The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual


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The bestselling author of The Undercover Economist shows that unlikely people in unlikely situations are actually responding rationally to far-off costs and benefits. He then broadens the scope, illuminating the hidden logic that governs families, communities, neighborhoods - even society itself! It's ' Reading it 'is like spending an ordinary daywearing X-ray goggles. With over one million copies sold, The Undercover Economist has been hailed worldwide as a fantastic guide to the fundamental principles of economics. New to this edition: This revised edition, newly updated to consider the banking crisis and economic turbulence of the last four years, is essential for anyone who has wondered why the gap between rich and poor nations is so great, or why they can't seem to find a decent second-hand car, or how to outwit Starbucks.

How much should we worry about these hidden extras? Perhaps we should laugh them off as a cost of modern life. After all, businesses must still compete with each other and cover their overheads, so if these hidden charges could somehow be made to vanish, the everyday price might have to rise. We all know that such charges lie in wait when we deal with certain sorts of business — tourism and banking spring to mind. So why worry? Even when we know that certain charges will be added, we behave differently when those charges are highlighted.

Over a decade ago, three economists, Raj Chetty, Kory Kroft and Adam Looney, conducted an experiment with a US retailer in which the familiar sales tax on everyday items was either made explicit or left implicit. The sales tax, of nearly 7. When products were relabelled to show clearly both the usual pre-tax price and what the post-tax price would be, shoppers bought substantially less. Professor Chetty and his colleagues had demonstrated that we respond differently when a cost, even a familiar one, is drawn to our attention. The harder it is to compare prices, the less vigorous the forces of competition will be, to the detriment of the typical customer.

I can rely on the fact that any car hire company will try to overcharge me, but I can have no confidence in just how hard the financial sucker punch will be, or when and where it will land. Should I refuse to do business again with Europcar, or should I reckon that they let me get away lightly? A company could, of course, make a great play of not engaging in such tricks. Alas, there are two problems with this. When I typed the phrase into a search engine, one of the top results was Avis.

Given my painful experience with the company, that is not encouraging. There is a subtler problem too, explored a few years ago by the economists Xavier Gabaix and David Laibson. The problem is that not all customers would find the promise appealing. The transparent company would attract the suckers without exploiting them; the sneaky company would be a magnet for the sophisticates, who might well then avoid the tricks.

The advertisement would backfire. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that companies boast about offering clear, transparent prices less often than we might expect, and that the boasts are often empty. That is my view as an economist. My reaction as a consumer will require some careful thought. Windscreens are transparent; prices, less so. Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 30 August Denise Milani was a year-old Czech swimwear model.

Paul Frampton was a divorced particle physicist more than twice her age. What happened next was a tale as old as time: they met online; she sent messages by turns steamy and adoring; they arranged to meet in Bolivia, where she was doing a photo-shoot. Could she meet him in Brussels instead? And would he mind, terribly, collecting an empty suitcase of hers and bringing it with him? Of course, the real Ms Milani had no idea that her photographs were being used by a Bolivian drug gang.

Prof Frampton seems to have had no idea either, although a friend warned him — correctly — that drugs were surely concealed in the suitcase linings. Prof Frampton duly spent several years in a Buenos Aires jail for smuggling 2kg of cocaine. Why do we fall for the con? In , psychologist Robert Epstein struck up an online conversation with Ivana, a pretty and affectionate woman from Nizhny Novgorod.


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He was sufficiently charmed that it took him four months to realise that she was a chatbot. He concluded that he had been fooled by his own wishful thinking as much as by a clever programmer. Wishful thinking can lead us far astray. So, too, can fear and greed. Visceral emotions are easy to exploit. We are promised vast riches, unlocked by a small advance payment. Other scams prey on fear: one cold-caller claims to be from your bank, warning that your account has been compromised; another is from the Revenue, demanding prompt payment of unpaid taxes.

Anxious and panicked, we find ourselves bounced into making decisions we would mock in others. There is no single unified theory of the con. Certain con artists really are artists — astonishingly charismatic, bold and versatile. But Ms Konnikova points out that many cons, like many magic tricks, are uncomplicated exploitations of common human traits, often traits that in other contexts would be strengths rather than weaknesses. Self-deception, for example, is surprisingly useful in everyday life.

One psychological study of competitive swimmers found that those with a clear-eyed assessment of themselves were more likely to fail. We like to think of ourselves as exceptional. Our self-absorption leads us not to ask hard questions when we are promised exceptional treatment.

It seems reasonable that a voluptuous model finds us irresistible, that an African oil billionaire trusts us with his cash, and that Brexit will be a doddle because, if we are polite yet firm, Germany will give the UK everything we want. While exceptionalism makes us susceptible, so too does emotional vulnerability.

