方式在全世界取得了胜利,就应该读这本书。到20世纪90年代初,很明显,资本主义制度已经打败了共产主义制度。然而,今天,许多人渴望转向一种新的制度,如 "千年社会主义"。作为一名左倾的学者,米拉诺维奇先生同情这些感受。但最终他发现许多激进的处方并不令人信服。他说,一个试图按照社会主义者设想的规模去市场化的国家会在其他方面不稳定和不满意。例如,向更短的工作周转变,会使它比邻国更穷。人们能忍受多久呢?他的书显示,资本主义远非完美,但很难摆脱这样的观念,即它是唯一广泛可行的制度。


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