[ Book Review ] Naked Economics, Skeptical Canary

Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan

Four semesters of economics in college convinced me of one unshakable truth: economics is irredeemably boring. So when I saw the tagline to this book included the phrase “dismal science”, I approved.

I approved even more when I read the intro and the author’s promise of no-graphs and no-math. The part of me that convinced me to take those four semesters of econ in the first place reared its head then: “Economics are important. You’re gonna fail at life if you don’t read this book!”

Okay, okay, fine, Inner Voice of Reason and Responsibility, I’ll give it a try. And maybe become a more productive citizen in the process.

I dove in and realized a few things very quickly.

1. Wheelan doesn’t lie. There are no graphs, charts, or number crunching. Even Bill Bryson, who made space and geography fun, hadn’t managed to do that. Plus respect points to Wheelan!

2. It might have been a much dryer read if I hadn’t already had some small amount of economic background. I breezed through the first few chapters, and only started slowing down when it got to talking about the recent economic crisis and Wall Street.

3. It’s fun! The narrator pulls out plenty of amusing anecdotes that had me chortling.

4. The approach and context is US-specific rather than global. If you’re international, mileage may vary!

What about the book in general?

Wheelan, the middle bird.

Ideologically, it takes the middle ground between the kind of rhetoric I listened to last night during the US Republican debate (see upside down canary for more details) and the kind of approach proposed by economists like Jeffrey Sachs (if you like non-fiction, neoliberalism, and NPR, check out The End of Poverty*). Indeed, most of the content in the first half of Naked Economics was standard textbook material, minus the canary-numbing, narcolepsy-inducing dryness. It answered questions such as “what in the world does the US Federal Reserve do?”,  “Why are set prices and rent ceilings a terrible idea that makes everything pricier, not cheaper?” and “Why can’t we just print money–oh wait, we do? How does that work?”

Specific examples, light tone, fits in a very large pocket…It’s like the newest iPad of Economics.

(Well, okay, iPads don’t fit in pockets, have fun Econ examples, or go pastel. But they could, if Apple put its mind to it.)

*Yes, sir! I have my NNN badge, right here!

[ Book Review ] In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned Country by  Bill Bryson; if you think the going is rough, you’ve never been to Australia

Take-home messages:

  1. Australia doesn’t make waves. Except for swimming and drowning.
  2. Australian aborigines are quite remarkable. Except they’re criminally ignored.
  3. Australia has a lovely biosphere. Except it’s been trying to kill people since white settlers stepped on its shores. Quite successfully too.
  4. Australia’s history is full of crazy people who do great things. Except it’s usually by accident.
  5. Australia is full of potential. Except people don’t actually have much of an idea of what’s out there.
  6. Australia reminds Bryson of the 1950’s. Except dryer and bigger.
  7. Australia is quite lovely. Except– well, no, it’s just quite lovely.

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[ Book Review ] Short Review of a Short History

The Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson 

Read by Richard Matthews

Take-home messages:

  1. Hell hath no fury as two scientists bickering.
  2. Science consists of scientists bickering, feuding, and/or driving each other into obscurity or suicide.
  3. In the large scheme of things, the existence of humanity is a monumental accident and a rather fleeting millisecond.
  4. People are really rather terrible.
  5. People are really rather terrible for the planet.

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