Saturday, 17 November 2018

Book review: On the Third Hand

In the 19th Century, Thomas Carlyle dubbed economics "the dismal science". Unfortunately, the reputation of economics for being humourless has little improved since then. But that reputation is undeserved. Caroline Postelle Clotfelder's 1996 book, On the Third Hand: Humor in the Dismal Science, an Anthology, collects the best examples of economics humour across the time since Adam Smith (and up to the mid-1990s, obviously).

Most of the book is comprised of excerpts, and a lot of it is satire. Some of it has not aged well, and without better understanding the context of the time, I'm afraid the humour was lost on me. Other parts remain hilarious, such as Alan Blinder on the economics of brushing teeth (which can also be found here) and Arthur Levine on the benefits of government-sponsored sex. George Stigler's arguments against textbook publishers constantly bringing out new editions and the associated costs to society remain relevant today.

Some particularly famous pieces make it into the book. On such is the "Petition of the manufacturers of candles, wax lights, lamps, candlesticks, street lamps, snuffers, extinguishers, and of the producers of oil, tallow, rosin, alcohol, and, generally, of everything connected with lighting" (by Federic Bastiat, available online here), where the petitioners argue that they should be protected from "the intolerable competition" from the sun. Another, though some argument could be made as to whether it counts as economics, is Jonathan Swift's "A modest proposal" (available online here).

A particular highlight for me was Joan Beck's suggestions on how to reduce healthcare costs, which included do-it-yourself options for patients, end-of-year closeout sales on discontinued therapies, frequent-flyer-like programs where patients accumulate points, seasonal specials, his-and-her operations, family rates, and so on.

The anthology is a great collection of the humour and wit of economists past. Before life gets too dismal, it might be worth tracking down a copy of the book.

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