Bereaved people, or those on the rebound, are tempting marks. People who have fallen for anti-vaccine pseudoscience do so because they are anxious about their children — as well as feeling smart enough to see through Big Government, Big Pharma propaganda. Many con victims fall for a second, follow-up fraud as they lick their wounds from the first.

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Extended confidence tricks, where victims are fleeced over many months by someone they trust, often begin with the con artist offering friendship, sympathy or easy answers to someone who is feeling wounded. The US and UK electorates may both wish to take note. One of the final cruelties is that many victims of fraud continue to trust the fraudster long after the con should have been apparent. What was the Times anyway, but a purveyor of fake news? What unnerves me about Prof Frampton is that my own father knows him well. They were students together decades ago and still keep in touch.


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When I think of Prof Frampton, I instinctively worry that the victim of the next con could be my father. Perhaps I should be more alert to the fact that the victim of the next con could be me. Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 19 July I know a man who used to deal with a stressful job, working hour days in a senior role, by slipping away to a rented house near Richmond Park in London. There, he refused to be interrupted by messages except during office hours, spent time playing bridge well and golf badly, and he ensured that the location of the hideaway was a well-kept secret.

The few colleagues who did visit were strictly banned from talking about work. Yet despite his apparently laid-back approach, this fellow got results. To be clear, I know this person only by reputation; Dwight Eisenhower died before I was born. But this is how he responded to the burdens of being supreme allied forces commander during the second world war. He found it essential to take time off. We would all like to feel that our work is essential and our personal contribution irreplaceable. If he benefited from some down time, so might we. But what sort of break is best? Should we be thinking of long sabbaticals, or is it enough to keep evenings and weekends free?

The simple answer is all of the above. That said, my reading of the slim evidence is that if you can bear the cumulative expense and the travel time, frequent short breaks beat the occasional elongated vacation.

Reason one: holiday memories tend to depend not on how long the holiday was, but on the intensity of the experiences. What matters is not how long you went away, but just how exciting and different the most exciting and different moments were.


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The first day of a visit to somewhere new will typically be more memorable than the tenth. Reason two: a change of activity can be a spur to creativity. This need not be a long holiday; even an engaging hobby will do. Nobel Prize-winning scientists are much more likely to have serious arts and crafts hobbies than other scientists, who are in turn more likely to have serious hobbies than the rest of us. Still, a holiday can help. Intriguingly, Hamilton is, among other things, a musical about the importance of taking proper holidays.

In short, he rested so that he could be a better general when he was working. Jessica de Bloom of the University of Groningen has found that the recuperative effects of a vacation tend to wear off in just a few weeks.

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By relaxation he simply means something that requires little conscious effort — from a walk to watching television. Control means autonomy over how you spend your time. Mastery refers to immersion in a challenging and absorbing task. Such disconnection is harder than ever these days but it can help, even when the break is otherwise anything but relaxing.

Business trips can be exhausting yet even they have been found to reduce burnout and stress, because they provide a break from day-to-day responsibilities. And one study — by Professors Dalia Etzion, Dov Eden and Yael Lapidot — discovered that men called up for active reserve duty in the Israeli army found that the experience provided the same relief from burnout and stress in their normal lives that a holiday would have done. Unless, of course, your day job is in the army. In that case I recommend that you emulate Ike and enjoy a game of golf or bridge.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 16 August I rely on Google Calendar to tell me where I am supposed to be, when and with whom. When the service collapsed for an afternoon last month, it felt like a teachable moment. For a few seconds, I panicked. Then, I realised that with all the meetings gone, I was free to do some real work. Will There Be Donuts? Yet Mr Pearl also acknowledges that ineffectual meetings often suit us. Boring meetings make us feel interesting by comparison. Long meetings pass the time.

Indecisive meetings postpone painful choices. Meetings frustrate when they reveal painful disparities in power. For subordinates, meetings are often the things that get in the way of doing their job. For the person with the power — the manager — meetings are the job. The manager can even offload the scheduling on to her secretary. No wonder some staff feel resentful of meetings while their managers are oblivious.

That said, the relentless democracy of a meeting where everybody must be heard is a kind of torture in its own right. Never-ending consultations are a good way to ensure that nothing ever happens and nobody has to take responsibility. Some meetings are to transfer information, some to allow discussion and some to reach a decision or resolve a problem. There are committee meetings that exist to satisfy some rule or regulation. I am on such a committee, and find it useful as a reminder not to sign up for any other committees.

Then there are the meetings that exist purely for the sake of meeting. I know a school that invites parents in for curriculum meetings. Nobody goes away happy. A few minutes is often sufficient. Or perhaps the meeting is a workshop designed to produce ideas.

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual
The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual
The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual
The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual
The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: The Economy - A Users Manual

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