economics rules book coverReviewed by Alexander Morrison

A lot of energy is spent every election season arguing about the economy. Sure, there are plenty of political issues, but most of them are pretty simple. They’re beliefs. But economics is a science, even if, as it is subtitled in Dani Rodrik’s new book, it is sometimes called ‘the dismal science’. We all want everyone to have a good job, to make a living they can raise a family with, to be able to afford a home and other basic necessities, but knowing how to make that happen? That’s considerably more difficult. Oftentimes, we resort to ‘common sense’ solutions, only to find them blowing up in our faces time and time again. That’s because, as Rodrik’s Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science makes abundantly clear, economies are vast, complex things that often resist the obvious solutions. Thankfully, Rodrik’s book is meant to give a basic primer on how economists operate, what kinds of mistakes economists make, and what it all means for you.

Rodrik strives here to be completely neutral, politically, openly discussing the strengths and flaws with conservative, liberal, and libertarian economic philosophies. He succinctly explains the problems with putting ideology above evidence with his repeated mantra that a solution to a problem is not the solution to all problems. This is the mindset, in Rodrik’s opinion, that brought on the 2008 Financial Crisis, which almost all major economists missed as they backed a series of economic models that missed key assumptions and ignored mounting evidence against them. Indeed, among the book’s many interesting insights is about the way economists should use mathematical models compared to the way many do use them, and the havoc that’s caused when that gap grows too large. But for those interested less in how things go wrong and more in how the profession works, he also discusses how those models evolve and change over time to become better, more accurate predictors, positing the field as one that makes a lot of mistakes, yes, but is constantly trying to learn from those mistakes.

Unfortunately, economics is an incredibly complex, in-depth topic, and the level of expertise needed to understand a lot of theories is extensive. While the book is framed as an entry point for people interested in economics, this is no casually populist Freakonomics. Rodrik dives into economic terminology, methodology, and history, and he has a tendency to use that terminology before defining it, which can make some parts of the book confusing. It seems clear that he’s more at-home working with models, as some of his verbal descriptions of classic economics problems are terse and occasionally confusing, though no passage was so complex I couldn’t follow along after a couple read-throughs. The first third or so of the book is particularly plagued by this issue, which seems to endeavor to pack in a year’s worth of economics coursework into about 70 pages. Believe me, some sections of the book ended up reading quite haltingly to this admitted complete newcomer on the subject.

And I do think, despite its flaws, that the book is worth the effort, particularly if you have a passing interest in why the economy looks the way it does. If you have strong feelings about what immigration is doing to employment, about increasing the minimum wage, about health insurance, then learning about the economic concepts that explore and shape policy on those ideas is essential. While Rodrik’s book can be challenging to those who don’t know much about the subject, like myself, as an introduction, it does a good job of helping readers figure out how economists work. This is, by the way, different from telling readers how economics works; Rodrik admits openly and often that grand theories of economics are challenging to come up with and rarely reflect reality in every situation. Instead, Economics Rules is about how the job, for better and for worse, works, and what that means for us all. It’s a rough start, but I do recommend powering through those opening chapters, as the book eventually finds its footing and offered considerable insight on a topic that deeply affects my day-to-day life.

Alexander Morrison is a writer and educator in the Midwest. He divides his time pretty evenly between reading, writing, film, and Overwatch, so you can tell he’s pretty well rounded. You can read his thoughts about love & sex in pop culture at Cinema Romantique, or follow him on Twitter at Ikiruined.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by W.W. Norton & Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.