Tim Harford on Persuasion and Popular Economics (Ep. 87)

Why storytelling is still underrated.

To Tim Harford, mistakes are fascinating. “We often only understand how something works when it breaks,” he says, explaining why there’s such an emphasis on errors throughout his work. They also tend to make great stories, which can stoke the curiosity necessary to change minds. A former persuasive speaking champion, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire “for services to improving economic understanding,” which he’s achieved through appearances on the BBC, columns for the Financial Times, several TED Talks and books, and now his latest podcast series Cautionary Tales.

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Watch the full conversation

Recorded November 11th, 2019

Read the full transcript

Note: This conversation was recorded in November 2019 and thus took place before the UK’s general election in December, which secured Boris Johnson a Conservative majority and ensured the passage of his Brexit deal in January 2020.

TYLER COWEN: Today, I’m very happy to be speaking with Tim Harford. Tim is a long-standing columnist for the Financial Times. He’s on BBC Radio all the time, presenter of 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy and also the series, More or Less. He’s the author of at least seven books, including the million-selling The Undercover Economist.

His TED talks have been watched by more than 8 million people. He is an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. And he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for “services to improving economic understanding.” And now he has a new podcast series out, called Cautionary Tales. Tim, welcome.

TIM HARFORD: I’m delighted to be here. The prospect of talking to you, Tyler, is both the most exciting and also the most terrifying engagement I have on my podcast promotion tour, so I’m looking forward to it.

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

COWEN: You were, at one point, the world’s school persuasive speaking champion. Is that correct?

HARFORD: It is correct, although it’s a little bit like boxing. I think there were probably numerous people who could have claimed that at the same time, but yes.

COWEN: But still, any heavyweight champion at all is pretty fierce. What is persuasive speaking?

HARFORD: Persuasive speaking, at that time, was giving a speech of about 10 or 12 minutes, which seems like a long time when you’re a kid. It’s not a long time as a grown-up. It’s arguing a particular case. In my particular case, I was arguing that nuclear fusion was underrated, and we should invest more in it, and it held great promise. Perhaps in 1991, when I was doing it, this was a . . . I don’t know what —

COWEN: Is it still underrated?

HARFORD: One could say exactly the same thing. I have to say that it’s underrated because, partly for consistency and partly because my sister works on nuclear fusion, it’s one of those long shots, isn’t it? We continue to think it might work. And if it worked, it would be absolutely wonderful. But we’ve been told for a very long time that it’s just around the corner, and so far, we haven’t reached the corner.

COWEN: What makes you persuasive?

HARFORD: In that case, it was a mixture of analogies, explaining to people what this thing was when people didn’t understand, so I was explaining a technical subject. I now realize I’ve done quite a lot of that in my life, drawing people into a world and explaining to them about something they didn’t know, engaging their curiosity, making them want to learn more.

Then, having done that — it’s fairly easy — they’re on your side. They’re open minded. You can then make the case. I’ve since discovered various pieces of research, and also, through my introspection, discovered this to be true. If you can engage people’s curiosity, you have a shot at changing their minds. Daniel Kahan, who studies cultural cognition and tribal thinking, has found that a curious mindset tends to be one of the few antidotes to tribal thinking.

If, on the other hand, you’re in a situation where you’re not telling people anything they feel they don’t already know — you’re just challenging them with the same old facts that they’ve heard shouted at them before — they’ll find it very easy to dismiss you. That curiosity is an important thing.

COWEN: How good is your own self-understanding of what makes you emotionally persuasive?

HARFORD: I suppose, if I had a tremendous degree of self-understanding, and if I had no self-understanding, I would give you exactly the same answer, right? Am I emotionally persuasive? When I worked on a book called Adapt, I became very interested in feedback. I’m very conscious of how rarely we get good feedback.

And I am aware that I rarely get good feedback as a speaker. You step offstage, and you say to people, “How was that? Was it any good?” And people say, “Yeah, it was great.” Of course, they say it was great because it’s difficult to get onstage and give a talk, and no one’s going to say, “Actually, you sucked.” You don’t get any good feedback. So I’ve taken to saying to people, “Can you think of one thing that you would recommend I do differently next time?”

And I am aware that I rarely get good feedback as a speaker. You step offstage, and you say to people, “How was that? Was it any good?” And people say, “Yeah, it was great.” Of course, they say it was great because it’s difficult to get onstage and give a talk, and no one’s going to say, “Actually, you sucked.” You don’t get any good feedback. So I’ve taken to saying to people, “Can you think of one thing that you would recommend I do differently next time?”

It’s astonishing how rarely people are able to give you one specific piece of actionable feedback. But I did once get specific, actionable feedback from one of the senior people in the TED organization. He saw me give a speech. I thought it went very well. It was about innovation and lessons from building the Spitfire, a particular fighter plane that was very influential in the Second World War.

I stepped offstage, and people gathered around and said, “That was a great speech.” I thought to myself, “Yeah, it was a great speech.” And I became aware that this gentleman was standing just off to one side. And when everybody had cleared, he came over to me and said, “Yeah, you did well, but many of the people you were talking to were not British. They don’t have the same cultural references as you do. They will not know what the Spitfire is. Next time, you should show them a photograph of a Spitfire.”

That was a very useful piece of feedback. It was very specific. It explained what I should do differently in future. And I’m astonished at how rarely such feedback is given, even when you explicitly seek it out.

COWEN: I found it’s easier to get negative feedback on a public talk from women in the audience. I’m not sure why that is.

HARFORD: Interesting. I haven’t observed that, but I haven’t tested it systematically, either.

COWEN: Now, you are also UK under-18 debating champion, correct?

HARFORD: Yes, which is a similar skill set but requires a great deal more improvisation because the persuasive speech, you prepare, and you memorize, and you deliver, whereas the debating, you’re constantly tweaking what you’re saying in response to what’s being said at you. You have someone very smart trying to make you look very stupid.

COWEN: Are you more competitive than you seem to be at first glance?

HARFORD: I’ve lost my taste for it, actually. I was very competitive as a young debater. I then went to Oxford, and I hung around the Oxford Union. I’m a little younger than Boris Johnson, our new prime minister, but there were all those types around. And I didn’t find it very appealing. They weren’t the kind of people I felt at home with. I felt a little bit excluded. So I just stopped debating, and I’m now much less interested in that very competitive format.

