Book: Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan

Excellent, interesting, and readable introduction to economics as it affects our daily lives

Charles Wheelan
Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science
Norton, 2003
ISBN-10: 0-393-32486-9
ISBN-13: 978-0-393-32486-0
236 pages

Everyone knows that economics is deadly dull. Not to mention obscure and irrelevant to any normal person's daily life.

Actually, not everyone knows that. It turns out that Charles Wheelan doesn't. And that's good because he has written an interesting and entertaining book about it called Naked Economics. There's actually not much naked about what's in the book. And "undressing" in the subtitle "Undressing the Dismal Science" isn't all that good a metaphor for "explaining clearly and readably". I suspect that publishers have trouble inventing titles that they think will help sell books on economics that are aimed at general readers. In any case, nothing else about the book is awkward or ill-judged.

I can't describe the book better than Mr Wheelan does in the book's last paragraph:

    The remarkable thing about economics is that once
    you've ben exposed to the big ideas, they begin to
    show up everywhere. The sad irony of Econ 101 is
    that students too often suffer through dull, esoteric
    lectures while economics is going on all around
    them. Economics offers insight into wealth, poverty,
    gender relations, the environment, discrimination,
    politics -- just to name a few of the things we've
    touched upon. How could that possibly not be
    interesting? (p. 216)

Mr Wheelan discusses many of the important points in both microeconomics (that is, the economics of individual transactions) and macroeconomics (the economics of national accounts). He's rather brave in my opinion to tackle macroeconomics as much as he does. National accounts aggregate so much (and inevitably include and exclude things for quasi-arbitrary reasons) that it's often hard to tell just what a given statistic means. Within the scope of the book, Mr Wheelan succeeds as well as anyone could in making matters clear.

The book is, at least to my mind, admirably non-ideological. In one chapter he discusses what governments must do in order to make the prosperity of their citizens possible. In the next chapter he discusses ways in which government actions can harm their citizens' prosperity. And in discussing individual issues he is equally careful not to over-simplify. For example, regarding trade deficits (more exactly, current-account deficits) he says, "Oddly, this can be a good thing, a bad thing -- or somewhere in between" (p. 164).

Mr Wheelan is careful not to over-reach. If economists have studied a subject but haven't reached useful conclusions about it, he says so. And when economics can help in understanding an issue, but what to do is a matter of ethics and morality, he says that too.

There are a few topics, such as discounting the future, that I'd have been glad to see Mr Wheelan address. But any book must leave some things out so that's a very small complaint. And, since the book is a few years old, the recent examples are necessarily also a few years old. Those tiny issues are unimportant. In my opinion, it's not possible to be an informed citizen without knowing what's in Naked Economics.

Posted: Thu - June 28, 2007 at 07:06 PM   Main   Category: