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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:

Dear Undercover Economist,

I'm experiencing the strain 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 am the captain of the karate club, which requires a big time commitment, and I'm applying for jobs which mean 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

Dear Derrick,

Clearly you are not an economics student or you would have already solved the linear 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 worry about the costs later, when you've secured one of those precious jobs.

More fundamentally, look for opportunities to gain from trade. Your karate seems to be an area of comparative advantage, so perhaps you could convince 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.

Yours in search of gains from trade,

The Undercover Economist.

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 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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