I’m still competitive in other ways. I’m a very competitive board games player, but generally, I seek cooperation agreements more than competition. I still think though, that debating is underrated in that people think of it as being a very elitist thing. It’s practiced by elite people from very posh schools and very privileged backgrounds, and it favors a certain kind of education, and those things are all true.

At the same time, in a debate, you are protected by certain rules. You’re given a certain amount of space and time, and people are not allowed to interrupt you except in certain formalized ways that you don’t have to accept.

And I became aware, once I became an adult and entered into corporate spaces and corporate meetings, that all the old men were talking all over the young women, and they’d interrupt, and they wouldn’t let these younger people get a word in edgewise. And I realized that debating actually does protect anybody. It requires a certain skill set, yes. But it also carves out that protected space, which is very valuable.

COWEN: Should public conferences present more of their material or more of the event in the form of a debate? Rather than talks, panels — we all hate talks and panels, right?

HARFORD: A good talk is fine. A panel is almost always terrible, and the panel is terrible because people tend to agree with each other, and they don’t feel they’ve got permission to disagree even if they do disagree. A debate — if you choose the motion well, a debate can be great. You get to see both sides of the argument. You really get to see propositions tested under pressure. I think we should do more, yes.

COWEN: Has Twitter raised or lowered your opinion of public debate?

HARFORD: Lowered. I find Twitter to be good for some things, but very rarely good for the standard of argument because it favors outrage and put-downs and disrespect and just —

COWEN: Don’t all debates favor outrage and put-downs? I’ve done Intelligence Squared debates and they were full of outrage and put-downs — not coming from me, by the way.

HARFORD: I’m sure they’re not coming from you, but at least you have time to stand your ground and to make your case, and people can observe, and they can see Tyler speaking for 10 minutes, and they can say, “Well, this seems to be a reasonable fellow who’s willing to listen to the other side and willing to make a reasoned argument.” On Twitter, there’s no chance of doing that.

COWEN: So any elastic supply improves debates. Fixed amount of time — you can’t talk anymore. Twitter, there’s always someone else to ratio you.

HARFORD: But also, everything comes in these bite-sized chunks. Just the other day, I tweeted my most viral tweet, and I didn’t notice. It was a quote from a Conservative MP who had left the Conservative Party and said something very negative about her own party and about Brexit.

All I did was quote her, and link to the Financial Times piece that she had written, and went away and played a board game with some friends, and came back, and it had been retweeted over a thousand times, which very rarely happens. Even though I have a lot of followers, my tweets never go viral, I think because very rarely, I’m interested in outrage.

But people found this particular expression of contempt — the insider rejecting the organization she worked for — people found that very engaging, and everyone loved that. But I don’t know if anyone’s really the wiser or learned anything they didn’t already know.

COWEN: Now that you bring up Brexit, I do have a few questions for you.

HARFORD: Really?

COWEN: Most generally, at the conceptual level, how exactly did British politics get so weird? No matter what your point of view, it feels like something very few people had predicted six years ago. What happened? What variable didn’t we see?

HARFORD: Yes. I’m not sure I have a good answer, even in hindsight. It is very curious. We got to a situation where people suddenly identified very strongly with a proposition that they had not previously identified strongly with. I don’t fully understand the processes whereby that happened, but both on the “remain” side and the “leave” side, people started expressing a great deal of contempt for the other side, not listening to what was being said, not taking the arguments seriously. And a lot of people just sorted themselves into echo chambers in a way that I hadn’t seen before.

The curious thing — that polarization, I think, is familiar to anyone who studies American politics — but the curious thing is that it was crosscutting. It came at the electoral system sideways — viral referendum with both major parties split on what to do about it, and most members of parliament convinced that Brexit was not a very good idea.

We’ve just been dealing with that awful logjam ever since. We’re having this conversation before the election. It will be broadcast after the election. There is a reasonable chance the election will break the logjam, but there’s a reasonable chance that it won’t. I guess we’ll see.

COWEN: When I go to England — which I do fairly often — frequently, I have the feeling that this is such a sensible culture. What strikes me is that when people say something, so often they feel compelled to give a reason. And they give the reason in a fairly even, or not so emotional, tone of voice. I contrast this with my native United States of America. Is my impression just off? Are the English actually not any more sensible than anyone else, culturally?

HARFORD: I wonder if you’re seeing it differently because you’re coming as an outsider. They treat you differently as an outsider.

COWEN: No, even public pronouncements or what people say on TV — there’s so often a reason given, and it’s presented as if the reason is why you should do the thing you’re being asked to do.

HARFORD: Well, I’d like to think that people are giving genuine reasons, but I do seem to remember one of these pieces of psychological research. I forget who did it. Testing persuasion — it may have been Cialdini, but people cut in line. There was a line to do a photocopy —

COWEN: Yes, that’s him.

HARFORD: — and people cut in line. Sometimes people would just say, “Sorry, can I do this?” and would cut in line, and people didn’t like that. But if people gave a reason — even if the reason was utterly vacuous — people found that perfectly acceptable. So, if somebody cut in line and said, “Do you mind if I cut in line? I have to make some copies.”

Well, obviously you have to make some copies because you’re queuing up at a photocopier. I have to make some copies, too, because I’m also queuing at the photocopier. The vacuous reason was nevertheless persuasive. So, maybe the lesson is that the British have simply learned that it’s a good idea to provide a reason, and it doesn’t need to be a good reason.

COWEN: So, under that hypothesis, the English are actually a more manipulative culture.

HARFORD: As you kindly mentioned, I am an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. We ran this global empire. I don’t think you get to run a global empire from a small island without learning some tricks to manipulate how other people behave.

COWEN: Now on Brexit, am I correct in thinking you have been and are still pro-Remain?

HARFORD: Yes, although I’m in an awkward situation of fact-checking. I fact-checked the referendum. I fact-checked the general elections. When working for the BBC, while I do that job, the BBC is of course neutral and independent and balanced. I am in that mode where I’m trying to be as neutral as possible. I’m sure I don’t always succeed. I find that quite addictive. It’s quite nice to sit there and see both sides to everything.

