Book Review: Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen

October 8th, 2009

When I first started reading this book my wife thought it was a waste of time. She said that I was already pretty much in touch with my inner economist.

That’s pretty much true. And overall she was right – I didn’t really get much out of this book.

Tyler Cowen is an economist who I can respect. His work doesn’t always agree with my views, but it’s usually well argued and thought provoking. But what works well in short doses in a blog becomes grating in larger doses. Throughout the book points are belaboured to the point of pain, and the central insight overeexplicated at the expense of subtlety and nuance.

Nothing in the book made me go ‘aha’, nothing changed the way that I was planning to behave. The advice was either obvious, or it was things that I would never consider doing for one reason or another. For instance, the advice on how to motivate your dentist comes down to “supporting their self-image as a good dentist”. The discussion around the problems with incentives is interesting, but the final advice comes across as flat and dull. Perhaps it’s because Cowen is ultimately too honest – he knows the complications that behavioural economics causes in most classical economics predictions. Which in turn means that there is little that can be provided in terms of concrete, usable advice.

So all the book had to offer in the end was a slight discussion of some interesting economics, devoid of concrete advice that might be interesting or provocative, and without the interesting stories found in books such as Freakonomics. Most non-economists would come away from this book with at least a greater appreciation of the complexities of the science, but most professional economists will find little new here.