Ever wondered “why popcorn costs more at the movies?” or “how seat belts kill?”. If yes, you may want to read The Armchair Economist (1995) by Steven E. Landsburg, professor of economics at University of Rochestor. Professor Landsburg explicitly states his central thesis early in the book- People respond to incentives. The rest of the book discusses the implications of this simple statement in domains as diverse as welfare economics, automobile safety, air pollution, theatre movies, drug wars, literacy, prices, sex and mating, banking, and many more. Professor Landsburg provides interesting and entertaining answers to many everyday issues (e.g. why polygamy is good for women, but bad for men?). (Click here if you want to read Professor Landsburg’s regular column on Slate, including the provocatively titled why an immigrant’s life is worth one-fifth of an American!).
I have no doubt that most people who read this book, find it interesting. Though not all explanations provided in the book will appeal to everyone, the biggest USP of the book is discussing issues from everyday life and explaining them using economic principles. Nevertheless, many of the explanations come across as absurd and outlandish. Consider the issue Professor Landsburg tackles in the very last section of the book- Why kids should not be taught about the environment in school? Professor Landburg believes that teaching about the environment is like evangelizing in schools. Just as we do not accept that schools do not teach our kids that one religion (say, christianity) is inherently better than others (say Judaism or Islam), we should not allow schools to teach that having a clean environment is better than a polluted environment! Of course, the book was written more than a decade ago (in 1995). I wonder if Professor Landsburg has changed his views now when we have much more evidence about global warming and why recycling is better than not recycling!
Regardless of the accuracy and political correctness of The Armchair Economist, I recommend the book to everybody who likes to think about why things are the way they are. The book is a great example of how a passionate economist can use simple economics principles to explain a wide range of phenomenon, important or relatively trivial. Fun read!