But then, in my Financial Times columns, I can say what I like, and although I don’t tend to express myself strongly, like most economists, and indeed, like most people with a degree-level education in the UK, and like most people who live in the southeast of England — just like my tribe — I think that this was a terrible idea and will do a lot of harm, and it will particularly do a lot of harm to the people who voted for it.

COWEN: In economics, I’m sure you’re familiar with the equity-efficiency tradeoff, the notion that you would give up some output to have a more equitable outcome. And this you find a reasonable idea. However you might wish to make particular tradeoffs. Yes?

HARFORD: It seems that equity is a thing to aim for, and efficiency is a thing to aim for, and they probably are often in tension. So yes, there’s a tradeoff.

COWEN: So, if someone says there’s also a tradeoff, control versus efficiency — being master of your own fate as a nation — you would accept that that’s a valid tradeoff.


COWEN: Well, you would consider being poorer to have more control over your own schedule, for instance.

HARFORD: I would consider being poorer to have control over my own schedule, but the hypothesis that the link to Brexit is the idea that, “Oh, well, if we give some politicians in London, more control — that’s desirable versus some politicians In Brussels.”

COWEN: But surely the politicians in London are more accountable to the British public, or maybe English public in the future, than are those in Brussels or Berlin.

HARFORD: You would think they were more accountable. In general, I have found the European Union to be — because, of course, everything needs to be agreed by everybody — it does tend to be a defense against politicians taking extreme positions in nation states, whether they’re extreme protectionist positions or extreme in other ways. It’s hard for them to get away with that.

I have tended to find Brussels, in general, a defense against particularly stupid domestic politics, although it’s not a foolproof defense, and Brussels does its own stupid things, too.

COWEN: But still, that might be an argument that Brussels rule is more efficiency. It’s not an argument that it’s more control.


COWEN: The English/British system is pretty clean, so to speak, right? You’ve already established the English people are highly reasonable.

HARFORD: But then one needs to return to the question of control over what? Freedom to do what?

If my concern is I would like to control the kind of people I see around my town — I see too many people with foreign accents, and I want to control that and prevent so many of these people arriving — then the European Union definitely interferes with that control because you have free movement to people from across the Union. People come from Poland, from Lithuania. If that is what I’m worried about, I might feel out of control.

If on the other hand, from my privileged Oxford perch, I feel that what I would like control of is my ability to go to Dublin, to go to Berlin, to go to Rome, to travel widely, to give speeches, to work in any of these places, and not to worry, I have more control over that as a member of the single market.

I wouldn’t emphasize control as a single virtue. It’s always a question about control over what and who is exercising that control. The European Union reduces our control over some things and increases our control over others.

COWEN: Paul Krugman has given the very rough estimate that Brexit might lead to, say, a loss of 2 to 3 percent of GDP in the steady state. Does that strike you as roughly in the ballpark of what will be the case?

HARFORD: Yeah, I think we’ve probably already lost that due to the persistent uncertainty and the fact that we keep —

COWEN: But you’ve had a higher growth rate than Germany, right?

HARFORD: We keep promising to make a decision and then postponing the decision, but one never knows. But yeah, that order of magnitude. I think some of the analysis coming from inside the UK suggests it might be twice that. It might be more like 6 percent.

COWEN: If nothing else, doesn’t the current experience simply show how hard it is to do Brexit? It seems everyone can agree with that. So, if doing Brexit is really hard, it will only get harder, so staying in is a kind of irreversible choice. When you’re making irreversible choices, the cost-benefit calculus has to be very strongly in favor of an irreversible investment, right?


COWEN: Like by a ratio of 3:1, 4:1, a very high hurdle rate. If someone just says, “Well, we want more political control. We want sovereignty to answer to the people here. We understand we’re giving up a few percent of GDP. We’ll earn that back in a year and a half. If we stay in, we’re stuck forever. My goodness, we’re sensible English people. Why shouldn’t we get out?”

What’s your response?

HARFORD: It’s been rare to see that argument articulated. The argument has tended to be more along the lines of “Look at how much more money we can give to the NHS.” And I’m —

COWEN: Oh sure, that’s silly, right? You fact-checked that into oblivion.

HARFORD: Well, I think we fact-checked it too much and called too much attention to it. But also, “Oh, Turkey is about to join the EU. Aren’t you worried about all these Turkish people who are going to show up?” One of the things that has worried me is the paucity of the arguments that I’ve seen in favor of leaving. I think there are arguments to be made and you’re making them, but I think it’s telling that those arguments are rarely made.

COWEN: And there’s your own book, right? Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, a great book — the notion that you want experimentation. A lot of the experiments, at first, may not look so great, but over time, you have more wisdom in the system with more distinct units of governance. If anyone should be at least sympathetic to the Brexit cause, it would be you. No?

HARFORD: Yeah, but again, it depends what level you’re measuring these things at. I’ve seen a paper from maybe 20 years ago now, American Economic Review. If you can agree to global standards, this empowers smaller economic units. You can have city states; you can have small nation states. And to some extent, the European Union potentially allows that.

It was much more credible to suggest, for example, that Scotland could break away from the rest of the UK when the whole lot was in the EU. And the ambiguity of whether Northern Ireland is in the UK — well, legally, politically it’s in the UK, but it’d be nice to pretend that it’s also part of Ireland. A lot of people would like that. Well, you can have your cake and eat it if you’re in the EU. The EU prevents certain kinds of experiments, but it allows other kinds of experiments. I don’t see that as decisively cutting either way.

I should also say in Adapt, I do emphasize the importance of small experiments that give you a tremendous amount of information at the lowest possible cost. And I’m not sure Brexit has yet qualified, but I think you could say that about the EU as well. The EU’s clearly not a small experiment at a small cost. It’s a very big experiment.

COWEN: If something like the Boris Johnson plan passes through Parliament — and that might even have happened by the time this podcast comes out — do you think the Scots will leave the United Kingdom?

HARFORD: I don’t know. I would have thought it’s a toss-up. I don’t have any special insight into that. I think it’s quite plausible they will, quite plausible they won’t. 50/50.

