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Tim Harford: Undercover Economist

Kenneth Arrow, economist, 1921-2017

Kenneth Arrow, economist, 1921-2017 Kenneth Arrow, who has died aged 95 at his home in Palo Alto, California, on Tuesday was a towering figure in 20th century economics. In 1972, at the age of 51, he won one of the first Nobel memorial prizes in economics, the youngest winner then or since. Yet even a Nobel Prize understates Arrow’s contribution to economic theory. A brilliant mathematician, he ranged widely, breaking ground in areas that have subsequently yielded many further...

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How to catch a cheat

How to catch a cheat Should the rules and targets we set up be precise, clear and sophisticated? Or should they be vague, ambiguous and crude? I used to think that the answer was obvious — who would favour ambiguity over clarity? Now I am not so sure. Ponder the scandal that engulfed Volkswagen in late 2015, when it emerged that the company had been cheating on US emissions tests. What made such cheating possible was the fact that the tests were absurdly predictable — a series...

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What makes the perfect office?

What makes the perfect office? In 1923, the father of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, was commissioned by a French industrialist to design some homes for workers in his factory near Bordeaux. Le Corbusier duly delivered brightly-hued concrete blocks of pure modernism. The humble factory workers did not take to Le Corbusier’s visionary geometry. They added rustic shutters, pitched roofs, and picket-fenced gardens. And they decorated the gardens in the least modernist way...

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How being wrong can help us get it right

How being wrong can help us get it right There’s an academic I know — very well respected — who especially values one of his collaborators. This particular colleague isn’t invaluable because of his creativity or intellect, says my professor friend, but because “he is willing to tell me when I’m wrong, and that’s rare”. It is indeed rare. Perhaps even rarer is the practice of seeking out colleagues because they give frank criticism. I certainly don’t enjoy being told that I’m...

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Remind me what was so great about trade?

Remind me what was so great about trade? When our first child was born, I had an office job. My wife’s exhausting and non-remunerated profession was stay-at-home mother. Later, she retrained as a portrait photographer. To let her return to the labour market, we needed to hire a nanny. There is more to such a decision than money but, on purely financial terms, this was a no-brainer: the nanny earned less than either of us, so by freeing us to earn money in other ways, the Harford...

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Undercover Friday 5 – A healthy media diet

Undercover Friday 5 – A healthy media diet Pondering filter bubbles… Is there, in fact, a filter bubble? Here’s the man who coined the term, Eli Pariser. We need to remember that the biggest filter bubble isn’t Facebook’s algorithm’s or Google’s personalised search. It’s you and me. …coup or Keystone cops? Here’s George Bush’s speechwriter David Frum on How to Build an Autocracy.  It’s a chilling read. So is the more excitable take that suggests last weekend was preparation for...

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Undercover Friday – Lies and Statistics

Undercover Friday – Lies and Statistics A friendly guide to fake news… Since this seems as topical as ever, a few interesting titbits. Here’s an attempt by two economists (Gentzkow is widely admired, haven’t encountered Alcott before) to quantify the electoral impact of fake news stories circulating through social media. Here’s the wonderful Maria Konnikova on “Trump’s Lies vs Your Brain” – although it’s not going to cheer you up.  William Davies takes a step back and asked...

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Brexit as a game of Chicken

Brexit as a game of Chicken At times such as these, I wish I could hear what Thomas Schelling had to say. It might be too much to claim that Schelling was one of the most intriguing characters of the 20th century but he was certainly one of the most interesting economists. He began his career working on the Marshall Plan before advising the administrations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon on nuclear strategy. As well as studying deterrence, segregation and addiction, he...

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Why economists should be more like plumbers

Why economists should be more like plumbers What kind of economist should I be when I grow up? The opening weeks of the year have brought an embarrassment of answers. Andrew Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, won headlines for comparing economists to weather forecasters. Alas, it was not a flattering comparison: Haldane mentioned Michael Fish’s infamous October 1987 forecast on primetime British TV, which offhandedly reassured viewers that there wouldn’t be a...

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Undercover Friday 3 – Neroli

Undercover Friday 3 – Neroli A brief post today, because I’ve been working hard on a book manuscript. Details to follow, but here’s a hint. I’ve had a wonderful time writing the book. Nevertheless, a few bits of news and some links. I discussed the question “should economists be more like plumbers?” with my FT colleague Gemma Tetlow on Facebook Live. Terrific feature article from Oliver Burkeman, Is Time Management Ruining Our Lives? I don’t agree with every word (here are my 10...

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