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Tim Harford

Tim Harford

Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of “Messy” and the million-selling “The Undercover Economist”, a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less” and the iTunes-topping series “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House and is a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

Articles by Tim Harford

Steve Levitt plays poker with the FT

5 days ago

Steve Levitt plays poker with the FT
“I used to play poker a ton and then I quit. It’s too time consuming and toooo boring.” There’s something boyish about the way Steve Levitt drags out the word. But then his inner economist reasserts itself: “What you come to realise about poker over time is that the ratio of luck to skill in the short term is too high to make it feel productive.”
Here’s what you need to know about Levitt. He used to be a rising star in academia, with prestigious positions at Harvard and then Chicago. He picked unusual topics: cheating sumo wrestlers; the link between legal abortion and falling crime. His detective work with data was influential. In 2003, when he was just 35, Levitt won the John Bates Clark medal, often a precursor to the Nobel memorial

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How this climate change economist changed my world

7 days ago

How this climate change economist changed my world
I read a lot of economics papers, but I don’t often read economics papers that make me think, “this changes everything”. But Martin Weitzman wrote one. I still remember exactly where I was when I read it. Even for a nerd like me, that’s not normal.
Professor Weitzman took his own life in late August. He was 77 and had reportedly been worried that he was losing his mental sharpness.
Weitzman’s sad death prompted me to reflect on what it was about his essay that so struck me. It was a commentary on Lord Nicholas Stern’s Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Weitzman gently pulled the Stern Review apart — “right for the wrong reasons” — and offered an alternative view of the problem.
For those of us who think climate change

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Two evenings with Randall Munroe

12 days ago

Two evenings with Randall Munroe
I’m interviewing Randall Munroe of xkcd on stage twice this week. Being the straight man for Randall is something that would have been on my bucket list, if it had ever occured to me in my wildest imaginings.
Speaking of wild imaginings, Randall’s new book,  How To, is a think of strange beauty. As I mentioned before,
“it’s in much the same style as What If? and just as funny and informative. I loved it, then my twelve year old daughter stole it and she loved it, then my eight year old son stole it and he loved it. I suspect we’re all getting something different from the book, which explores such questions as: If you wanted to fill a swimming pool with bottled water, could you open the bottles with atomic weapons? (There is actually a study of

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When it comes to productivity hacks, are you an Arnie or an Elon?

14 days ago

When it comes to productivity hacks, are you an Arnie or an Elon?
Returning from the summer with a head full of good intentions, I have become aware of a philosophical schism in the world of productivity hacks. In one corner, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the other, Elon Musk and the “timeboxers”. (I swear, I am not making this up.) The philosophical divide is over a simple question: how much should you schedule blocks of time in your calendar?
Mr Schwarzenegger reportedly kept his diary clear as a film star, and even tried to do so when he was governor of California. “Appointments are always a no-no. Planning ahead is a no-no,” he once said. Visitors had to treat the Governator like a walk-in restaurant — show up and hope for the best.
The opposite approach is timeboxing:

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The curious economics of being ripped off on holiday

21 days ago

The curious economics of being ripped off on holiday
I once wrote that there are two types of charges: the ones you see coming and the ones you don’t. Perhaps I was too reductive. There’s a third category: the fees that you know are looming, but the fog is so thick that you can’t see them clearly.
Travellers are well used to these: the strange cover charge in the tourist-trap restaurant; the outrageous price of the hotel minibar and WiFi; those painful fees for flying with luggage. (Does it cost more to carry your bag on to the plane, or to put it in the hold? I lose track.)
I found myself pondering this a few weeks ago in the baking heat of Europcar’s Munich office. We’d hired a car online, arranging to drop it off in Milan and agreeing to pay the extra charge for doing so.

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We are all potential victims of the con artist

27 days ago

We are all potential victims of the con artist
Denise Milani was a 32-year-old Czech swimwear model. Paul Frampton was a divorced particle physicist more than twice her age. What happened next was a tale as old as time: they met online; she sent messages by turns steamy and adoring; they arranged to meet in Bolivia, where she was doing a photo-shoot.
Alas, when Prof Frampton arrived in La Paz to meet her face-to-face for the first time, she’d had to dash to another shoot in Europe. Could she meet him in Brussels instead? And would he mind, terribly, collecting an empty suitcase of hers and bringing it with him?
Of course, the real Ms Milani had no idea that her photographs were being used by a Bolivian drug gang. Prof Frampton seems to have had no idea either, although a

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What’s it like to have lunch with a Nobel laureate?

September 16, 2019

What’s it like to have lunch with a Nobel laureate?
My recent “lunch with the FT” with Richard Thaler (Nobel laureate, author of Nudge and Misbehaving) was a lot of fun. I don’t do these formal sit-down interviews often but over the years I’ve racked up a few.
At the end of the lunch I mentioned to Thaler the other economists I’d lunched with. “Good company”, he said. I think he’s right. So, just in case you missed the other interviews:
Thomas Schelling (1921 – 2016, Nobel Laureate 2005). I interviewed Schelling in his home shortly after he won the Nobel. I was still barely a journalist at all; he was charming and gracious. I find Schelling and his ideas endlessly fascinating. If you’d like to read a Schelling book, perhaps start with Micromotives and Macrobehaviour.
Gary

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Should we take a few long holidays, or lots of short ones?

September 13, 2019

Should we take a few long holidays, or lots of short ones?
I know a man who used to deal with a stressful job, working 15-18 hour days in a senior role, by slipping away to a rented house near Richmond Park in London.
There, he refused to be interrupted by messages except during office hours, spent time playing bridge well and golf badly, and he ensured that the location of the hideaway was a well-kept secret. The few colleagues who did visit were strictly banned from talking about work. Yet despite his apparently laid-back approach, this fellow got results.
To be clear, I know this person only by reputation; Dwight Eisenhower died before I was born. But this is how he responded to the burdens of being supreme allied forces commander during the second world war. He found it

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“If you want people do to something, make it easy.” Richard Thaler has Lunch with the FT

September 6, 2019

“If you want people do to something, make it easy.” Richard Thaler has Lunch with the FT
The Anthologist doesn’t serve cashew nuts, so I order a bowl of smoked almonds instead. When they arrive, caramelised and brown as barbecue sauce, I ask for them to be put right in front of Richard Thaler. He protests that the waiter isn’t in on the joke.
The readers will be, I assure him. “The educated ones, perhaps,” he concedes.
Those educated readers may know that Professor Thaler is a Nobel laureate economist, but even more famous as the co-author of Nudge. They may even know — from his later book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics — that the 73-year-old is fond of telling an anecdote about a bowl of cashew nuts that sheds light on his approach to economics.
He served

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The magic of picture books

September 1, 2019

The magic of picture books
Perhaps it’s the holiday feeling, but I’ve been looking at books with lots of pictures recently.
First, Randall Munroe’s marvelous How To. It’s in much the same style as What If? and just as funny and informative. I loved it, then my twelve year old daughter stole it and she loved it, then my eight year old son stole it and he loved it. I suspect we’re all getting something different from the book, which explores such questions as: If you wanted to fill a swimming pool with bottled water, could you open the bottles with atomic weapons? (There is actually a study of this question…) If you wanted to ski down a hill with no snow, would it work to drag a snow-machine along with you? How feasible is it to boil a river dry with a big array of

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What we get wrong about meetings – and how to make them worth attending

August 23, 2019

What we get wrong about meetings – and how to make them worth attending
I rely on Google Calendar to tell me where I am supposed to be, when and with whom. When the service collapsed for an afternoon last month, it felt like a teachable moment. For a few seconds, I panicked. Then, I realised that with all the meetings gone, I was free to do some real work.
I know I’m not the only person who loves to hate meetings. Will There Be Donuts?, a book by David Pearl, skewers the “Wagner meeting” (of epic length), the “mushroom meeting” (appears suddenly, multiplies rapidly) and the “Stonehenge meeting” (it’s been a fixture for ages but nobody knows why).
Yet Mr Pearl also acknowledges that ineffectual meetings often suit us. Boring meetings make us feel interesting by comparison.