I would like to check the betting markets because that would tell me more because I’m a believer in betting markets for at least providing some information.

Incidentally, the night before Brexit, I was speaking at a dinner, and I was asked — and it was in France, and it was an international crowd — I was asked for my opinion as to what would happen the night before the referendum. And I said, “I don’t know. The betting markets say there’s a 25 percent chance that we will leave the EU.” The host of the dinner said, “Oh, there’s no chance that you’ll vote to leave the EU. It will be a crushing victory for Remain.” And I said, “I hope you’re right.”

In the morning, we came down for breakfast. Everyone was feeling a little glum after the result. And somebody said, “Well, you got that one wrong.” I thought, “Well, I said I didn’t have any special insight, and the betting market said it was a 25 percent chance. I don’t think I got it wrong at all.” But there we go. People will interpret these things in different ways.

COWEN: Why do we seem to be moving away from an interest in messy music? In one of your books, you give the example of Keith Jarrett playing, improvising on this terrible piano, producing a masterpiece. Miles Davis, often recording under questionable circumstances. And so much music now — it seems to use Auto-Tune. Dynamic range is compressed. Everything sounds perfect, every note in place. Where has messy music gone and why?

HARFORD: I don’t know, I think it’s a good question, and it’s puzzling. The dynamic compression — we understand this is competition to be heard in public spaces, to be heard in the jukebox, to be heard on radio, to be heard on streaming.

Although, I understand that Spotify and other streaming services now, basically, equalize all the sound of everything, so there’s now no longer any competitive gain from dynamic compression and trying to make everything super, super loud. Maybe Spotify, for all its faults, will fight against this, but it’s not what I would expect.

What I would expect is more improvisation because the technology allows many more experiments at much lower cost. And you can pick what you like out of it. Talking to Brian Eno, as I did for the book — the great producer, ambient composer, worked with Bowie and many other people — he was emphasizing how much easier it has become to experiment. You just record digitally and see what happens, and if it doesn’t work out, you do it again.

COWEN: But doesn’t that elevate the relative influence of the Taylor Swifts? Because we’re drowning in experiments. There are so many, we’re confused. We watch Disney movies, and we listen to Taylor Swift, and messiness is diminished by competition.

HARFORD: Or it’s possible that we don’t. There was an incredibly messy process, but we don’t perceive it as messy because the outputs can be edited until it absolutely is perfect, even if what was going on in the studio was just unbelievably chaotic.

Hollywood comedies have lots more improvisation than they used to. But it’s not clear that they’re perceived as being more improvised. That’s because you could just do a take, do another take, do another take — just keep busking, keep making stuff up, see what’s funny. It’s easy to edit it all together.

Whereas in the days of expensive film stock, you couldn’t afford that process. You couldn’t afford all the film. You couldn’t afford all the editing. So you would try and be as funny as you could on paper, and the actors would read the script. But do we perceive Hollywood comedy as being more improvised? I’m not sure that we do because we see —

COWEN: I perceive it as being mostly gone, right?

HARFORD: Yeah, we see the perfect edit.

COWEN: It’s hard to find, period.


COWEN: Given the educational success of the TV show, Sesame Street, why hasn’t there been more good online education for younger people?

HARFORD: Do I fully accept the premise of the question, though? There is Tedx, which is good for teenagers and for —

COWEN: But Sesame Street is for eight-year-olds, right?

HARFORD: Yeah, actually, for four-year-olds.

COWEN: For four-year-olds.

HARFORD: Yes. Well, I haven’t looked in as much detail as I should have done at the subjects, but my impression is that what is going on is everything is on YouTube and things are being algorithmically selected for. And the algorithms are generally favoring more clicks, whatever attracts the attention of toddlers because toddlers can pick their own stuff.

If, as a parent, one sat down with the iPad and the toddler and carefully selected and created what the toddlers are watching, one might get a different result. But I suspect that is not generally what is happening, or at least, not what is mostly happening.

COWEN: But can’t an intermediary enter? Khan Academy or Tim Harford, for that matter. “Oh, here’s the 15 videos to show your six-year-old.”

HARFORD: Marginal Revolution Kindergarten.

COWEN: Exactly. Yeah, perhaps on its way.

HARFORD: Well, maybe that’s the equilibrium in the long run. It’s interesting that “Baby Shark,” for example, which is this viral thing — the latest viral version has been created by Pinkfong, a Korean company. They have an educational company in principal. They’re supposed to be teaching Korean kids to speak English. It just so happens that the videos that they’re producing to teach Korean kids to speak English are also being watched by English and American kids, for whom it is probably far less educational. But yes, there’s a possibility.

Alexis Madrigal had a great piece about this a few months ago in the Atlantic. He pointed out that there’s a service called YouTube Kids. It’s very high quality, it’s curated. YouTube also seems to spend no effort whatsoever in calling anybody’s attention to it. He said, “I’m a parent of toddlers. It wasn’t until researching this piece of journalism that I found out YouTube Kids even existed.” I don’t know why YouTube doesn’t push that more, but one suspects it’s about the advertising dollars.

COWEN: Why haven’t you ever owned a television?

HARFORD: I find them to be very time-consuming and distracting. They might be less distracting if I grew used to them. I was sitting on the plane as I came over here from the UK, and the person next to me on the plane was watching a movie. I just couldn’t draw my eyes away from this movie that was playing on the screen just across the aisle. I found it constantly trying to figure out what was going on because I couldn’t.

I find them very distracting. I find that I don’t get anything done. And the quality — when I made the decision not to buy a television in 1992 when I left home — the quality was very poor. I hear rumors that, apparently, TV is quite good now, but there are so many other things to do. There’s the internet, and there’s board games and there’s podcasts — I’m a loyal listener to Conversations with Tyler — and there are books. Everything has a cost.

COWEN: What do you think is the best economic insight we have, nonobvious, about relationships, love, online dating? What has popular economics taught us about those areas?

HARFORD: For a long time, as you know, I edited a semi-serious, semi-joking column for the Financial Times called “Dear Economist,” which is sadly no longer with us. But the people would write in with their relationship queries or etiquette queries, and I would write back, using the principles of economics.

