Book: The Economic Naturalist by Robert H. Frank

Very good but somewhat unusual

Robert H. Frank
The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas
Basic Books, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0-465-00217-7
ISBN-10: 0-465-00217-X
204 pages

Robert H. Frank is a professor at Cornell University and in The Economic Naturalist he sets out to show how principles of economics can explain things that ordinary people observe in the real world. That's the "naturalist" aspect of the book.

It seems that the book grew out of an assignment that Professor Frank sets for one of his classes and many of his students are credited. The bulk of the book is 100 or so short essays in which something that seems odd in the real world is explained by some principle or principles of economics. Why are milk cartons rectangular and soda cans cylindrical? Why do most states enforce mandatory kindergarden start dates? Economics can tell us, says Professor Frank.

The essays are organized into chapters based on the economic principle that they illustrate and there are sections within the chapters that are generally introduced with a few sentences of commentary.

Neither Professor Frank nor his students do exhaustive research to determine that the explanation that's offered is certain to be correct. So the explanations are inevitably to some extent "just-so stories". Still, Professor Frank never claims otherwise and indicates that the explanations are plausible or likely rather than proven correct.

With so many small essays, the book feels a bit miscellaneous, but Professor Frank justifies his approach, likening it to how he was taught the Nepalese language when he joined the Peace Corps:

    Students in most introductory economics courses
    spend much of their time grappling with the
    economics equivalent of the pluperfect subjunctive
    tense. In contrast, the economics ideas you will
    encounter in this book appear only in the context
    of examples drawn from familiar experiences they
    help illuminate. Learning economics is like
    learning to speak a new language. It's important to
    start slowly and see each idea in multiple contexts.
    If you discover that this way of leaning trumps the
    one employed in your college introductory course,
    tip your hat to my Nepali language instructors.
    (p. xi)

It's possible that a little more commentary and a few fewer examples might have been equally effective but, regardless of that, Professor Frank does show economic principles in action. And if, as he suggests, his readers continue the book's project and look for economic principles that affect their daily lives, they will have a better understanding of the world around them because of it.

The illustrations by Mick Stevens are nicely drawn but don't actually help the reader to understand anything. That's not the artist's fault; perhaps the publishers decided that a book on economics needed some pictures.

Posted: Sun - September 23, 2007 at 05:00 PM   Main   Category: