What I really think of the new popular economics books

I recently published an article in the Swiss arts magazine Du on the wave of popular economics books.  Yes I am an economist but I am also interested in the implicit philosophies and theologies of these books.  My piece is in German and not on-line but here are a few bits from it.

About Freakonomics I wrote:

The implicit theology of Freakonomics is that of original sin. The book is full of stories of liars: “people lie, data don’t” can be taken as the book’s motto…

Levitt and Dubner seek to puncture naïve optimism. It is the reader who needs reforming, and the proposal is to drive naivete out of our systems. We must recognize original sin (recall the bite into the apple on the book’s cover), give up on utopian dreams, and stick to what can be proven by science. That means an acceptance of ongoing human depravity, but Freakonomics goes further. It preemptively protects us against encountering that depravity and lying in our own lives. We have been warned, and we need no longer fear disappointment from our encounters with the real world.

It should come as no surprise that Dubner – the one who actually wrote the book – also penned an entire book about his personal theology. Dubner is ethnically Jewish but his parents had converted to Catholicism and raised him as a Catholic. Over the course of his life he rediscovered his Jewish heritage and religion and chronicled that process in his fascinating Choosing My Religion: A Memoir of a Family Beyond Belief. It is theology, Dubner’s main obsession, which gave him the background to write a popular economics book that touched so many Americans.

And how about Tim Harford?

Harford’s voice is always gentle, sometimes cynical, and usually whimsical and reassuring in his language. He points to the ironies of life. He is hardly one to deny that people lie, but such peccadilloes are a sideshow rather than the center of his moral universe. We still can make our way in the world and carve out a small piece of personal happiness and perhaps a small bit of virtue as well. Harford often reminds us that hedonism has its place in human affairs; his latest book opens with a discussion of the prospect of “a rational [you-know-what].”

In other words, Harford serves up British secularism rather than American original sin. Harford’s “Dear Economist” column…views human foibles as inevitable yet endearing; in Harford’s world no judgment is ever too harsh or too one-sided.

As an economist, Harford seems more interested in “invisible hand mechanisms” than are Dubner and Levitt. Freakonomics informs us that what appears to be ordinary is in fact full of corruption. Harford’s Undercover Economist is keener to show that the apparently corrupt can, at the macro level, lead to entirely acceptable and indeed sometimes humane results.

There is much more, here is one final bit:

Popular economics books reveal their true colors most clearly when they talk about sex. In Freakonomics sex is not holy but rather sex and reproduction lead to the birth of criminals…For Harford sex is a slightly naughty pleasure, and a pleasure to be mocked, but at least it is a real pleasure; this American reviewer again cannot help seeing the British tinge of his work.


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