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US health care is literally killing people

August 9, 2019

US health care is literally killing people
It is astonishing how far the debate on healthcare has moved in the US, at least for the Democrats. Not long ago offering universal, government-funded healthcare was viewed as tantamount to communism; now, it’s a touchstone of many presidential hopefuls.
Not before time. The US healthcare system is a monument to perverse incentives, unintended consequences and political inertia. It is astonishingly bad — indeed, it’s so astonishingly bad that even people who believe it’s bad don’t appreciate quite how bad it is.
I don’t say this out of any great devotion to the UK alternative. The National Health Service works well enough for a vast tax-funded bureaucracy, but it might work better if we didn’t view any attempt at reform as the

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The strange power of the idea of “average”

August 2, 2019

The strange power of the idea of “average”
“While nothing is more uncertain than a single life, nothing is more certain than the average duration of a thousand lives.” The statement is often attributed to the 19th-century mathematician Elizur Wright, who not coincidentally was a life insurance geek. But buried in the aphorism is a humdrum word concealing a powerful idea: the “average”.
The idea of taking an average — that is, of adding up (say) a hundred lifespans and dividing the total by a hundred, to produce the arithmetic mean — seems absurdly simple. But Stephen Stigler, a historian of statistics, reckons it is the most radical statistical operation ever devised. I am inclined to agree. The mean has a strange power over the way we think, and not always a benign one.
We

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How economics can raise its game

July 26, 2019

How economics can raise its game
How can economics become a more insightful discipline? Should it aim to be more like physics, with its precision and predictive power? Or should economists emulate anthropologists or historians, immersing themselves in the details of the particular and the unquantifiable?
There’s a case to be made either way. Some critics argue that economics is missing better physics: it got stuck in the 19th century with fusty old ideas like marginal analysis and equilibrium, and missed out on cool ideas like chaos theory and phase transitions that promise to shed insights on economic complexity or sudden crises. (See, for example, Philip Ball’s excellent book, Critical Mass.)
Others say that economics needs to put the mathematics down and back slowly away.

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How the Brexit debate was flushed down the drain

July 19, 2019

How the Brexit debate was flushed down the drain
On a scale of one to seven, how well do you understand how a flush lavatory works?
This was a question asked by two Yale psychologists, Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, almost two decades ago. Before I explain why, here’s a follow-up exercise: write down your lavatory explanation in as much detail as you can. You may wish to draw a diagram, or explain it to a friend. Or not.
You may then reflect that you knew a little less than you realised. That was the experience of many of the study’s subjects — and not just for lavatories (why does all the water disappear down the U-bend?) but also for zips, quartz watches, helicopters, speedometers, cylinder locks, piano keys and sewing machines. People felt they understood the mechanisms

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How the US is weaponising the world economy

July 12, 2019

How the US is weaponising the world economy
Back in 2002, serious people were worried about the possibility of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. Millions might have died — and the prospect seemed real enough that both the US and the UK advised their citizens to flee the region. How, then, was the crisis defused?
Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, is fond of telling the story that US businesses (in particular Dell) told their Indian suppliers (in particular Wipro) to calm things down or get cut out of the loop. And things did indeed calm down, so perhaps it was the concerns over Dell’s supply chain that prevented catastrophe. Perhaps.
Mr Friedman duly coined the phrase “the Dell Theory Of Conflict Prevention”: no two countries will go to war if they are

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What to do when blessings come well-disguised

July 5, 2019

What to do when blessings come well-disguised
Keith Jarrett’s 1975 concert in Cologne should have been a musical catastrophe. Owing to a string of mix-ups and bad luck, he was faced with the choice of attempting his widely admired improvisations on a beaten-up old piano with sticky keys and a harsh upper register — or walking out altogether. He was all for walking out, but felt sorry for the concert promoter and agreed to play the unplayable piano against his better judgment. The result was not a catastrophe but a masterpiece, and a bestselling one at that: The Köln Concert album.
I’m fond of that story, of the way that an obstacle can unleash a creative response — partly by concentrating the mind and partly by forcing the artist to explore fresh approaches. It’s not the only

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The dying art of compromise

June 28, 2019

The dying art of compromise
I don’t often find myself agreeing with Esther McVey, but I wondered this week whether the candidate for leader of the UK Conservative party might accidentally have spoken the truth: “People saying we need a Brexit policy to bring people together are misreading the situation. That is clearly not possible.”
The British do indeed seem in no mood to compromise. The results of elections to the European Parliament produced a thunderous endorsement of parties that proudly reject an attempt to find common ground on Brexit. The Conservatives and Labour, each caught in an awkward straddle, were slaughtered. Labour offered the slogan “let’s bring our country together”. Ha! Voters preferred the Liberal Democrats (“Bollocks to Brexit”) and the Brexit party

