The Economic Naturalist: Why Economics Explains Almost Everything


Why Economics Explains Almost Everything

I’ve just finished “The Economic Naturalist“, in which Robert H Frank seeks to unpick a series of puzzling situations we observe in the world around us. Questions such as, “Why does a light come on when you open the refrigerator but not when you open the freezer?” and “Why do many schools require children to wear school uniforms?” are elucidated using the fundamentals of economics.


Apart from being a fascinating book for both casual and avid puzzle-solvers, the economic principles presented are made straightforward and memorable. This is, in fact, the primary goal of the author – to educate the reader in concepts such as the cost/benefit principle and the consequences of supply and demand, but without the abstruse abstraction or mathematical tedium found in your typical college course.

The real success of the book is as an example of the “narrative” style of teaching. This holds that the human brain is particularly sensitive to absorbing information related to us such that it can be dropped into the context of the world around us. For much of human history, our knowledge has come primarily through storytellers and so we have become good at understanding underlying concepts when they are presented in this form.

As much as I enjoyed the main thrust of the book, this remark, drawn from the introduction, has stuck in my head more than the economics lessons:

Cartoons are data. If people find them funny, that tells us something about the world.

Now I understand why I like doing this.



  1. Posted September 24, 2008 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I read this book. Some insights, interesting in places. But. The biggest problem is that most of the book is written by the author’s (editor’s), and thus some of the explanations are just lame.

    However, in understanding the lameness of the explanation, did give the ol’ brain cells a work out.

  2. Posted September 24, 2008 at 4:38 pm | Permalink


    I think that’s the trick – once you start to think about the explanations and come up with your own that illustrate the point, you’re going to remember it… Almost 2 months since I finished the book, I think I remember the principles and the stories more than with some other similar books.