The Logic
Of Life

The Rational Economics of
An Irrational World

Tim Harford
John Lee, Reader

(Books on Tape)
You pay $6 a year extra for your sugar because of trade barriers cooked up by a handful of producers.

    A U. S. government report found that more than a third of the benefits of the sugar support program in went to just thirty-three sugarcane farms... All this costs each U. S. citizen about six dollars, of which about three are wasted and about three go to agribusiness.

Why do we and our representatives put up with this, even though everyone involved knows it is not to our advantage --- for not only does it raise the price of sugar, it "reduces demand for American products abroad because the dollars that foreign sugar producers would have received ... would have eventually been spent buying American products."

What's to be done? Change it. Why won't it happen? Because American sugar refiners have a powerful lobby in Washington, who --- along with the 50,000 workers who directly benefit from it --- have more clout than you or I can ever possibly muster.

Harford's book is filled with tidbits like this. That, for instance, strict zoning in large cities is not only inefficient, it constitutes a direct dollar drain (a tax, really) on the folk who live in that city. One economist estimates that in Manhattan, zoning restrictions pencil out to at least $10,000 per inhabitant per year.

Part of this is that so few recognize that the 8,000,000 citizens of the city live in one of the most ecologically sound areas in the world. Why? New Yorkers cannot afford SUVs. Everyone uses public transportation. They live in tiny apartments. They go shopping on foot. And they "travel past countless homes and offices using the world's most energy-efficient mode of mass transport: the elevator."

The Logic of Life is brimming with economic studies, and conclusions like this. And they are eye-popping. One, concerning the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina, suggests that the $800,000 spent per family on rebuilding what is still a dying city could more efficiently have been used merely by doling out checks for the same amount to all, to let them set up housekeeping anywhere in the world they so chose.

Harford's book starts out with a bang, claiming that recent studies of young people's sex lives have shown that the startling rise in oral sex may have something to do with economics, appreciated by those we believe to be the young and the innocent (and sexually active).

When you consider the cost of caring for a baby, or for an abortion (often involving approval from the family) ... plus the possible price of transmittable diseases, not to say AIDS --- then this decision --- conscious or no --- may make sense. At least to what Harford calls "rational economists" --- not to say students of Marxian theory.

In fact, though his name does not appear here, Karl Marx is probably father to many of the concepts outlined here. It is called economic determinism. You and I make logical decisions not because of the voice of the divine or even loyalty to country or family ... but because of the reality of the financial world that surrounds us.

Kids change their sex habits because they don't want to be financially burdened before they are ready, willing, and able. Cities permit large buildings to be constructed despite proof that "Each additional floor in your building increases your risk of being robbed on the street or having your car stolen by two and a half percentage points --- if your building has twelve stories rather than two, your chance of being mugged rise by a quarter." But you and your safety are of less concern than the property owner who wants to maximize his use of his land. And who contributes to the buying of city council seats.

The reading here by John Lee is cool but serviceable. The book is highly irritating. Mostly because the facts will irritate anyone who believes in honorable federal, state or local governance.

--- Eleanor Watters, AIA
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