“We need to embrace interruptions, frustrating people, and randomness” — BBB proudly presents Tim Harford
Reading Tim Harford — or watching him speak — it’s easy to forget that his fame as a man of words came about as a side gig. Harford, who writes the Financial Times “Undercover Economist” column and leapt to international renown with the million-selling, eponymous book, quietly worked for years as an overt, not-famous economist before finding fame by going undercover.
Harford’s 2011 book, “Adapt,” argues that success in our increasingly complex world depends on an ability to “improvise rather than plan, work from the bottom up rather than the top down, and take baby steps rather than great leaps forward.” The book focuses on big-picture problems such as fostering innovation, addressing climate change, tackling poverty and dealing with financial crises. But the path of his own career serves as its own object lesson, too.
The offices of the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation are a long way from the BBC radio studios, where he hosts More or Less; and while economists do occasionally write popular books, these authors are rarely quite as prolific as Harford has been in the past few years. (In addition to “The Undercover Economist” and “Adapt,” he’s penned three others, not to mention the forthcoming “Messy: The power of disorder to transform our lives.”)
As his latest title shows, Harford continues to adapt, expanding his focus beyond even the broad frontiers of economics into psychology, anthropology, physics, mathematics, and political science. At Brain Bar Budapest 2016, Harford’s keynote talk will touch upon economics, biology, music and more, with an emphasis on the creativity-spawning messiness that ensues when they meet. He took time out to answer a few questions before the big event.
Q: Are there particular sub-fields of economics that you find particularly interesting at the moment? Or ones that are becoming increasingly important?
I’ve always been interested in game theory — invented by a Hungarian, of course, John von Neumann. At the moment, the excitement is in behavioural economics, the marriage of psychology and economics. It’s a fascinating field because classical economics is really the analysis of rationality, while psychology is the analysis of the irrational. So the boundary between the two is an exciting place. I am interested in those boundaries — whenever economics meets biology, or physics, or complexity science, or anthropology, there is bound to be something worth seeing.
Q: Why is an ability to think in economic terms important to being a functional citizen in daily life and/or political discourse?
There are three reasons, and two are common to any logical or scientific discipline. First, economists are not afraid of numbers, and when they’re presented with a statistical claim they’ll ask some simple questions. How big is that number really? Compared to what? What is the trend? A lot of impressive-sounding statistics quickly dissolve when you ask very basic questions of them.
Second, an economist wants to know about why things happen. Don’t just tell me that gender equality is correlated with economic growth: let’s figure out what causes what.
And third, a point particular to economists: everything has an opportunity cost. Life is full of nice things we might want. This is true of political life, business life and personal life. Economists try to remember that we can’t always have all the nice things. Sometimes we have to choose, and that means being grown-ups and thinking about priorities.
Q: Are there cases when economic considerations lead to worse (rather than better) outcomes?
Sure. For example, sometimes people don’t like a transactional approach to life. A kiss between lovers is a wonderful thing, but if you pay money for a kiss, that’s not the same thing at all. Try paying your mother-in-law to thank her for preparing Christmas dinner, or paying your friends an hourly wage to hang out with you. The economic approach does not always help.
Q: You’re perhaps best known as the Undercover Economist, but you seem to be branching out: More or Less on BBC Radio 4 looks beyond economics, asking questions such as whether e-cigarettes actually help people quit and whether the EU actually dedicated 26,911 words to cabbage regulation. Is it about a general desire to debunk and clarify?
I am a positive person so I don’t particularly enjoy debunking. I love to understand the world; and to share that understanding. But if I need to call bullshit, then that’s what I do.
Q: What key messages do you hope to share at Brain Bar Budapest?
Recently I’ve been researching what I call the “magic of mess” — the idea that sometimes the real value is in what we cannot prepare or quantify. I’ll be talking about everything from Keith Jarrett’s Koln concert and David Bowie’s Berlin albums to mathematical optimisation and social psychology. My argument is that we need to embrace interruptions, frustrating people, and randomness. I’ll also talk about how to harness modern technology to help us be more messy rather than more tidy.