The curious thing was, that was sort of supposed to be a joke, and yet half the time, I thought the economic advice was brilliant, and half the time I thought the economic advice was terrible. I was constantly flipping between the two, and so I was never quite sure what voice I should be in.

What is the biggest insight? The most obvious insight is that there’re generally gains from trade, right? Most things aren’t zero sum. Thomas Schelling taught us this. There’s always some possible gain. You just need to figure out what it is. But I suppose less obvious is, behavioral economics taught me to think a lot about reframing.

Is there a different way to look at what is, basically, the same problem that can strip away some of the conflict from it. I still find that when I’m dealing with the problems of my friends, and talking to my wife, and we’re trying to solve social problems or problems for our children, very often there’s a way to reframe the problem that doesn’t actually change its essentials and yet, somehow, gives a lot more clarity.

COWEN: Is there a higher implicit tax on popular economics today? Because the world has become more politically correct. People are more sensitive on matters having to do with gender, sex.

And popular economics, in a sense, ignores those factors. You work through the model. It gives you an answer — may or may not be a correct answer, but it’s not necessarily what ordinary people would consider to be a moral answer. To put that forward in people’s faces — are we now living in a time where you can’t do it anymore? Or it feels in poor taste?

HARFORD: It’s certainly changed. When you think about the best pop economics books before Freakonomics were Hidden Order by David Friedman — very, very good — and The Armchair Economist by Steven Landsburg — also very good. And they were . . . Particularly, Landsburg relished winding people up and being politically incorrect as part of his thing, and I think it’s still part of his thing, but that now sits less easily.

But I wonder whether the real tax on popular economics is just that economists themselves have taken . . . The reputation of the profession has taken a real pounding since the financial crisis. When Freakonomics came out in 2005, you could plausibly say, “Hey, these economists are super smart, and they can solve any problem.” Much, much harder to make that case in 2009. So popular economic shifts, instead, to being Dan Ariely saying “The economists are wrong about everything, by the way, but here’s a new way of thinking about things.”

The nature of what popular economics is has changed, but the politicization, as well, of everything puts economist in a difficult position because, as any scientist who’s written about climate change or vaccines will tell you, people love scientists until they get into politically controversial territory.

Well, for an economist, almost everything we write about is politically controversial, whether as with your book, Big Business, or whether we’re talking about inequality, whether we’re talking about GDP growth, the environment, taxation — it’s all politically contentious, and nobody wants to be told what to do when they’ve already made up their minds.

COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

HARFORD: I probably want to be liked too much. This is one difference between me and Steve Levitt. Steve Levitt is also much smarter than me and much more successful than me. And that doesn’t bother me at all, but he said he also doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him, or doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks about him.

I actually do care what people think about me. I’d quite like people to think I’m a nice guy, so I’m probably self-censoring at times. Say, maybe I won’t say that because people wouldn’t like that. And that’s probably a fault in a newspaper columnist — you probably shouldn’t care what people think about you, but that’s the way it is.

COWEN: What was it like playing poker with Steve Levitt, now that you mentioned him?

HARFORD: I’ve met Steve, many times over the years. Generally, whenever he has a book out, I end up interviewing him. Playing poker with him is very hard, partly because he’s much better at poker than I am. I don’t really play. I know the theory, but I don’t really play, and there’s only so much you can do without practice.

But also, you have the additional challenge of asking him questions, listening to his answers, making a note of what he says and writing the whole thing up for the newspaper afterwards, which just adds a whole level of complexity to the whole thing, but it was fun. And I did very nearly beat him. I made a small error, and was very unlucky, and was destroyed by that, which seems like a classic poker story: a small error disproportionately punished by the poker gods.

COWEN: What else do you think economists are, on average, quite good at, you yourself being an economist?

HARFORD: I think we’re — relative to the average person, even the average academic — I think we’re pretty good at mathematical thinking. I think we’re pretty good at stripping away unnecessary complexities. Obviously, the mathematicians are better, right?

COWEN: Are they? They work in such complicated mathematics.

HARFORD: I suppose it depends what kind of math —

COWEN: Our goal is to at least try to simplify into a testable proposition.

HARFORD: There’s obviously a risk in stripping away too much complexity — you strip away something that turned out to be very important. But in principle, I think we aspire to be, and often are quite good at, drawing analogies where things do not seem to be analogous and to say this thing is actually quite like this other thing, and drawing insight from that.

But there is also this very, very basic fundamental insight of economics, which is that it’s possible for things to get better. It’s possible for people to cooperate, even if they’re not very nice people, and it’s possible for gains to be created. I think if you have that view baked very deep into the way you see the world, that changes the way you see things, and it’s very beneficial for your general outlook on life.

COWEN: Why is there such an emphasis on mistakes in your work?

HARFORD: I first really emphasized mistakes in Adapt, which is my third book. But once you start looking at mistakes, they become really fascinating. It’s partly the general idea that we often only understand how something works when it breaks, so looking at error is informative.

Medics have long studied people with serious injuries or pathologies because that gives you an insight into how the healthy body works or the healthy brain works. It’s partly that; it’s partly the stories are really good. And I’m always interested in stories. I know you’ve warned us not to take stories too seriously, but stories are powerful. Stories are fun. And stories about things going wrong are more interesting than stories where nothing goes wrong.

But the other thing is, just as I said earlier — feedback, the fact that you can make a mistake and it can still be very difficult to really pick apart what went wrong, or what the mistake was, or even that you have made a mistake. That strikes me as something worth paying continued attention to.

COWEN: If you were dropped into a small village in a foreign country without ID, and you didn’t speak the language, and you didn’t have any money, what have you learned as an economist that would help you get home?

HARFORD: [laughs] There must be something. Well, I think the sense that you will probably be able to get cooperation. Probably, if you ask for it, people are generally reasonably cooperative.

COWEN: Whom would you ask?

HARFORD: In a small village? Well, you just find the first person you can, and you start from there, but I think that the basic answer is, I’m not sure I’ve learned very much that would fit me for that situation, unlike you. You’d be very comfortable dropped in a village in the middle of nowhere. Most of these villages, you’ve already visited, but I think I would find it quite a challenge.

Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.


COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.

COWEN: Are you up for a round of overrated versus underrated?

