Saturday, April 18, 2009

FT Review: Accepting advice from economists

Tim Harford provides a review of Parentonomics in the Financial Times.
What happens when Mr Spock meets Dr Spock? The answer is Parentonomics, an autobiographical account of how an economist used his professional training in game theory to bring up his three children.

Joshua Gans describes his experiences in the labour wards, changing nappies and dealing with tantrums, spousal absences and sibling rivalry - all the while explaining what he did or did not do, the economic principles involved, and whether any of it worked as a parenting strategy.

The obvious question is whether this is supposed to be good advice or some kind of joke. There is no ambiguity in Parentonomics: Gans is not joking. Thankfully, he can be very funny. Although he is an academic - a professor at Melbourne Business School - his writing has a professional snap. While the advice is intended to be useful, readers will come to their own conclusions about that. It does at least tend to be thought-provoking.

The review goes on to describe the various stories and also my lack of regard for "social mores." To my mind, this review captured exactly what the book was about and it was heartening. But as I read it, my recurring doubts as to potential damage being an economist was doing to my children, could not be suppressed. Then again, if I wasn't an economist, I am sure I'd find another way.

Now the last time a major outlet reviewed Parentonomics, I took the reviewer to task on his opinions. That reviewer didn't much like the book or economists. But I asked myself, is it fair that I spare Tim Harford the same scrutiny just because he has written a favourable review? The answer is: surely not.

The undertone of the FT review is the boundaries of economic advice. If you didn't know anything more about Tim Harford, you might come away from review thinking that he thought I might have come close to stepping over that line. But let's investigate.

Now, on the one hand, his writings are an 'education' for non-economists about how useful economics can be. Indeed, many of my 35 reviewers seemed to be hoping for the same thing from Parentonomics. That wasn't to be, but The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life remain leaders in doing just that (see my views on the entire PopEcon genre here). While I had entertained the thought of doing something similar with Parentonomics, it just didn't work out that way.

On the other hand, there is this:

This is from Tim Harford's documentary series, Trust Me, I'm an Economist. He has literally set-up shop, Lucy van Pelt style, in a shopping mall! And there is also this, his 'Dear Economist' advice columns which just last week purported to use economics to help someone, and I am not making this up, "whose neighbour was confusing them as God." His answer to them: "it's not about you, it's about God."

So in terms of the subtext of "offering advice where no economist has gone before" I'm afraid that I can hardly be considered a pioneer. My offering is modest and specialised in contrast to the potential breadth of such offerings. In that regard, Tim Harford's review should surely be read as that of a kindred spirit (or maybe "part of the problem") rather than the distanced, squeemish, observer.