Tim Harford: The man who gives geeks a good name

Economics has never been more accessible, or instructive, thanks to one writer's mission. Susie Mesure meets Tim Harford

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tim Harford can't help himself. We are navigating our way to lunch in an unfamiliar city and I am momentarily disorientated by the mass of visual paraphernalia at a busy crossing. My hesitation is his cue for a story about the Dutch traffic engineer who found that getting rid of excess street furniture forced car drivers to take more responsibility, dramatically slashing the number of accidents.

Welcome to the world as seen by Harford, a man who made his name explaining the economic rationale behind everything that we do. His tale about the late Hans Monderman is illustrative. Later, over a tableful of dim sum, he adds: "The world is a constant source of ideas for someone who thinks like an economist."

His bestselling "Undercover Economist" books have made him a founding member of the new tribe popularising the dismal science; not before time given the circumstances, you might add. His latest volume, The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, subtitled How to Run – or Ruin – an Economy, is out this week. It tackles the recent "titanic" mess and is his first foray into macroeconomics, also known as the "bigger picture".

"It's my job to figure out an interesting way to talk about these things, and a different angle that's fun and memorable and tells people something about how the economy works.... I've always been much more of a micro guy – individual behaviour and the psychological elements of game theory were always my thing, so when I started, it felt like a sense of duty. But halfway through, the subject had won me over."

Harford's writing is astonishingly accessible, much like the man sitting across from me. He combines approachability with an annoying knack of always being right, or at least with the ability to argue well enough to appear so. I well recall this from meeting him for the first time a few years ago, when I failed to justify my reasons for favouring the American garment industry over developing world sweatshops. His clarity makes him a favourite among students, which is handy, given the 50 per cent jump in the number studying economics at A-level since the financial crisis first hit in 2007. Yet his broadcasting roles on Radio 4 where he presents More or Less and Pop Up Economics mean his fan base stretches across the decades.

He is dressed unassumingly in blue Gap jeans, a black T-shirt, black leather jacket, and grey suede trainers; the thing that stands out is his watch. I glance at it towards the end of lunch, conscious of his 16.16 train back to Windermere, where he has interrupted his family holiday to meet me in Manchester, but am defeated by a mess of binary-looking black lines. He plucks "3.34" seemingly out of nowhere, and gets back to dissecting the current state of the British economy – "George Osborne was given a bad hand and has played it pretty badly, but I don't think Ed Balls would have done much better" – and I forget the incomprehensible timepiece.

But via an email that evening, he explains it to me: "It's a sort of optical illusion. You naturally look at the black lines but you need to look at the spaces between the lines. I love it because it's a bit geeky, but once you 'see' the way to read it, it's the world's biggest, boldest, most idiot-proof watch ever."

It's striking because it's very Harford in making geekdom aspirational. Hearing him quote Keynes, something he does liberally, on the qualities of a master economist – someone who can "use numbers yet speak in words; be in touch with the past, yet be in touch with the future; and be down to earth yet be able to talk like a diplomat" – leaves you thinking, hell, why didn't we all study economics?

(Or perhaps I'm just impressionable. After Harford tells me that relaxation in his television-free household comprises settling down to a good German-designed board game – "I'm very trad" – I leave, inwardly vowing to track one down despite normally hating such things. The Teutonic bit is key, by the way: Germans love board games and delight in inventing new ones, such as Carcassonne or The Settlers of Catan. Or so I'm told. The lack of telly at least explains the massive number of articles he tweets.)

As it happens, Harford, who turns 40 next month, didn't intentionally study economics. His undergraduate PPE degree (philosophy, politics and economics) was the "classic Oxford degree for people who don't know what to do", and he spent his first year intending to drop economics at the end of it. Pressed by his tutor, after doing "really well", he changed his mind and thus his life, not least because he met his wife while working at Shell, in the scenario planning team for a certain Vince Cable.

Despite starting out in a job that required forecasting, Harford is defensive of his profession, which is much maligned for not predicting the global crash. "Economists have allowed themselves to walk into a trap where we say we can forecast, but no serious economist thinks we can," he says, pointing again to a Keynes quote, this time aligning economists and dentists. "You don't expect dentists to be able to forecast how many teeth you'll have when you're 80. You expect them to give good advice and fix problems. We've allowed ourselves to become really bad weather forecasters, which is a shame."

He does think it fair that the profession's reputation "has taken a bit of a hit", but hopes for better times. Harford's ideal is for the optimism of the post-Second World War era to return, when people understood how the economy fitted together, which meant they were able to "intervene and make it work better". Unlike today, when "we've become a bit cynical and got the idea that this is so complicated, just forget it; there's nothing we can do. I think that's wrong."

For a "free-markety person", he adds that he is very worried about inequality becoming increasingly entrenched, especially given the issue of generational wealth or the lack thereof, which is compounding the problem.

"People today don't become economists to make the world a better place. Maybe that's going to change because we're facing this crisis. We may get a new generation of economists whose mindset has been shaped by this and they want to make the banking system safer and the world more equitable and, dare I say it, more efficient. After all, this stuff really matters, so there should be some room for some idealism and for people who want to make it work better because they think it matters."

To this end, Harford sees his role very much as explaining and inspiring, rather than, say, setting policies. He is chuffed, though, that Mark Carney, the new governor of the Bank of England, has given some "forward guidance [trying to] promise a bit of inflation", something Harford advocates in his book. He has even had a few chats with No 10's Behavioural Insights Team, but isn't expecting an invite to George Osborne's for dinner any time soon.

It's dinner time chez the Undercover Economist that I'm interested in, however. Or more specifically, how all that rationality translates into everyday life, which he does admit is "affected by my books". His obsession in his first book with the cost of everything meant that his wife quickly became more diligent about checking prices while grocery shopping, to cope with the endless interrogation upon her return.

After Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure was published last year, he says he decided consciously to risk making more mistakes. He tackled a desire to move from east London to Oxford by thinking about the consequences of a wrong decision, rather than stressing about "imponderable pros and cons. What helped was to say, 'If it is a mistake, what are the consequences?'" They made the move two years ago, renting initially, and are now renovating a new house, so the risk clearly paid off.

Adapt even prompted Harford to make a list of 12 things he wanted to try, from stand-up comedy and tai chi, to baking bread and writing a short, economics-based science-fiction story. He says the point was to try something and not to worry about whether he'd be any good at it. "Once you've got over the 'what if, what if, what if', it's more fun."

This is not to suggest that economics drives all his decisions: he is a father of three children, after all, so running counter to findings from the newish strand of so-called "happiness research", suggesting that having zero children is the optimum, or failing that, two. Which is particularly good news for his youngest, two-year-old Herbie. But I can't help hoping Harford remembers that humans, and especially teenagers, are capable of being very, very irrational. Just like the markets, in fact.

Curriculum vitae

1973 Born in Kent, where he lived for four years before his father's job moved north to Handforth, near Manchester, then to Chesterfield and Aylesbury, where he attended Aylesbury Grammar School.

1992 Read PPE at Brasenose College, Oxford. Returned to Oxford to do an MPhil in economics. Joined Royal Dutch Shell while studying.

1999 Brief stint as a management consultant before becoming a research assistant for Finiancial Times journalist John Kay. Returned to Shell for three years and wrote his first book, The Undercover Economist.

2003 Joined the FT, but left after a year for the World Bank in Washington DC.

2006 Returned to the FT. Won the Bastiat Prize for economic journalism.

2007 Started presenting economics programme More or Less on Radio 4.

2009 The Logic of Life is published. Followed by Dear Undercover Economist and Adapt in 2012.

2013 The Undercover Economist Strikes Back is published.