Book Review: The Undercover Economist

The Undercover Economist
Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor — and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!
by Tim Harford
New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Hardcover ISBN: 0-19-518977-9

On the jacket cover of The Undercover Economist is a blurb from Stephen Levitt, the author of the bestselling Freakonomics: "Required reading." Quite an endorsement. In this book, author Tim Harford present a lucid exposition of general economic principles, as applied to the big-issue topics of today. For a college student, this book might make some nice supplementary reading, to introduce deeper topics in economics that will not be reached for several semesters in the regular course sequence. For the general public, it is even more important, for there is a deep disconnect at the moment between popular sentiment and economic theory.

Controversial economics

Many ideas that are only minimally controversial in economics circles are highly controversial with the general public. The economist (and New York Times columnist) Paul Krugman attributes much of the anti-globalization rhetoric to a fundamental understanding of comparative advantage [see his essay: Ricardo's Difficult Idea]. [...]

Book Review: The Box

The Box
How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-691-12324-0

The Box is a 370-page (almost a hundred of which are endnotes) history of the shipping container, the economic phenomenon that revolutionized the world of shipping and underpins today's global market.  The book is not as dense as an article in the Economist, which is unfortunate.  Economist articles frequently read like they were written at twice the length and then edited to add figures and sharpen the analysis to the most salient points.  Levinson's book does not appear to have undergone such a distillation step, which might have transformed an already interesting and insightful book into the standard work on the subject.

The Box traces containerization from its now-mythologized beginnings with Sea-Land's Ideal-X, through the Vietnam War when it proved its worth in the logistics chain, to its maturity as the enabler of global commerce.  Much of the story is told from the perspective of Sea-Land maven Malcom McLean, who conceived of the container in roughly its modern form and shepherded the concept through its infancy.  Along the way, Levinson follows the ASA and ISO discussions of standardized container construction and sizes, and tracks the union negotiations and votes on container handling and compensation.  He also follows politicians' plans for city waterfronts, and explains how containerization caused many traditional ports to decline and newly-built ports to take their place, with a particular focus on the Port of New York.  (Later it would be renamed the Port of New York and New Jersey, as Newark and Elizabeth overtook the City proper in shipping volume).


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