The Armchair Economist-Revised Edition

by on April 30, 2012 at 6:05 am in Books, Economics, Education | Permalink

The Armchair Economist includes my favorite line in all of popular economics:

Economic theory predicts that you are not enjoying this book as much you thought you would.

I laugh every time I read that line and I think what a brilliant opening to an essay on auction theory and the winner’s curse!  And then I think, but in fact I am enjoying this book more than I thought!

I first read Landsburg’s book some twenty years ago and dipping into the revised edition over the weekend I can see how influential The Armchair Economist has been on my own teaching and writing, particularly Landsburg’s wonderful and deep essay, Why Prices are Good: Smith v. Darwin. Around 1997, the Armchair Economist also inspired my (now) colleague Bryan Caplan to create a listserv to discuss economics with a small cadre of like minded readers. Many of the people on that listserv would later become well-known econ bloggers. My history makes me assume that everyone has read The Armchair Economist, after all, all my friends have read The Armchair Economist! More rational reflection tells me that time and the flowering of popular economics means that there is a whole new generation of readers ready to be delighted and inspired.

1 Frank Howland April 30, 2012 at 7:04 am

Let’s not forget that this is the same Steven Landsburg who disgraced himself with this blog post:
I for one would not like to put extra money into this man’s pocket.

2 Andrew' April 30, 2012 at 7:55 am

How did actually disgrace himself? By actually, I mean not in the way the “respect crowd” he is directly addressing would mean by violating their PC rules.

3 Andrew' April 30, 2012 at 8:04 am

Btw, how dumb is this notion that I’m not going to read a potentially life-changing book because the author might get what, 50 cents?

4 CBBB April 30, 2012 at 11:11 am

Believe me this is not a life-changing book. I can make a safe bet it’s the same warmed over slop that gets served up here every day.

5 Thor April 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm

CBBB, your first sentence offers your opinion that the book is insignificant or at least overrated. You sound pretty convinced (“Believe me,” is what you ask your readers to do.) Then you say that you’ll bet the book is lousy.

If you haven’t looked at it, why are you be so insistent that it isn’t a life changing book? It’s because you don’t want the book to be any good. You are a piece of work.

6 Tom (UK) April 30, 2012 at 8:07 am

I am subscribed to SL’s RSS feed – there are several occasions where I feel he’s just being obnoxious and I find it very difficult to find any real value in many of his posts. There are, however, some brilliant posts which are illuminating and thoughtful and it is only because of these that I haven’t deleted the feed out of annoyance.

I’ve never read any of his books because I imagine them to be the same mix of quality – if people reassure me that his books are better than the mean average of his blogposts, I would be tempted.

7 Andrew' April 30, 2012 at 10:49 am

Other than saying someone who wants to be paid to have sex might have prostitutic tendencies, what other examples are there? And while there are some women who take birth control for therapeutic reasons other than not having to use other methods of pregnancy avoidance, the issue was never about the individual making the statements to Congress, but about the idea that you should always get what you want from others just because you have a few more people on your side.. After skimming the first page of his recent blog posts I don’t see much that offends me.

One thing that I don’t think the libertarian community lacks is this repeated attempt to shout down the opposition for breaches of their groupthink. We only do that to fellow libertarians.

8 CBBB April 30, 2012 at 11:14 am

I thought the Sandra Fluke issue was whether contraception should be covered by insurance plans. Seems a far cry from “being paid to have sex”. Sounds like you’ve really gone off the deep end on this one.

9 John Thacker April 30, 2012 at 11:34 am

Strange, people defending it below call it an issue of “women’s sexual freedom.” Though I think that while there is possibly some small amount of transfers from people not having sex to those who are having sex (which strikes me as unfair, since the ones having sex are, all things being equal, better off), it’s probably more a transfer to drug companies, a transfer from people who prefer other forms of birth control (some women don’t like or don’t tolerate the pill well), and a transfer from men to women (assuming that men are less likely to split contraceptive costs.)

I think that one could make a case that the women particularly helped would be those that are not in a monogamous relationship, since costs are much more likely to be split in a monogamous relationship. (Although men are somewhat more likely to bear more costs of dating in non-monogamous relationships; I’m initially assuming no affect on dating norms from this.)

I don’t think it’s a far cry, it’s just an obviously offensive way of framing it. I would compare it to, say, provocative statements by feminists and others (including the Onion) that marriage is a form of prostitution.

