Book Summary: The Undercover Economist

Title: The Undercover Economist
Author: Tim Harford
Genre: Economics
Release Date: 2013


Why did you choose to read this particular book?

What peaks your interest? What is the book about? What does it promise to deliver?

I wanted to know about the secrets of economics and how the economy is influenced, and not to forget, the tag line on the book says ‘over one million copies sold!’

Summary of book

The book sets out a number of principles of how companies make money and the chain of events, how a small variable can affect the whole market.

The nineteenth century, economist David Ricardo analysed how scarcity affects prices, Tim elaborates and provides examples of this theory. Tim uses the example of Coffee Vendors throughout the book. He then goes to further explain some of the same concepts at different scales.

The chapters are as follows:

  • Chapter 1: Who pays for your coffee?
  • Chapter 2: What Supermarkets don’t want you to know
  • Chapter 3: Perfect Markets
  • Chapter 4: Crosstown traffic
  • Chapter 5: The Inside Story
  • Chapter 6: Rotten Investments and Rotten Eggs
  • Chapter 7: The Men who knew the value of nothing
  • Chapter 8: Why poor countries are poor
  • Chapter 9: Beer, Chips and globalisation
  • Chapter 10: How China grew rich

What stood out for you

Gives insight to various aspects of trade like running of a coffee shop to why poor countries are poor, and stay that way.

Key Points

Every small decision you make every day affects the economy and the economy affects the decisions you make.

What you dislike

A lot of the initial part of the book can be summarised by supply-demand economics. Instead, the author writes multiple chapters about a simple single concept. A lot of the material is on things that I simply find myself saying ‘is that not obvious?’ I guess there are people out there who really do not know anything about how the coffee in their cup reaches them.

The other issue is the concepts are purely theoretical, not taking into consideration politics and various other personal & consumer choices.


There is little to no formula, or equations to help illustrate examples, instead they are incorporated into the text. Maybe this is an issue with me personally, but after reading numerous pages with different scenarios illustrating the same concepts, it becomes tiresome when there is no foundation to build upon or refer back to.

Has the book met its objective?

No, not for me.

What would you change

Start with the concept then give examples and add in rules/formula to highlight them.

What type of reader would enjoy this book

Someone who doesn’t even know about supply and demand. To be honest, even after this, you still won’t know what Supply and demand is as it is not referenced but the concept is there.

Would you recommend this book

I would recommend this book to the one who is completely oblivious to how the world works. What I later realised is, this book isn’t the one I thought it was, I’d heard of ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’ so when I came across this, it didn’t even cross my mind. I thought this is the same book. I have bought a copy of Confessions of an Economic Hitman’ which I’ve yet to read.

Final Verdict:

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