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Why brilliant people lose their touch

June 21, 2019

Why brilliant people lose their touch
It hasn’t been a great couple of years for Neil Woodford — and it has been just as miserable for the people who have entrusted money to his investment funds. Mr Woodford was probably the most celebrated stockpicker in the UK, but recently his funds have been languishing. Piling on the woes, Morningstar, a rating agency, downgraded his flagship fund this week. What has happened to the darling of the investment community?
Mr Woodford isn’t the only star to fade. Fund manager Anthony Bolton is an obvious parallel. He enjoyed almost three decades of superb performance, retired, then returned to blemish his record with a few miserable years investing in China.
The story of triumph followed by disappointment is not limited to investment. Think

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The Doris Day effect – when obstacles help us

June 14, 2019

The Doris Day effect – when obstacles help us
She had hoped to become a ballet dancer. After her leg was shattered in an accident at the age of 15, she took singing lessons instead. It was a striking detail in the obituaries. If not for that painful setback, the star that was Doris Day would never have risen.
Was the car accident that redirected her career an extraordinary twist in the story of an extraordinary life? Or was it typical of some broader truth about life, that frustrations can actually help us? Perhaps it is true that what does not kill us makes us stronger. It may, in contrast, be that what does not kill us nevertheless slows us down.
The conventional wisdom is that initial advantages tend to snowball into an avalanche of privilege. Sometimes this reflects

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Why we should favour second guesses over first instincts…

June 7, 2019

Why we should favour second guesses over first instincts…
Tension is rising in the Harford household as exams approach and we try to persuade Miss Harford Sr to relax, and Miss Harford Jr to be slightly less relaxed. I’m sure many readers have vivid memories of the exam room, recent or otherwise. But here’s a question about exam technique that suggests a much wider lesson. In a multiple-choice test, you sometimes write down an answer and then have second thoughts. Is it wise to stay with your first instincts, or better to switch?
Most people would advise that the initial answer is usually better than the doubt-plagued second guess. Three-quarters of students think so, according to various surveys over the years. College instructors think so too, by a majority of 55 to 16 per

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The clash of the two cultures and the challenge of collaboration

May 31, 2019

The clash of the two cultures and the challenge of collaboration
May 7 was the 60th anniversary of the delivery of CP Snow’s famous lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. It is dimly remembered as a lament about the mutual incomprehension between arts and sciences, wrapped up with some pompous anecdotes about Oxbridge high table and airy generalisations about the dynamism of scientists. Some of it is absurd. Snow dismisses George Orwell’s 1984 as pure Luddism, “the strongest possible wish that the future should not exist”. (Orwell old chap, relax and enjoy the fruits of technological progress!) That Snow’s lecture is remembered at all is probably thanks to an acidic rebuttal by the literary critic FR Leavis.
Nevertheless, Snow was on to something important.

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Range, misinformation and the fine line between stupid and clever

May 24, 2019

Range, misinformation and the fine line between stupid and clever
Over the past couple of week’s I’ve been enjoying David Epstein’s Range – about the value of being a generalist. As I may have mentioned it’s in sympathy with my latest TED talk, which cites Epstein. I had the pleasure of seeing Epstein dig up a lot of interesting new research that supports some of what I argued in Messy – about the virtues of moving between fields, switching contexts and improvising. (It felt a bit like an out-of-sample check of my expectations.) Epstein skillfully blends stories with argument and evidence, and he makes it look easy (it isn’t).
Also impressed by The Misinformation Age by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall (he also wrote the very nice Physics of Wall Street). O’Connor

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Why going on holiday gives us more memories

May 24, 2019

Why going on holiday gives us more memories
Lucky me. I’ve just returned from a family holiday in that most exotic of countries, Japan. So many fresh sights and strange tastes: from flower gardens, temples and communal baths to robots, bullet trains and the Kawaii Monster Café. Although we were there barely more than a week, it’s hard to believe we packed so much in.
While on an adventurous holiday, many people experience that strange sense of time having slowed down in the most pleasurable way, and of conversations that begin, “Was it really only yesterday that we . . . ?”
Ten days in a far-off land produces a richer treasury of detailed memories than 10 weeks back home. But what is behind this phenomenon? And does it teach us something about living a full life?
One answer

