Two years ago Robert H Frank unleashed a book upon the public with the aim of destroying a few preconceptions. The Economic Naturalist sought to humanise a subject that, between Keynes’ invisible hands and the toxic assets of today, had become detached from the very people it was trying to understand.
Using a tried and tested format, it posed problems and provided answers. But the questions raised weren’t necessarily of the kind you might expect. They were questions about Kamikaze pilots and high heels. Or about changing a tyre. (In case you were wondering, Kamikaze pilots weren’t so Kamikaze after all, the cost-benefit of knowing how to change a tyre has changed and women lack the collective agreement to do otherwise.)
It seems the public took notice. The book got to number one in The Sunday Times books list, evidently doing for economics what a thousand theory-laden lessons in numerous stuffy classrooms had failed to do.
Jump forward two years, and The Economic Naturalist returns. Though the book employs the same techniques as before, things seem to have got more political. For example, Frank gives some interesting explanations about the role of taxation and the positive impact it can have on both people and planet when used wisely.
He also draws a vivid, if US-orientated, sketch of a modern era in which both consumerism and inequality have rocketed skywards, leaving personal savings at a bare minimum. Taking swipes at right wing types like Rush Limbaugh, the author also casts his eye on the American health system and finds it wanting (surprise, surprise).
Yet amongst this new, more didactic tone there is the economic analysis of the familiar and everyday that made the author’s first book such a success.
As a collection of columns written for The New York Times, the book can, like its predecessor, feel fragmented and overly brief at points. However, its lack of narrative structure and wide topic coverage makes it the perfect book to dip in and out of – and that holds for whether you want to find out about hedge fund managers or the rhetoric of class warfare.
The Return of the Economic Naturalist: How Economics Makes Sense of Your World (Virgin) by Robert H Frank, is out now
Words by John Owens