10 John Thacker April 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Oh, and I failed to mention that another net effect of the policy is probably subsidizing heterosexuals at the expense of homosexuals.

11 Andrew' April 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I didn’t make that up. That was Rush Limbaugh trying to fill 3 hours a day.

And everyone is aware what the purpose of birth control is, right?

I do my share of level setting, but I never thought we’d really need to have the birds and bees talk.

12 CBBB April 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm

No, what I don’t understand is why it is even a big deal to have birth control covered by insurance – except for the fact that certain people hate the idea of women having sex outside of marriage. The vast majority of women use birth control, and despite these half-assed attempts at trying to find idiotic reasons why it’s a bad requirement – the benefit of reducing unwanted pregnancies certainly offsets the insignificant cost associated with this.

13 CBBB April 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I think that one could make a case that the women particularly helped would be those that are not in a monogamous relationship, since costs are much more likely to be split in a monogamous relationship.

Oh good, with all the little things to help couples out I don’t see any problem with this.

14 MW April 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Only on second reading did I realize that SL’s stand was quite principled. He endorsed mocking the position, not the person. Advocating for subsidizing birth control (or mandating that private contracts include these subsidies) is silly and should be mocked.

15 Thor April 30, 2012 at 10:55 am

I get irked when every transgression, every infelicitous comment, every grotesque bit of political posturing, hyperbole and exaggeration, not to mention radical chic, every wildly over the top unsubstantiated point made by some “star” Leftist in academe is glossed over and forgiven … but ordinary mortals, let alone those occupying other positions on the political spectrum, cannot be just as flawed and sometimes obnoxious. SL is smart and worth reading. Let him have all of his opinions and arguments. They are, after all, his.

16 Frank Howland April 30, 2012 at 11:08 am

Disgrace: Landsburg first says that Sandra Fluke “deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being” and then proceeds to endorse Rush Limbaugh’s vicious, misogynistic attack on Sandra Fluke, saying,among other things, “Color me jealous for not having thought of this analogy myself.” You can say that Landsburg is only supporting
certain ideas about not subsidizing private activity with tax dollars, but that would be disingenuous.

Not giving money to Landsburg: Certainly we all have to make compromises. I teach economics and assign books for my students to read (I hope). I’d much rather endorse other economists who can write well about their subject than someone like Landsburg. His record is obviously mixed–he is something of a modern pioneer in popularizing
economic ideas.

Thor: I am not shouting down Prof. Landsburg. Just pointing out that what he wrote was disgraceful. To criticize him is not to gloss over others’ disgraceful comments.

In general I would think libertarians would take offense at opinions like those which Landsburg endorses–Limbaugh is certainly not if favor of women’s sexual freedom.

17 Andrew' April 30, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Come on.

It is nowhere not clear that Rush, in even his ham-fisted manner, is not talking EXACTLY about giving people money for birth control.

You don’t get to have your freedom at my expense. That’s not net freedom.

18 Frank Howland April 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm

I guess you and I perceive things differently. Implying that someone was a slut and fantasizing about watching sex tapes of her was too subtle for me. I am not saying that arguing against subsidizing birth control is a way to suppress women’s sexual freedom. I am saying that the overall message that Landsburg endorsed is an attack on women’s sexual freedom.

There are many many cases where people advocate special favors from government. Surely, Landsburg has attacked many such arguments. How often does he agree that it is a good idea to attack the person who makes the argument as a (real, not figurative) prostitute? It is nonsense to assert that one is attacking the idea, not the person, by describing the person as a prostitute.

19 Sean P. April 30, 2012 at 11:41 am

Does the new edition still have that oh-so-delightful chapter on environmentalism?

20 Popeye April 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Landsburg is someone who delights in presenting counterintuitive claims as undeniable matters of logic. This might be OK (although somewhat annoying) if he was always right, but he’s often wrong. Thus he is basically a troll, and the fact that Cowen thinks he’s this wonderful public intellectual reflects poorly on him.

21 Andrew' April 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Because what we really lack is voices for the zeitgeist?

Google “George Zimmerman voice analysis”

Granted it’s my pet issue this month, but note the number of WRONG links to a couple jack-legged “experts” because it fits the popular narrative. I would however agree that counterintuitive AND true is the greatest value.

22 Rob Cafaro May 1, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I highly recommend his book. Some parts are hard to drudge through, but it opens up your mind to some fundamental economic logic. I especially recommend it to microeconomics students.

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