Bring Your Questions for the Undercover Economist

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: Fran Monks Tim Harford

If the financial crisis has proven anything, it’s that you should ignore the advice of most economists.

Most economists, that is.

And then there’s Tim Harford, who traffics in an entirely different sort of advice-giving: the old-fashioned, Dear Abby kind, which he dispenses regularly in the Financial Times. In his book-writing, Harford is best known as the Undercover Economist; at the FT, he goes by Dear Economist. His latest book combines the two: Dear Undercover Economist.

He explains why an economist is actually a perfect choice to advise people on their daily travails: “The economist’s instinct to strip away social niceties and turn messy problems into simple abstractions produces just the kind of no-nonsense counsel we expect from any good advice column.”

Here’s one example from the new book:

Dear Economist,

My favorite table at the local pub is getting too crowded. A few of us sit down for a few drinks. Then, as strangers come and join us one by one, there’s hardly any room to bend your elbow. Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

Your Sincerely,
George Pollitt, Buckinghamshire, UK

Dear Mr. Pollitt,

The solution is simplicity itself — and it is also a tradition that I am surprised you are not upholding. Each new companion should pay an entry fee in compensation to the others — traditionally, one pint per person. This elegant solution ensures that incumbent drinkers are compensated for giving up space. It also ensures that the more crowded the table is, the less tempting it is to join it.

Your round,
The Undercover Economist

And another:

Dear Economist,
I’m looking for “the one.” Is he out there?

Ruth, Barcelona, Spain

Dear Ruth,

Marriage offers economies of scale in production. … husband and wife can each specialize in different skills. … I fail to see why you cannot realize these economies of scale with almost anyone. … The real question, then, is whether you can stand the person you marry enough to enjoy these efficiencies. [The economists Michele Belot and Marco Francesconi] examined data from a speed dating company … The more intriguing finding happened when pickings were scarce. Women “ticked” about 10 percent of men as worthy of further investigation, regardless of the quality of a particular crop. My conclusion: even when there is little to be lost from maintaining standards, people are very quick to lower them. My advice: do likewise.

Yours pragmatically,
The Undercover Economist

Harford (who, we should say, is a longtime friend of Freakonomics) has offered to field “Dear Economist” questions from our readers. I suspect you are better-positioned to deluge him with challenging queries than the readers of any other blog in the universe. So have your way with him and we’ll post his answers in short course.



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  1. MariferCMS says:

    Dear Economist:
    The other day, I was having a huge argument with my little sister about who deserved the bigger room in our new house. It turns out, that I’ll be going off to college in about a year and she will continue to live here for about 7-8 years. Who should get the room? Should it be me because I’ll be leaving soon, or her because she’ll be staying in it longer?

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  2. PG says:

    #91 – just get a good quality/size ring in cubic zirconia. Most people will think it’s real diamond, and you will have saved $$$ too.

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  3. Greta Hoostal says:

    #75/Fregosi, assuming she drinks beer herself, maybe she could buy both Brand X and sampler packs of beer (if available, so you can get through the offerings faster-or you could stock up double on your week and she could buy sampler packs on her week), then you drink a Brand X while she drinks something else, and you taste whatever she has, to be polite to her, but you still have a whole Brand X and she can be happy that you’ve tried a new beer. You’ll probably want to keep a record, like Jack said, maybe where she can see it to use it as a checklist. Personally, I like trying new beers, even though Trappist ales are generally my favorite and there are (I think) only 20 in the world, mainly out of curiosity, and also because it IS possible I will eventually find something I like even better. Possibly you will, but this way I think you could still feel done searching. If she doesn’t drink beer, maybe you should just hold a party or take it to other people’s parties. I think you’d become very popular!

    #84/DCer, people are generally selfish so that probably has something to do with it, also, most people, whose interests are unfortunately generally unintellectual, would rather listen to their radios, CD players, and MP3 players, than read. But public transportation accommodations are generally at least a little dirty, and, being public, any person, no matter how loud, rude, smelly, or filthy, is allowed on. These things repel most people who can afford to travel otherwise. Maybe bringing back first-class seating is at least part of the answer.

    #97/MariferCMS, if you are going to live in a dorm room shared with a roommate (cramped quarters, definitely), then you should certainly get the bigger room at home first. Then, when you go to college, switch rooms with your sister. When you come back home for vacations, your room situation won’t be much of an improvement, but you’ll probably be working and going out with friends most of the time anyway. And it will be more important to your little sister to have the bigger room then since she will be in it much more. Once you’re a sophomore, you’ll probably have the option of a single dorm room (mine was about as big as an isolation prison cell, but that was about 15 years ago and they’re probably bigger now-maybe, get a loft). Eventually, you’ll probably get to move off campus and have much better options.

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