Books: Independent choice

Economics for everyone, by Diane Coyle

Popular economics is no match for popular science. The reading public seems to have far less interest in the dismal science than the natural ones. Even so, the venerable but long-dormant minority pursuit of political economy is undergoing something of a revival. A batch of recent titles helpfully displays all its strengths and weaknesses. The problem with economics books for the mass audience is that most titles are written either by economists who can't write, or by commentators who are good with words but not too strong on the economics.

One new title that rises above this is a collection of essays by a star of the profession. The Accidental Theorist (Norton, pounds 16.95) by Paul Krugman, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a model of wit, clarity and insight. The essays, many first published on the Internet, address some of the biggest issues in public policy and make them funny or, at worst, understandable. As if that were not enough, the professor avoids the howlers about economic theory that scar lesser books. Many economists criticise Krugman for his arrogance, and he's pretty confident he is right. But then, he often is right. More important for a reader unscarred by a formal training in economics, the essays make plain the distinctions between hard facts, necessities of economic logic and political opinions.

This merit is not shared by the other two offerings. Though they leave you in no doubt about the political leanings of their authors, they never make it clear where the economics end and the politics begin. The Age of Insecurity (Verso, pounds 17) by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, two Guardian journalists, is an enjoyable rant about what's wrong with modern Britain. Both left-wingers of a certain age, they are among the handful of people who look back on the economic events - as well as the flares and pop music - of the 1970s with fondness. They hate the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. They also hate the 1990s, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. They hate the US, but they hate the EU, too. It's a jolly good read for Old Labour types, tapping their feet in time to their vintage Clash albums playing in the background (vinyl only - Elliott and Atkinson hate CDs), but short on the hard analysis needed to back up their prejudices.

This makes it easier going for the casual reader than Public Spending (Penguin, pounds 8.99) by Evan Davis, a BBC journalist. While extremely well written, this demands great attention to detail and concentration. The basic question Davis addresses is central to public policy: why are public services so much worse run than private ones? Why aren't councils as good at running schools as Tesco or Sainsbury is at running supermarkets? He presents his solutions as a third way between right-wing cutters and old- left supporters of increased government spending.

But make no mistake: this book is as deeply and inextricably ideological as the Elliott-Atkinson volume. The author is an ardent free marketeer. He wants to have the private sector spending public money, and the abolition of all "old-style public monopolies". This won't stop his book becoming a bible to students who need to get their minds around the intricacies of public finance. But it is a pity that it is so clear in its facts and explanations, yet so coy about where its politics intrude.

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