This book helps you discover the secrets behind hundreds of everyday enigmas. Why is there a light in your fridge but not in your freezer? Why do 24-hour shops bother having locks on their doors? Why did Kamikaze pilots wear helmets? The answer is simple: economics. Economics doesn't just happen in classrooms or international banks. It is everywhere and influences everything we do and see, from the cinema screen to the streets. It can even explain some of life's most intriguing enigmas. For years, economist Robert Frank has been encouraging his students to use economics to explain the strange situations they encounter in everyday life, from peculiar product design to the vagaries of sex appeal. Now he shares the most intriguing - and bizarre - questions and the economic principles that answer them to reveal why many of the most puzzling parts of everyday life actually make perfect (economic) sense.
From the Author
Shortly after I began teaching at Cornell, more than 35 years ago, three friends in different cities independently sent me the same New Yorker cartoon depicting a woman introducing a man to a friend at a party. `Mary, I'd like you to meet Marty Thorndecker,' she began. `He's an economist, but he's really very nice.'
Cartoons are data. That people find them amusing usually tells us something about reality. Curious about what drove responses to the economist cartoon, I began asking about the disappointed looks that appeared on people's faces when they first discovered I was an economist. Invariably they mentioned unpleasant memories of an introductory economics course. `There were all those incomprehensible graphs,' was a common refrain.
…What explains such abysmal performance? One problem is the encyclopedic range typical of introductory courses. As the Nobel laureate George J. Stigler wrote more than 40 years ago, `The brief exposure to each of a vast array of techniques and problems leaves the student no basic economic logic with which to analyze the economic questions he will face as a citizen.'
Another problem is that the introductory course is increasingly tailored not for the majority of students for whom it will be their only economics course, but for the negligible fraction who will go on to become professional economists. These courses prove daunting for many students and leave them little time and energy to focus on how basic economic principles help explain everyday behaviour.
…The form in which ideas are conveyed is important. Perhaps because our species evolved as storytellers, the human brain is innately receptive to information in narrative form. Years ago, I stumbled upon an assignment that plays directly to this strength.
Twice during the semester, I ask my students to pose an interesting question based on something they have personally observed or experienced. In no more than 500 words, they must then use basic economic principles to answer it. I call it the `economic naturalist' assignment, in the spirit of field biologists who use Darwinian principles to interpret the traits and behaviour of living things.
…Basic economic principles are not rocket science. They are accessible even to children. Lance Knobel, for example, who writes the blog DavosNewbies.com, said that he'd been regaling his 11-year-old son with economic naturalist puzzles at bedtime, `and he can't get enough of them.'
In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. By the time you finish reading The Economic Naturalist, you will be an economics expert, relatively speaking. Having seen how basic economic principles help us answer interesting questions from everyday experience, you won't be able to resist posing and answering interesting new questions of your own.
Robert H. Frank
Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Louis Johnson Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. His previous books include The Winner-Takes-All Society (with Philip Cook), Luxury Fever and Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke). Frank’s many awards include the Apple Distinguished Teaching Award and the Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.
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