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Review: The Invisible Hook March 19, 2010

Posted by tomflesher in Book reviews.
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The Invisible Hook (Peter Leeson) – $14.82 (Kindle edition)
Overall: *** (out of five)
Recommendation: Buy, with caveat

The Invisible Hook is a fine little pop economics book by University of Chicago Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics Peter Leeson. It follows the format of many other pop econ books, such as The Economic Naturalist, Naked Economics, and More Sex Is Safer Sex in that it asks questions about topics superficially unrelated to economics but analyzes the answers using economics as a lens. Each chapter tackles a different idea, with a title and subtitle of the format “Pirate Pun: The Economics of ______.” Chapter 6, for example, is entitled, “Pressing Pegleg: The Economics of Pirate Conscription.”

From an economic standpoint, Dr. Leeson is quite adept at explaining why seemingly counterintuitive behavior is in fact justified by economic logic. For example, Chapter 7, “Equal Pay For Equal Prey: The Economics of Pirate Tolerance” deals intelligently with the reasons why pirates often treated black shipmates as full equals rather than slaves, as for-profit ships generally would have. Using the standard rational choice framework, Dr. Leeson ably analyzes the possible actions of pirates and determines the differing results. Through the usual assumptions (mostly that people are self-interested utility maximizers), Dr. Leeson paints a picture of pirates as self-interested men who, in the interest of protecting their own ability to earn, stumbled on one of the most efficient systems of political economy available to them.

The book does have its warts, however. One minor irritation is that the chapters all take a keyhole-essay format – they begin with an introduction, then expose and analyze that material, finally concluding with a summary. As a result, Dr. Leeson’s book appears to repeat the same information at least three times in short order; this format is unusual in the pop economics literature and can seem simplistic at times.

Another quibble is not really a quibble at all but a note about intended audience. Dr. Leeson’s book seems intended for the Freakonomics crowd – those who are not trained in economics but who may or may not have taken a Principles course years ago. Though invariably correct, Dr. Leeson’s analysis is at times simplistic and left me wanting him to discuss the underlying material more deeply. A student with a stronger background in economics might do well to investigate the articles in Dr. Leeson’s CV on which the book was based.

The Invisible Hook was fun, and I recommend it, but it will be enjoyed most by people who are not formally trained in economics.

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