HARFORD: I’m so glad you asked.

COWEN: Claude Shannon — overrated or underrated?

HARFORD: I think he’s still underrated. Unlike someone like Alan Turing, I think a lot of people still don’t know who Claude Shannon is. One of the remarkable things about Shannon — he wrote these two papers in information theory: one discussing the transmission of information and sharing that if you did it in the right way, you could always guarantee perfect transmission; one showing that you could apply Boolean logic to electrical circuits, and this is how machines are going to be thinking.

Both of these papers are basically perfect. They create an entire subject. They answer every interesting question in that subject, and they close the book, and that’s really remarkable achievement. I think he’s underrated for that.

I think he’s possibly also underrated by fans of Shannon, who are frustrated that he spent most of the second half of his life noodling around, building wearable computers, trying to cheat the casino at Las Vegas, and juggling, and sending in weird poems to journals, rather than actually analyzing things, and just seemed to behave in a very, very frustrating way, and never really settled down, and ride off the back of his fame.

But I wonder whether that isn’t just part of it. You can’t have the brilliance without this person who’s constantly exploring. Somebody said that Shannon had this unbounded intellectual courage — he would just launch into projects that would terrify most people, with no knowledge of whether he would be able to solve the problem. But it struck me that the thing about Shannon — he was happy to do something and then just drop it — there’s no intellectual courage there if you don’t feel any compulsion to continue if something has served its purpose and you just stop.

COWEN: Tony Blair — overrated or underrated?

HARFORD: I think he’s now underrated. He’s still hugely hated by many of the current Labour Party for dragging the UK into the war in Iraq, siding with George Bush — always a hugely unpopular president in the UK. And people haven’t forgiven him for that. And it was a serious error, I think.

But he was enormously successful at building a strong center-left coalition in the UK. They spent a lot of money. They transformed a lot of public services. They won lots of elections. I find it astonishing, actually, that he’s now so totally disowned by his own side.

COWEN: Oxbridge.

HARFORD: I think it is remarkable that Oxford — I can’t speak about Cambridge — they’re the other guys. But let’s just talk about Oxford.

COWEN: Oxford — that’s fine.

HARFORD: Let’s focus on what counts. It is astonishing that this organization, this institution that is now about 800, 900 years old, is still going, is still one of the — rightly, I think — one of the most admired universities in the world. It is astonishing that you can keep adapting and adjusting. And while there are enormous inefficiencies and flaws in the way it’s governed, it’s still going strong.

As somebody who lives on the fringes of Oxford University — I go to occasional dinners, and I hang around lectures, and I go to the libraries, but I’m not an academic — it remains a tremendously inspiring place, and I envy the undergraduates their experience of going to this place.

COWEN: The legacy of the British Empire — overrated or underrated?

HARFORD: I think it’s overrated by the British and probably correctly rated by the rest of the world. But we still haven’t wrestled with the fact that we traveled to an awful lot of places, and we forced them to do exactly what we wanted, committed a tremendous amount of cruelty. There were obviously gains: the abolition, the spread of British technology to far-off lands.

But I think the typical British person does not think a lot about imperial history and does not feel very uncomfortable about imperial history. And I think we probably should be thinking more and being more uncomfortable, and I speak as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, which itself is interesting. Isn’t that intriguing? That is how we choose to recognize achievement in the UK — you can become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. That tells you something.

COWEN: What was it like to receive that?

HARFORD: It was great fun. I find small talk difficult, but there were a hundred people in Buckingham Palace, all of whom were getting OBs or similar awards. Everybody there was unique because they were all getting their award for something different, but everyone had something in common. So it was tremendously easy to just go up to anybody and say, “So, isn’t this great? What are you getting your award for?” And have a fascinating conversation with a fascinating person.

And they’re more diverse than you might expect in terms of the gender, the racial makeup. It was great. I got my award from Prince Charles, and he said, “We’re giving you this award to encourage you to keep going.” I thought that was tremendously British and brought a hint of a tear to my eye. Just keep going, just keep on doing what you’re doing. And that was a tremendously British form of encouragement.

COWEN: Did it encourage you to keep on going?

HARFORD: I would have kept on going anyway, but it felt strange to be recognized for something that I get paid perfectly well for anyway, and I enjoy doing anyway. I feel that these awards should be given out for people who have displayed some kind of self-sacrifice. I don’t think I’ve sacrificed anything in having fun and engaging my curiosity, but it was nice.

COWEN: You sacrificed a television.

HARFORD: I would have sacrificed that anyway. That’s no loss. But it was a great honor.

COWEN: Fact-checking — overrated or underrated?

HARFORD: I think misunderstood. Good fact checkers understand the limits of what they do. If we take an example from the referendum, there was a tremendous effort to fact-check a particular lie on this bus. The leave campaign had lied about how much the UK could gain from leaving the EU. And in constantly trying to rebut that lie, the entire conversation about the referendum was derailed.

A good fact checker knows their limits. You pick up the lie or the untruth, whatever. You correct it, you set the record straight, you show evidence of your working, you provide people with links to find out more, and then you move on. The problem is that we often don’t move on.

And now, we see lies that are designed to be caught out. Previously, politicians would lie and hope that no one called them on it. Now, they will lie, and the whole point is to be called on it because you want to have an argument about that rather than arguments about something else. Fact checkers can try to avoid those pitfalls but it’s just intrinsic to the profession. There’s a limit to what you can do.

COWEN: What’s the best Brian Eno album?

HARFORD: My favorite is Music for Airports. It’s an oldie but a goodie. Most people rate Another Green World, but I just love the Ambient Star.

COWEN: Those are my two favorites, but I like the Bang on a Can version of Music for Airports much more than Eno’s own recording.

HARFORD: Now, I haven’t —

COWEN: Have you ever heard it?

HARFORD: I haven’t heard it. I will now go and get it.

COWEN: You should get it. It’s wonderful.

What’s the most underrated technological innovation?

HARFORD: Paper is my favorite. It’s everywhere. We use it to coat our walls. We use it to wipe various things that need wiping. Books are still a wonderful technology on paper. It’s thoroughly underrated.

