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Priceless Advice From 'The Undercover Economist'

Economists aren't known for their softer side.

They believe in a "Mr. Spock"-like world ruled by numbers and formulas and logic.

They should be the last people you ever ask for relationship advice.

"There is a certain irony in economists who have the least developed emotional register of any social scientist, giving dating advice," says economist Tim Harford, who lives that irony every day.

Harford is the author of the new book, Dear Undercover Economist: Priceless Advice on Money, Work, Sex, Kids, and Life's Other Challenges.

I would put a health warning on the advice that the economist gives.

It's a collection of advice columns he has written over the years for the Financial Times, where he is on the editorial board.

And as the title shows, Harford tries to answer life's little questions using well- established economic principles.

Capitalism is not always pretty.

The advice given by The Undercover Economist is, well, unique.

"There's no consideration of morality," says Harford, who channels his pure inner economist when he writes the advice column.

And he sees that pure inner economist almost as an evil twin who doesn't care how rude he is or how much he cuts through the emotional complexities of a situation.

"Its all about what are the advantages open to you, what are the options and how can you take maximum advantage for yourself."

Harford adds, "I would put a health warning on the advice that the economist gives."

An entry in the book shows why:

So why should someone skip Ask Amy and go right to The Undercover Economist?

"Well, sometimes because the answers are fun." Harford says. "But also sometimes the advice seems to be quite good."

And rather human.

Take the question of should a husband put down the toilet seat at home. The Undercover Economist says two economic principles could be used to answer this time-old question.

The first is based in mathematics. It would be more efficient to leave the seat as you like it since you might be the next in.

"But in my advice, you know, I said there's a bigger picture here," Hartford says. "Economists are all about not 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 seat down. He's actually showing that he's considerate, he's a gentleman."

And it's cheaper than flowers.

Believe it or not, economics can make the world a better place.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.