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Review: The Logic of Life

bookcover There is just something about the team “popular Economics” that is so paradoxical that I am usually tempted to stay away from any book that even slightly falls into this genre. But the rave reviews that Tim Harford’s Logic of Life had been receiving, combined with the fact that I have, on more than one occasion, enjoyed his FT columns, decided to give the book a try. I am far from disappointed – in fact, I confess that I am ready to replace my unreasonable distrust of the genre with a new found enthusiasm to read some of the titles referred to in this book, some of which may be heralded as icons of the genre. I promise you, true to my usual self, I will make a list of these books before I go about buying and / or reading them. But before that, let’s spare some thought for the book that affected this change of heart.

The fundamental concept in the book, unsurprisingly, is that human beings are rational – everything we do, however illogical it might seem – is founded in cold hard reason, if only you look hard enough. By the end of the first chapter, Harford has you pretty much convinced of this and you will be ready to believe that, from hookers to teenagers to criminals, everyone is endowed with a rational mind. The one caveat to this thesis that Harford himself admits to is that rationality is accentuated by experience. The way I see it, this is similar to conditional learning – the more times you have done something, the more likely you are to know the likely effects of a wide range of your actions and you will pick the one most likely to lead to positive gains for you – either now or in the future. Whether you call it good old common sense or logic, the end result remains the same, and can be explained rationally.

The beauty of the book lies in the wide range of examples that Harford has chosen to explain the logic of. Unlike many of the best sellers of the past years, which left you with the distinct feeling that one idea or concept, best suited for a long article, had been pulled and stretched in all possible directions to fill enough pages to call it a book – Harford introduces refreshingly new analyses chapter after chapter. His wand of rationality illumines the logic behind seemingly instinctive moves of seasoned poker players, emotion-laden decisions behind marriage and divorce and even tries to explain why your boss will always be overpaid and why your job sucks – obviously not a great ad for careers at FT considering that he does not even entertain the thought that some of us might like our jobs, but powerful analyses nevertheless.

Harford also tries to explain why some neighborhoods are better and safer than others and warns us that racism is not always the product of an irrational, unreasonable, bigoted mind. He predicts that people will choose to live in cities even with the proliferation of technologies and if anything, they emphasize their place in our lives – quite honestly, I am inclined to disbelieve. I was born and raised in a beautiful tropical place and the moment modern technology allows me to do what I do or love to do from the comfort of a sprawling villa built on a palm-tree laden beach, I am running back home away from my hundred square meter apartment in Amsterdam. But Harford’s reasoning is tight, and for now, I am placing no bets. The last chapter in the book tries to explain the logic of human existence and development over millions of years. Speculative by the author’s own admission, it is still an informative intellectual exercise.

The book drives home the main point of life being all about logic, but on many other topics, it raises more questions than answers, which I mean as an excellent compliment for a book of this genre. To Harford’s credit, he mentions many books that I am now very tempted to read (reading list at end of post). Even the Undercover Economist has crept back to the reading list – after reading twenty-odd pages on supply and demand which could just as easily been explained by a graph that could fit a gapingvoid postcard, I had judged it a waste of time, but I am now tempted to reassess my judgment.

I am not sure whether this book will “forever change the way you look at things” as the blurb on the cover claims, but it is definitely an insightful and entertaining book that would be of interest to anyone with a slight interest in economics and the logic of our lives.

Reading list inspired by the Logic of Life:

1) Undercover Economist by Tim Harford
2) Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
3) How to lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff
4) Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker
5) The Hare and the Tortoise by John Kay
6) The Winner’s Curse by Richard Thaler
7) Micromotives and Macrobehavior by Thomas Schelling
8) The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Posted in Books on March 30, 2008

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  1. Logic of Life Review | DesiPundit linked to this post on April 1, 2008

    […] Surya reviews Tim Harford’s latest economics book, The Logic of Life and provides a reading list inspired by this book [via]. […]

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