Sex, Drugs & Economics; By Diane Coyle; Texere pounds 18.99
If you read this book on the train, as I did, you'll find the title attracts quite a bit of attention. Of course, Sex, Drugs & Economics: An Unconventional Introduction to Economics is a frivolous title that has a serious purpose - getting people interested in economics, so that they become better informed about it. The depressing truth is that fewer people in the UK study economics these days, and one consequence is that ignorance of the basic principles of economics is frequently demonstrated in the media.
Indeed, part of the reason I'm glad Diane Coyle wrote this book is so that she (and I) might not find ourselves shouting 'economic nonsense!' at the radio/TV/newspaper quite so frequently. So the two real tests for the book are: can it live up to its title by including attractive and lively examples, and how well does it succeed in explaining economics?
The book's main strength is that it deals with many issues that people are naturally interested in (though the chapters on sex and drugs in fact occupy just 14 of about 230 pages). Other questions - such as what is the impact on poorer countries of farm subsidies in richer countries, or what is the right boundary between the public and private sector? - are current in public debate. The chapter headings (for example 'Work: why do it?' or 'Demography: the south has the last laugh') are designed to entice the reader in. And it is refreshing to see discussion of some less usual topics, including why teenagers have such a high propensity for risk-taking.
Although wide, the range does not seek to be comprehensive - there is, for example, nothing about the vexed question (at least in the UK) of the euro, or indeed much about exchange rates in general. Nor is the question of 'why, if we all think nurses and teachers are so important, do they earn so little?' explicitly addressed (although the equally vexed question of why David Beckham earns so much is).
The book demonstrates why economics is both alive and relevant - though I am perhaps not the best judge. I have found economics exciting since my very first lesson for A-level, when we were taught demand and supply using an example about buying sandwiches in a motorway service station.
It is a real tribute to my teacher that I can remember this almost 30 years later - but perhaps if he'd had the courage to teach the same concepts by discussing the sex industry, as Diane Coyle does in this book, the rest of the class would have also gone on to become economists.
Exposition of the issues raised is pretty good. Readers will find themselves easily carried along through each subject by the use of relevant and often contemporary examples, with memorable turns of phrase used to fix key ideas. There is plenty of data, woven into the text rather than corralled into off-putting tables and charts. The concluding sections to each chapter bring out two features of practical economics: that most decisions require the careful weighing of costs and benefits rather than being clear-cut; and that often the economics only gets you so far, enabling the final decision to be better informed but still value-driven.
Definitions of economic concepts are set out at the back of the book, with each supposed to appear in bold the first time it is used. This did not quite happen in my advance copy, but I hope will have been spotted for the final edition. These are clear and concise (perhaps a little too concise in the case of comparative advantage, a concept I have tried to get across, and failed, on a number of occasions).
If you want to know something about economics but have never found the time, this book will prove stimulating - the only addition it needs would be suggestions for further reading on the topics raised. And I hope readers get through to the end, where there are two final, important 'economic rules'. The first is 'Where common sense and economics conflict, common sense is wrong' - which warns you that you may find cherished opinions overturned. The second is the reason I have stayed with economics, and is the perfect point to finish on: 'Economics is about happiness'.