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Tyler Cowen: Discover Your Inner Economist

Discover Your Inner EconomistSaturday my wife and I celebrated our fifth anniversary by going to Bluepointe, an Asian fusion restaurant in Buckhead.  We thoroughly enjoyed all the best Bluepointe had to offer.  Inspired by advice I read in Tyler Cowen’s book I ordered something I’ve never ordered before: duck.  In his book Discover Your Inner Economist Cowen makes some peculiar suggestions regarding what to order at nice restaurants; he suggests ordering the item on the menu that you are least likely to order.  The general idea is not to order food you will dislike, but to order food that the chef at the particular restaurant where you are dining prepares well and will take care to prepare well.  He implores you to never order chicken: anyone can cook a chicken.  On this first occasion following this advice I was very pleased with the result, a delicious dinner of melt-in-your-mouth duck.  The fact that the duck was served in a Panang curry, my favorite,  made the decision easier to make.  Even with this positive experience behind me I don’t plan on taking much more of the advice that Cowen offers in his glorified self-help book.

If you’re not familiar with Cowen, he is an economics professor at George Mason University and the author of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution.  My sister, also an economics professor, aptly described him as an economist with a social conscience.  While that may be true I did not particularly enjoy his book because I found many of the discussions to be impractical, more like academic exercises than anything that I could apply to daily living.  For example, Cowen’s approach to charitable giving was nonsensical.  Giving to panhandlers will encourage panhandling so we should not do that: we should instead consider giving to poor people who do not ask us for money.  Hmmm, right.  Later in the chapter Cowen talks about how people are not rational in terms of the amounts they give. The example he uses is matching gifts.  His premise is that rational donors decide how much money it will take to make a difference with the particular cause they are giving to and then they donate that amount of money.   If 50% of the donor’s gift was going to be matched by an employer, the rational donor would give less so the total amount is equal to the amount needed to make a difference.  Maybe the intended audience of his book is Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in which case that may be true.  For me and most people I know, the starting point for deciding how much to give is how much you have to give.

I also was put off by Cowen’s somewhat pretentious style, especially when he wrote about art, food and music.  His penchant for obscure references rivals Dennis Miller’s.   I’m probably not going to like a book that makes me feel stupid…which brings me to probably the biggest reason I did not enjoy the book: my arrogance.

I am a calculating person.  A pet peeve I have is the use of the phrase “If you think about it…” to begin statements or questions.  I resent the implication.  Of course I have thought about it.  Are you capable of acting without thinking?  Well, I mean really thought about it?  Uh, yes.  It was a sad, but enlightening moment when I discovered that not everyone thinks like me, nor does everyone think my way is better.  With each topic Cowen presented I contrasted how he approached how to think about what action to take and how I approach it.  In only two instances was I convinced that his way is better: the first I mentioned above regarding how to decide what to order at a nice restaurant; second, the idea that tipping generously is not charitable.  Generous tippers feel good about themselves because often they feel that they are giving to someone less fortunate when in reality, the long term implication of generous tipping is increased profits for restaurants and decreased wages for waitstaff.  A negative side effect is that the generous tipper feels good about himself and will be less likely to feel compelled to give to a truly charitable cause.  It’s a lose-lose.
Though I did not particularly enjoy reading Discover Your Inner Economist, I am glad I read it.  It provided some good material for conversations and it helped me to learn more about one of my favorite subjects: me.

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