Yet, when I began researching 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy, everybody said, “Oh, you must do the Gutenberg press, you must do Gutenberg press.” Of course, the Gutenberg press is important, but purely as an economic matter, there’s no point in mass-producing writing unless you can mass-produce a writing surface. And paper was the mass-produced writing surface. So paper is my most underrated technological innovation.

COWEN: Each year, how much are you willing to pay for the use of GPS?

HARFORD: Probably quite a bit, but it’s not nearly as valuable to me as something like email.

COWEN: But a number, please.

HARFORD: Let’s say $250.

COWEN: Okay, per year?

HARFORD: Yeah, now I got used to it.

COWEN: You do own a car, correct?

HARFORD: I do own a car, but I don’t drive much.

COWEN: Then when do you use GPS? You must know your way around Oxford and London.

HARFORD: Yeah, I know my way around Oxford. It’s still very useful to get around London. I got here for example, with GPS. I think it’s just becomes a convenience. Probably my answer would be different if you said how much would you be willing to pay to accept a discount on a phone that didn’t have GPS. Probably would be a different answer to the question. But yeah, I think GPS is fairly valuable.

Put it this way: when I wrote about a digital minimalist thrust I had in my life — I was trying to get rid of unnecessary apps — I was sent one of these very fashionable designer phones that don’t do anything except take phone calls. And it looked beautiful, but I haven’t used it, and the main reason I haven’t used it is because I find it very useful to have email on the go, but I do think GPS would be valuable.

COWEN: In the New York Times today, there was an article I quite enjoyed. It was titled — on the online version — “10 Things Emma Thompson Can’t Live Without.” And these were not air, water, of course, family, yes, yes, paper. But getting into the nonobvious, the nontrivial, could you give us three things Tim Harford cannot live without? She lists Stella McCartney clothing. That might be one of yours.

HARFORD: No, it wouldn’t be.

COWEN: What are your three?


COWEN: Dice. For board games, right?

HARFORD: For board games, well, particularly for role playing games. Because a board game, you usually need something else. But if you’re going to give me the most minimal sort of kit I need for a role-playing game, I need a randomizer. The dice would be the first one.

I really love my notebook. I just have a red and black notebook, and I carry it around, and I use it to organize a lot of things. I’ll take little notes.

COWEN: By hand. You take your notes by hand?

HARFORD: Yes, I generally do. I use my computer a lot, but to take notes and to manipulate information quickly — to-do lists, for example — much easier on paper, so it’d be my notebook and pen.

Third — oh gosh, at this point, I feel I should name a luxury, so I’m very fond of Belgian beer. I would say a supply of Belgian beer would be important, even though I don’t drink very often. When I do drink, it’s usually Belgian beer, and I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from it.

COWEN: And your daily breakfast — would that even crack the top 10?

HARFORD: Well, you said ruling out the obvious. I mean, food is enormously obvious.

COWEN: Food in general is obvious, but particular foods.

HARFORD: I find breakfast very important, and we live close to a very good bakery that prepares excellent sourdough. I really like toast in the morning, like any good Brit. Breakfast is very important to me. I can’t be skipping breakfast.

COWEN: To segue into the Tim Harford production function, what is your philosophy of breakfast?

HARFORD: Make sure you have it. First, a really good cup of coffee — filter coffee, just with the pour-over cone — doesn’t need to be fancy, just needs to be freshly ground, high-quality blend. I prefer it with milk and toast of some nature. And that’s just fine, but that really needs to be the first thing you do during the day. Before you have a shower, before you get dressed, before you do anything, have your breakfast.

COWEN: And what is the Tim Harford philosophy of lunch?

HARFORD: As lived, I eat lunch alone a lot. As aspired to, I feel I should eat lunch with an interesting person every day. But in fact, I am quite an introvert, so I find it quite draining to do that. I always enjoy it when I do it, and then I’ll just go quiet for a few days.

COWEN: What is the thing you know about writing that maybe the rest of us do not?

HARFORD: I think people underrate stories, even when the story is used to convey a complex piece of information. Even if I’m trying to explain the ideas of Danny Kahneman or some economic idea or some statistical or mathematical idea, I’m always looking for a little story to tell.

Michael Lewis, by the way, understands this far better than I will ever understand it. He’s the master, but many people I think, don’t fully understand. And often, when people talk about stories, what they actually mean is examples or anecdotes. But a proper story has a protagonist, and it has a dramatic flow, and there are twists, and there are highs, and there are lows, even if it’s a quite a brief story. It’s more than just, “Oh, let me give you an example of somebody who did this.”

COWEN: And what’s your most unusual work habit?

HARFORD: Most unusual work habit, ummm. I have a lot of projects on the go and switch between them. I don’t know how unusual this is but I suspect it’s fairly uncommon. I think you would be somebody who does this a lot as well.

COWEN: Absolutely.

HARFORD: Kierkegaard called it crop rotation. You work on something, and then you put it to one side, and then you pick something else up. I gave a TED talk about this. I called it slow-motion multitasking. I think it’s striking how many very successful people practice this and have these multiple projects on the go. They provide relief. When you’re stuck on something, you just do something else and don’t get stressed about it because you’ve got something else productive to do. The projects cross-fertilize —

COWEN: You never lose momentum, right? You always feel you’re moving forward on something.

HARFORD: Yes. There is a risk of losing momentum. It is possible to overdo the multitasking and to just lose your thread with these different projects. Like anything, there’s a sweet spot and it’s possible to overdo it, but I think that people fear multiple projects more than they should. If you can organize your thinking in a reasonable way, you can have a lot of different projects on the go and get a lot out of that.

COWEN: What is your philosophy of fish and chips?

HARFORD: I think it’s overrated. I prefer Belgian fries to English chips. I prefer mayonnaise to vinegar, and I prefer my fish to be grilled, ideally with some chili or some lime rather than deep-fried. Really good fish and chips is great, but you so rarely get it, it feels like it’s not even worth searching out.

COWEN: What was your first job as a teenager?

HARFORD: I had a paper round. But beyond —

COWEN: Delivering newspapers.

HARFORD: Delivering newspapers.

COWEN: Physical newspapers.

HARFORD: Delivering physical newspapers —

COWEN: Made out of paper, our greatest innovation.

