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Review: Soccernomics April 2, 2010

Posted by tomflesher in Academia, Book reviews.
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Soccernomics (Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski) – $9.99 (Kindle edition)
Overall: **** (out of five)
Recommendation: Buy

One of the first books I read with the intent of understanding the quantitative basis for it was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Regardless of what I write on my résumé, my research interests in mechanism design, industrial organization, and price theory take a back seat to sports economics (as this blog’s faithful readers, if any, know).

For that reason, while I don’t know much about soccer, I had to read Soccernomics. The book is arranged much like Freakonomics, right down to the cover design, and takes on the format of devoting individual chapters to interesting research questions. It differs, however, in that it also devotes chapters to telling stories about game changers as opposed to analyzing data. There are numerous subchapters that follow Moneyball‘s familiar narrative format focusing on a charismatic individual as a lens through which the economics can be viewed. For example, the discussion on Guus Hiddink is a fascinating palate-cleanser that puts the authors’ theory into action rather than relying solely on the data to tell the story.

The data are, however, the backbone of Soccernomics. The authors include descriptions of their statistical techniques at a level appropriate for the non-technical reader without being frustratingly simplistic. One chapter analyzes the data on world power too deeply (yes, there is such a thing!) but comes to interesting conclusions that justify the deep discussion of world-level finishes in multiple sports.

The book tells interesting stories and is clear enough that even I could understand it despite knowing nothing about soccer (although the repeated references to ‘bottle’ still don’t make any sense to me). I would have like a technical appendix of some sort to show some of their regression results more clearly, but as it stands this is an excellent book for the technical or nontechnical reader.

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.