Monthly Archives: June 2010

From 4th March 2006:

Family Harford is now safely installed in one of the grimmest parts of Hackney. Just outside the back door is a “massage parlour”, a kebab shop, a jerk chicken joint and a betting shop, not to mention flowers for the young man who was recently shot dead outside a local nightclub. At the front is a row of abandoned cars, courtesy of the garage just across the road and the other one just round the corner. Delis are there none.
Cities are agglomerations of bright lights and skyscrapers, but also of sharp elbows and grime. Technically speaking, they are collections of “externalities”. An externality is a cost or a benefit that affects bystanders. Aficionados of economics lectures will recall the quintessential example of the pollution from a factory that damages the business of the fish farm downstream.

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Why England Lose, a book published a few months ago by Stefan Szymanski and my FT colleague Simon Kuper, makes the following key points:

- England do about as well as you’d expect, given their size, economic power, proximity to football’s “core” in Western Europe, and footballing history. That is, you’d expect them to usually make the last 16, sometimes make the last 8, occasionally make the last 4 and make the final very rarely. And they do.

- Managers don’t make much difference to a team’s expected performance. Not even Fabio Capello.

- There is no correlation between the qualifying performance (which in this particular campaign was outstanding) and the performance at the championship itself (which… well, the less said the better).

Not a bad prediction from an economist and a sports pundit, eh?  It’s a fun book, too.

Tyler Cowen’s “Create Your Own Economy” is now out in paperback entitled “The Age of the Infovore“, perhaps an acknowledgement that the initial title wasn’t working out.

I liked the book at lot. As suits the infovoracious it is  wide-ranging, somewhat scattershot but extremely creative, original and thought-provoking. If the book has a theme it is that different people think very differently – not just that they have different tastes or different beliefs but that the entire way they organise the world is different – and that the internet offers some people a much better way to order their encounters with the world than they have previously been offered. It changed the way I think.

Also, you get to hear Tyler’s discussion of whether we might usefully think of Sherlock Holmes as an autistic character.

If you buy this book hoping for another “Freakonomics, “Armchair Economist” or “Logic of Life” you’ll be surprised. But if you’re a Marginal Revolution fan and want to go deeper, you’ll be enthralled.

NB Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have some textbooks out. They look interesting too but as a non-teaching non-student they have yet to tempt me to a proper review.

The most appealing aspect of an often bizarre Conservative election platform was the proposal to make it far easier for new schools to enter the state-funded sector. Under Tory proposals, anyone who passes regulatory muster can set up a school and bid to attract pupils, who will come neatly packaged with state funding. The Conservatives want to expand dramatically the range of choices, introducing new, innovative schools and perhaps reinvigorating older schools with the bracing winds of competition. But will it work?

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

With yet another one of my relationships in the toilet, I find myself back on the internet dating websites. I have long been confused by the strategy of women on these sites. As a man, I am seeking to convey, modestly, that I have a good, stable job and that I am not a weirdo.

I have no idea what most of the women are on about on the site – most of them have paragraphs of drivel, punctuated with statements such as: “I like going to the theatre and for walks in museums” or “I want a creative man”.

Do the women not realise that most men look at their photos and get in touch with the fit ones? I have a reasonable level of success, so I must be on to something. Why do they waste so much time with their reams of gibberish?

Digital Lover

The answer to this question can be read here. Please post comments below.

The last in the present series of More or Less airs tomorrow at 1.30pm BST on Radio 4. Do please join us – or subscribe at – to find out whether we should believe the evidence that a change in the law on drink driving would save hundreds of lives, whether George Osborne’s emergency budget was quite as progressive as he claimed, and what “potty parity” actually means. We’ll also be joined by David McCandless, author of Information is Beautiful. Do please listen in.

Halfway through her second glass of champagne on Monday night, my wife sheepishly suggested that perhaps we should hold our own emergency Budget. If George Osborne feels obliged to pronounce gloom and make swingeing cuts, shouldn’t we do our bit too? She took a guilty-looking sip.

I admonished her not to feel the weight of the champagne on her conscience, partly because it was our anniversary, but mostly because, in buying champagne and tipping the Polish waiter, we were selflessly doing our bit to stimulate the economies of our fellow Europeans.

That said, the idea of a household Budget is intriguing. I have recently taken to dividing Budget numbers by 60m, roughly per capita, or by 25m, roughly the number of households in the UK. The effect is bracing: Britain is borrowing £6,000 per household this year. This is, to use a technical macroeconomic term, a fair whack.

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From 25th February, 2006:

My collection of Dire Straits compact discs languishes, unplayed, in the “ghetto” section of my music library. My decision to buy the albums dates back 15 years to a time when my brain was half-grown. The actual discs, though, are newer. They were bought for me by an insurance company after my flat was burgled and Money for Nothing, and much else, was stolen. I could have done with something aligned with my current tastes, but the insurance policy ruled otherwise. How should we rebuild after disaster strikes? Should we try to put things back as they were before, try to improve them or cut our losses? The question is much in the US consciousness six months after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and destroyed other communities along the Gulf coast.
Part of the problem is that the victims are kept out of the important decisions. My insurance company could have saved administrative expenses by writing a cheque and letting me modernise my music collection without interference. But such an approach might have left me hoping for occasional break-ins. Since a careless householder exposes his insurers to unnecessary risks, their meddling is perhaps a necessary evil.

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Should we feel threatened by the rise of China? The relentless progress of what my colleague Martin Wolf describes as the world’s largest ant colony is giddying. Exports from China have risen by almost half in the past year, causing a political stink in Washington, while Chinese workers are reminding their employers, and rulers, that cheap Chinese labour cannot be taken for granted. China has a habit of outrunning any superlative we can apply to the place. (The statistics about China I included in my book The Undercover Economist – published in 2005 – have been shredded by the pace of Chinese growth.)

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

I am a diligent worker and an avid reader of your column. I have, however, become a victim of imperfect information. I am about to do my first-year exams and have just found out that not only should I have been reading your articles, but the whole of the FT and The Economist as well. I may not have substituted enough leisure for work and fear I am about to pay the price. What should I do? And would it be right for a journalist of high calibre to use his perfect information to suggest articles on macro and micro economics over the past year?

Will, Cambridge

The answer to this question can be read here. Please post comments below.

Tim Harford’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.