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The art of time well spent

May 21, 2019

The art of time well spent
I’ve been reading James Wallman’s Time And How To Spend It – which, intriguingly, he described to me as “How to Kondo Time”, which I don’t think it is. I’ve learned a few things worth knowing, though.
Wallman recommends seven rules for spending your time wisely:
Story
Transformation
Outside & Offline
Relationships
Intensity
Extraordinary
Status & Significance
(They spell “stories”. Nice, eh?) Actually the first chapter – “story” – was the most surprising to me. Wallman reminds us of classic story arcs (particularly Vonnegut’s “Man in a hole”) and suggests that we think about our time in that way. Does your plan for the next hour, day, month look like it would make for a good story? Would you encounter challenges and meet allies and experience

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Is Thanos a good model for economists? On balance, no

May 17, 2019

Is Thanos a good model for economists? On balance, no
In a few days’ time, Avengers: Endgame will hit the cinemas, and the universe’s mightiest heroes will resume their battle against the supervillain Thanos. Thanos fascinates me not only because he’s the best bad guy since Darth Vader — but because the muscular utilitarian is an economist on steroids.
Thanos’s claim to the economists’ hall of fame lies in his interest in scarce resources, his faith in the power of logical analysis, and a strong commitment to policy action — specifically, to eliminate half of all life in the universe, chosen at random. He collects some magical bling enabling him to do this with a snap of his fingers.
“It’s a simple calculus,” he explains. “This universe is finite, its resources,

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How to be more creative

May 13, 2019

How to be more creative
I was on the TED Radio Hour this week; they were kind enough to give me both the first and the last word on the subject of kickstarting creativity.
If you’d like to read more on the subject I would – of course – recommend my book, Messy, which gave me the research base for both of the TED talks and the interviews around them.
But what else?
Perhaps David Epstein’s new book, Range, which sings the praises of broadening your horizons. I’m a couple of chapters in and enjoying it very much: good stories, well-researched. Epstein, an experienced and thoughtful sports writer, points out that what works in sport is actually not a very good guide to what works in life, because in life the rules are unclear, feedback can be patchy, and in general we need the

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Why the world needs a carbon tax

May 10, 2019

Why the world needs a carbon tax
You can’t please everyone, it seems. Royal Dutch Shell has announced plans to plant trees in order to absorb some of the carbon dioxide produced when we burn the fossil fuels it sells. What’s more, it plans to invite motorists to chip in at the pump by buying “carbon offsets”: a clever way to help the planet, raise cash, and spread the blame around. Environmental campaigners are sceptical. So am I.
I admit an interest here. I once worked for Shell (with the love-hate relationship that might imply), met my wife at Shell, and have occasionally been paid to return to Shell and dispense pearls of wisdom. Yet, despite a grudging affection for Big Oil that very few people share, I think climate change is far too important a challenge to entrust to

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What I’ve been reading

May 8, 2019

What I’ve been reading
Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale – a thorough biography of a remarkable woman, less well-known for her work as a statistician, data-visualisation pioneer and public health campaigner than she should be. One of the founders of evidence-based medicine, she is nevertheless more celebrated for being “the lady with the lamp”. Draw your own conclusions. Good book.
James Reason, Human Error – Reason’s work on industrial accidents is fantastic. This book reviews very ways in which human cognition fails us, with much more emphasis on (for example) potentially-lethal slips and bouts of absent-mindedness than the behavioural economists’ focus on biases and heuristics. More technical than I remember. Next up is The Human Contribution which has more stories and

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Counting the economic cost and the economic causes of Brexit

May 3, 2019

Counting the economic cost and the economic causes of Brexit
“The economy, stupid.” Pinned to the wall, this motto famously reminded Bill Clinton’s campaign staff to stay on message as he ran for the US presidency in 1992. Somebody may want to pin it up in the UK Conservative party’s headquarters, because the party has instead managed to involve the entire country in its bitter little civil war over Europe. But economies can survive some rough handling by politicians. Amid the Westminster turmoil, how is the UK economy doing?
The stiff-upper-lip response is that it’s fine. There were some grim forecasts of the short-term impact of a referendum vote to leave the EU, most prominently a shock scenario presented by the Treasury under George Osborne, and they did not come to pass.

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