2 Aug 2009

The Economic Naturalist -- The Review

The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations of Everyday Enigmas (2007) by Robert Frank of Cornell University.

I assigned this book for the class that I am teaching in the fall at Berkeley. Although I had heard of it and know of Frank's work, I had not read it. Now that I have, I am glad that I chose this book for them.

Frank has been teaching introductory economics for many years, and over time he has put more emphasis on common sense and less emphasis on mathematics in his classes. He -- like Thomas Schelling (to whom the book is dedicated) -- is interested in "useful and believable" explanations for the behavior that we see around us.

Frank does not just put this ideal into practice in teaching and writing; he also encourages his students to step into the shoes of an economic naturalist -- by making part of their grade depend on a 500 word (2 page) essay answering an "interesting" question. (Nothing like grades to incentivize careful thought!)

This book is a collection of those essays, rewritten for consistency and clarity, and every page offers a new topic for thought, with a quick -- and generally believable -- explanation of the economics underlying the phenomenon of interest.

Thus, Frank (and his students) explain why taxi drivers quit early on rainy days (when they could make more money), why the rookie of the year often suffers the "sophomore slump," why Victoria's Secret debuts a new $500,000 jewel-encrusted bra each year that it never intends to sell, etc.

Bottom Line: The 200 page book is easy to pick-up and start at any location, and anyone who masters its economics is likely to know more useful information that the average person with a PhD in economics. I give it four stars -- just so Frank has an incentive to work harder on his next book :)


  1. Are there examples in the book that do not support the current paradigm? Such examples might be useful to get the students thinking. Examples that seemed to support the paradigm but that did not actually work would be the most useful.

  2. @Eric -- there are hundreds of examples in the book. I'd say that ANY example assuming efficient markets (esp. wrt standard deviations of expected returns) will be useful as UN-realistic. Many examples in the book rely on political or psychological reasoning -- one reason that the book is useful!

  3. Only $1.50 on Amazon (plus shipping!) Your students will be grateful for that!

  4. @blakenews -- yeah, I am loving the discounted prices. Better than $140 textbooks!


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