Priceless Advice From 'The Undercover Economist' Economist and part-time advice guru Tim Harford uses the cutthroat principles of economics and capitalism to help guide you through life's little quandaries.

Priceless Advice From 'The Undercover Economist'

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Economist Tim Harford has been on this program before talking about, well, the kinds of things we often talk to economists about: investments, markets, banks, and so on. But in his financial times column Dear Economist, Harford answers questions about things one wouldn't ordinarily put to an economist, like parenting, dating, and social etiquette. He has collected those questions along with his answers in a new book called "Dear Undercover Economist: Priceless Advice on Money, Work, Sex, Kids, and Life's Other Challenges."

Tim Harford joins us from the BBC in London. Good morning.

Mr. TIM HARFORD (Economist): Good morning.

SHAPIRO: Okay, so why should I care what an economist has to say about something like whether a husband should put down the toilet seat for his wife?

Mr. HARFORD: Well, sometimes because the answers are fun. There is a certain irony in economists who, of course, have the least developed emotional register of any social scientist, here giving dating advice.

But also sometimes, the advice seems to be quite good. I mean I know I'm the person giving the advice, but it doesn't feel like I'm really the person giving the advice. It feels like my evil twin is giving the advice - the person who, you know, doesn't care, you know, how rude he is or how much he cuts through the emotional complexities.

SHAPIRO: Let's take an example, if we could. Do you have a copy of the book there?

Mr. HARFORD: I do, yes.

SHAPIRO: Okay. Let's turn to page 62 and I will read the question and you can read the answer, all right?

Mr. HARFORD: Sure.

SHAPIRO: Dear Economist, I'm experiencing the strains of being in my senior year. This semester alone I need to complete seven projects and assignments, work on my dissertation and sit five exams. I'm the captain of the karate club, which requires a big time commitment and I'm applying for jobs, which means lots of interviews and assessment days in the next few months. There aren't enough hours in the day. How do I prioritize my tasks effectively? Derrick, via e-mail.

Mr. HARFORD: Dear Derrick, Clearly you are not an economics student or you would have already solved the linier programming problem necessary to optimize your allocation of time. Let me instead give you a couple of pointers.

First, your time is spent investing rather than consuming. Sitting exams and applying for jobs will expand your consumption set in the future. Under the circumstances it would be reasonable to borrow. You can borrow a little time from the future with the help of stimulants. But a more practical solution is to borrow money to save time. Quit any part-time job, take taxis, hire a cleaner, order take-out. This will save time and you can deal with the costs later, when you've secured one of those precious jobs.

More fundamentally, look for opportunities to gain from trade. Your karate appears to be an area of comparative advantage, so perhaps you could persuade some clever weakling to write your dissertation for you. In exchange you could beat up the boyfriend of the girl he's been lusting after. Five minutes of applied karate practice for you would be a life-transforming experience for your assistant; well worth many days of work on your dissertation.

Capitalism is not always pretty. Yours, in search of gains from trade, The Undercover Economist.

SHAPIRO: Okay. So in that one piece of advice you have recommended that this fellow take drugs, cheat on his dissertation and beat up some guy.

Mr. HARFORD: Yeah, well as I said, it's my evil twin. I'm channeling my pure inner economist. Now I would never personally give that kind of advice, but that is the advice that economic theory suggests. There's no consideration in morality. It's all about what are the advantages open to you, what are the options and how can you take your maximum advantage for yourself.

SHAPIRO: And so is this mostly about amusement or is it actually useful for people to understand these principles as applied to the normal interactions of daily life?

Mr. HARFORD: Recently, for the financial times, I went back and I asked some of my correspondents whether I had actually given them useful advice or not. And some of them wrote back with, you know, fairly comical answers. You know, they thought, well my answer was fun. They gave me a fun answer back. But there were people who took the advice and they thought the advice was very good. So it's -mostly it's fun. Mostly I would put a health warning on the advice that the economist gives, but you know, every now and then, believe it or not, economics can make the world a better place.

SHAPIRO: You say that economics is remarkably well-suited to the agony genre in this book. What do you mean by that?

Mr. HARFORD: I think it's the ability of economists to discard all the complications. Economics is all about trying to compute the rational strategy, the optimal strategy. So it's a little bit like getting dating advice from, say, Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

But also, economists are also studying, you know, why and when people depart from that rational strategy. So you've got this combination of a psychologist or a psychiatrist and a robot and they're both giving you advice at the same time. And I think that appreciation of what the ideal strategy is and also the mistakes people so often make and the reasons they fail to find the ideal strategy. You've actually sometimes got a pretty powerful set of tools to give answers to even problems like, you know, should I get a bikini wax?

SHAPIRO: So early in our conversation I mentioned the economists view of whether a husband should put the toilet seat down for his wife. And I'm sure many spouses listening to this conversation are dying for answer to the question. What is it?

Mr. HARFORD: Well, there's a mathematical answer and there's a big picture answer. So the mathematical answer is if you want minimize the number of times somebody has to move the seat up and down, okay, which is, I think, the straight forward efficiency question here, then the optimal rule is everybody should just leave the seat the way they needed it. So if they needed to sit down, don't bother to put it up. If you needed to put it up, don't bother to put it down, because you know, the man in the house might leave it up and then he might be the next person to use the laboratory, and so he might still want to, you know, have it up.

So that's the efficiency consideration, but in my advice, I said, you know, there's a bigger picture here. And one of the things we always need to consider is, you know, the messages that we are sending with our actions. Economists are all about not, you know, what do you say, but what do you do? And it's a very, very cheap signal that shows consideration for a man to leave the laboratory seat down, even if it's not the most efficient thing to do, he's actually showing that he's considerate, he's a gentlemen, and funny enough, about six months ago, my wife actually said to me, you know, Tim, I really appreciate the fact that you also put the laboratory seat down. I notice, you know, if your friends come around, they don't always do it, but you always do it, and I really appreciate that.

So you know, there you go.

SHAPIRO: And you replied, it's cheaper than flowers.

Mr. HARFORD: Exactly, exactly, flowers are so expensive these days. This is Avery cheap way of showing that you care.

SHAPIRO: Tim Harford is on the editorial board of the Financial Times and he's the author of "Dear Undercover Economist: Priceless Advice on Money, Work, Sex, Kids, and Life's Other Challenges." Thanks a lot.

Mr. HARFORD: Thanks very much.

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SHAPIRO: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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