Dismal, yes, but economics flies off the shelves


If you want a book on economics to take to the beach, you are spoiled for choice at the airport bookstall. What you will find falls into three categories: Thump books, microeconomics books with little economics and the macroeconomic story-teller.

When I tried to market a “popular book on economics” to publishers a few years ago, it was a hard sell. They thought such a book was an oxymoron. Economics was perhaps worthy, certainly boring. Economists, they thought, were people who talked about whether interest rates would go up or down even though they did not know.

Television producers, desperate to make the subject visual, made presenters stand dejectedly in the rain outside the Bank of England. Not for nothing did Thomas Carlyle label the subject the dismal science. In vain did I argue that the people who bought works by Simon Schama and Richard Dawkins would also buy books on economics if the subject were presented in the right way.

In less than a decade, all this has changed. If you want a book on economics to take to the beach, you are spoiled for choice at the airport bookstall. What you will find falls into three categories.

Two books inaugurated the revolution. Malcolm Gladwell invented the category I label “Thump”. Thump books take a single, quirky idea and ram it home through a disparate range of examples. Gladwell’s first work, The Tipping Point, was – well, the tipping point – and he has since followed it with Blink and Outliers. In The Tipping Point, the idea was that discontinuities arise from network effects. In Blink the idea was that immediate judgments are sometimes more soundly based than considered ones. In Outliers, it is harder to work out the unifying theme. But never mind – Gladwell writes superbly and he parades his examples across the stage with the virtuosity of a choreographer.

The title is key to the appeal of these books to readers – and publishers. The author or his agent looks for a word or phrase that can be made a staple of office banter and dinner table conversation. If The Tipping Point had been called Some Illustrations of Instability in Non-linear Dynamic Systems, it would not have made the bestseller list. Everyone can get their mouth around tipping points. “Nudges”, “black swans” and “the wisdom of crowds” have become clichés.

The seminal work of the second category is Freakonomics by Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and Stephen Dubner, a New York-based journalist. In such books, microeconomics is back, macroeconomics is ignored. Nothing about post neo-classical endogenous growth theory and the natural rate of unemployment. Authors write instead about issues that interest people, such as abortion and children’s names, even if neither the topic nor the discussion have much to do with economics. A curious feature of Freakonomics is that there is little economics in it.

Freakonomics allowed other writers such as the FT’s Tim Harford to tap the same vein; while Stephen Landsburg, who now writes a column for Slate magazine, had been writing that way for years. After Freakonomics their books began to fly off the shelves. Publishers raced to commission them. Tell us stories, they begged.

And then a particularly good macroeconomic story happened in real life. The credit crunch produced the worst depression in half a century – and a third category of economic bestseller. Larger bookshops today have whole tables devoted to books about how it happened, who caused it, what should be done about it. Jaundiced or reluctant gardeners from Wall Street and the City of London have an opportunity to describe My Role in the Credit Crunch. Since I wrote a books essay for the Weekend FT (August 1) on credit crunch books, I will refer you there for advice on which to read and which to avoid.

But I am an economist and you would expect me not only to have learnt lessons from the market but to take advantage of them for shameless self-promotion. I did find a publisher for my popular book about economics – Penguin produced The Truth about Markets in 2003. I wrote my own book on how to survive the credit crunch, The Long and the Short of It, published this year. And next year you can read my Thump book. The title is Obliquity.

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