HARFORD: — which was an education. It’s nice because it gets you out, and you walk around because one could still do this. You didn’t need a bike or a car. You could walk around. There was enough density to do that.

But it gave you a sense of what the different newspapers were saying. Although I wasn’t very conscious of it, to observe how the Daily Mail and the Guardian and the Telegraph and the Times and the Sun — these classic British newspapers — might all report the exact same event, and to see how different their takes were, I think is a useful education.

COWEN: What did you do in your job at Shell?

HARFORD: At Shell, I worked for the scenario planning team. The scenarios — this very interesting technology that was originally, I think, developed by Rand just after the war, to try and think through Cold War outcomes. Shell adopted them, and, I think, has been regarded as a pioneer.

There were a group of various misfits, some from within Shell, some brought in on secondment — political scientists, economists, my wife, who was not my wife at the time, but we met in the workplace, which I understand is now no longer encouraged. But a group of very interesting people, including somebody who’s now professor of ancient history and studies how the Greeks thought about the future through their oracles.

But the idea of scenario planning is, you never know what’s going to happen. You shouldn’t be quantifying too much because people get fixed on the numbers and don’t think about the mechanism. They don’t think about the analysis.

So you tell stories. You tell at least two stories, and the stories are mutually contradictory. Because humans are built to absorb stories, they will remember your story. You can tell them a story about the future. You can make it completely compelling, completely persuasive. You can awaken their curiosity. And then once they’re totally drawn in, you can say, “But that’s not how it’s going to be.”

Then you can tell them a different story with a very different vision of the future. And because of the way that we respond to stories, people could hold those two stories in their heads. They now have a language to talk to each other about this uncertain future space. They now could internalize the fact that they don’t actually know. And the other thing is that the scenario methodology, the storytelling methodology is a great way to get lots of different people in the room looking for interesting things to say that will wake up people’s curiosity rather than arguing.

It was a very, very interesting place to work. There were frustrations working for an oil company, partly because it’s a huge bureaucracy and partly because my wife joined to try to get them to stop polluting the planet, which turns out, she didn’t succeed in that. But despite the frustrations, I loved the job. I learned a lot.

COWEN: And from there, you moved to the IFC in Washington. Or was there an intermediate stop?

HARFORD: I had an internship at the Financial Times. They told me they would love me to come back sometime, but they didn’t have a job for me.

COWEN: And then you started thinking in terms of writing.

HARFORD: I had already drafted The Undercover Economist and was looking for a publisher. Then I went to work at the World Bank IFC, at a department that was part of both organizations. That, I think, was the time we met.

COWEN: Correct.

Harford: You invited me to a bloggers party, back when blogging was a thing, like a new, exciting thing that people did. I was doing a blog for the World Bank. I did that for two years.

But while I was doing that, I was writing more and more — these “Dear Economist” columns for the Financial Times. I was finishing The Undercover Economist, editing it, getting a publisher. And I had a very good boss at the World Bank who said, “Well as long as you don’t write your ‘Dear Economist’ columns about the World Bank, I don’t mind if you write for the FT.” It’s quite extraordinary to be working for the World Bank while writing for the newspaper.

COWEN: I’m not sure that could happen now. But what did you learn at the IFC?

HARFORD: What did I learn at the IFC? Well, the country risk analysis was intriguing. It was one of those things where we were trying to figure out, how do we rate the risk of different countries that the IFC is supposed to be lending to projects? What’s the political risk of lending to projects in Bolivia? What’s the political risk of lending to projects in Venezuela?

So there was this meeting that I had to chair where lots of smart people would say, “Well, here’s what I know about Venezuela.” I realized that this was a very weird process because in the end, we were all sitting in a room in Washington. The people who I was talking to were well-informed, but still, how much could you really know about what’s going on in Venezuela from a room in Washington when you’re trying to follow the whole of Latin America?

Yet, the organization needed a number. And if the organization needed a number, we had to produce a number. So we did the best we could. It was an interesting education there in the weirdness of quantifying when there wasn’t really any point in quantifying. It was very, very different from the experience of having done scenarios at Shell.

But I also worked on the outskirts of the Doing Business Team who were doing, I think, fantastic work, quantifying regulations around the world. That was just much more engaging because you really felt people were measuring something that mattered and producing genuinely new information for the world to digest. That was an interesting thing to be. I don’t want to claim any credit for it, but I was on the fringes of that team. And I found it fascinating to see them operating.

COWEN: And throughout your life, do you feel you’ve taken a long-term perspective or a short-term perspective with your decisions in your career?

HARFORD: Short to medium. I rarely think past a couple of years, but on the other hand, a book is a long-term project, but it’s not an ultra-long-term project. You write a book; the book will be published in two or three years. So I rarely look past the next book. That’s been fine so far. That’s all worked out just fine.

I suppose when you start thinking about the 20-year time horizon as an individual, there are certain no-brainer decisions you can make. Like, we should live somewhere where we can bring up a family and they’ll be happy. I should save into a pension. But beyond that, there’s so much that’s outside your control that I’m not sure that there’s any great value in doing that.

When I’ve used scenario thinking in my own life, which I have done because of course, I married a scenario planner. The two of us understand this technology very well.

COWEN: She did at least.

HARFORD: She was a scenario planner, too, so we both understand this. And we would sometimes do scenarios, but they would tend to be much more short term. You’re thinking through different possible consequences of a decision you might make and the impact that might have over the next two, three years.

COWEN: And other than your new podcast, again, Cautionary Tales — it’s already out — is there any other longer-term plan you’re free to talk about? A new book, anything?

HARFORD: Yes. By the time this podcast is out, I will be doing the edits on the second edition or the second book of 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, so 50 Things, Season Two. But the next project — in the spirit of multiple projects and slow-motion multitasking — it’s nearly finished. I’m looking forward to getting back to it. The next project is a book, titled How to Make the World Add Up.

That is a book about how to think about the statistical claims that people make, how to think like a fact checker, but how to, hopefully, be wiser than just a fact checker, and how not to give in to utter despair at the sense that there is no objective reality out there. I think there is a constructive way forward. And that’s what the next book will be about.

COWEN: Tim Harford, thank you very much.