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Sex, Drugs and Economics
By Diane Coyle
HC, 240 pgs, US$24.95
ISBN: 1-5879-9147-0

Economics for dummies

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 28, 2002

Sex, Drugs and EconomicsFew subjects are as wanting for introductions aimed squarely at the layperson than economics. Although most economists are probably puzzled why their trade is considered the "dismal science," the fact is that even basic concepts are usually explained in the dullest possible manner. Diane Coyle's Sex, Drugs and Economics promises bring a fun and accessible tone to explain basic economics to the reader and it sometimes actually manages to live up to that promise.

Economics "is a way of thinking that involves having the highest respect for empirical evidence, for looking at charts and numbers and working out what the evidence means. Figuring out what makes sense to believe is not only intellectually satisfying, it also offers an unparalleled understanding of what policies and strategies will make our societies function better. No other discipline can achieve the same enlightened pragmatism," she states early on and without a trace of modesty.

Unfortunately, Coyle undercuts that noble declaration almost immediately. For a scientist proclaiming the sanctity of empirical truths, Coyle does a remarkable bit of editorializing, perhaps a byproduct of her Keynesian youth. Rarely does she miss an opportunity to make ideological points that would be at home in the Labour Party of her native Britain. From the proper role of government in society to the need for cultural exemptions to protect native film industries from Hollywood's dominance, a very European sensibility makes itself felt throughout.

The most obvious example of Coyle's not so latent bias - something that detracts from her stated goal of explaining basic economics if you don't share her prejudices - is her chapter on immigration. Coyle argues, persuasively mind you, that immigration is a net economic benefit to countries like the United States because of the motivated character of immigrants, among other solid reasons.

"Pro-globalizers have no problem with the idea that goods, services, and capital should be free to go anywhere in the world, but for some reason the same principle does not generally apply to people," she point out.

Libertarians would doubtless agree - on economic grounds she is correct - but the memory of September 11, 2001 isn't so faded that most people would agree that immigration should be as free as capital flow. It's easy to make rational arguments that a majority of immigrants result in being contributing members of society but it's not so easy to dismiss arguments that some are less desirable than others. Invoking the mantra of free trade and turning people into units may work on the chalkboard but in reality it marks a departure from Coyle's declared passion for empiricism into traditional liberal politics and it shows the limit of economics' "enlightened pragmatism."

Even where Coyle's arguments are more persuasive, such as her desire to cut subsidies to farmers - something that adds nearly $30 to every $100 spent in America on food, they are ultimately undone by her editorializing. Few targets are spared including referring to the record industry as "robber barons" who are "hammering the consumer" or how "excessive" money spent on defense is robbing the world of future possibilities. Perhaps most annoying are the repeated worshipful references to New York Times columnist and MIT economist Paul Krugman, who himself has lately ignored that enlightened pragmatism and empirical nature of economics.

Where Sex, Drugs and Economics works best is when Coyle overcomes her need to make her opinions known and simply concentrates on explaining the subject at hand. Standout chapters that live up to the book's initial promise include how corporate taxes are passed along to consumers, and thoughtful looks on economics and the environment, war and globalization. Unfortunately those moments of clarity are too infrequent, a pity considering the energy that Coyle brings to economics.

Although Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson is no less biased than Coyle's Sex, Drugs and Economics - libertarianism versus Coyle's liberalism, it does a better job of explaining basic economic principles despite the fact it was first published in 1946. Instead of discovering a landmark like Hazlitt's effort the reader is instead treated to a collection of essays more at home to The Independent, where Coyle served as economics editor. While she may praise the empirical and pragmatic nature of economics, it's obvious she doesn't always live up to her own trade's ideals.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy Diane Coyle's Sex, Drugs and Economics at Amazon.com for only $17.47 or Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson for only $9.99

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