January 17, 2008


Tyler Cowen’s book, Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist, is a must-read for people who want to take some control back in their lives. It correctly points out and explains why offering money, or more money, to people is not always the best way to get them to do something, and it explains why sometimes it is better to downplay accomplishments (counter-signaling) in order to get more respect. Of course these are not the only two things the book explains, but these are the most important ideas from the first half of the book.

However, and it is a big “however,” readers need to prepare themselves to read this book before they ever open the front cover, because, unfortunately, Cowen does not take his own advice on incentives or counter-signaling (The back cover is filled with praise and plugs for Cowen and his blog and has only a few words about the content of the actual book, and the author bio info. is just a list of accomplishments, which makes Cowen seem more egotistical than qualified to write this book.). Unfortunately, the bigger of these two downfalls is Cowen’s failure to provide readers with real incentives to continue reading the book.

For example, because of its title, this book seems like another one of those self-help books that should come with an “educational” seminar, complete with an animated-ClipArt-filled PowerPoint presentation and complimentary book signing by the author. This book does not strike me as being aimed at high-flying professionals with Ph.D.’s, Master’s degrees, or even Bachelor’s degrees for that matter. So, then, how did Cowen think he would make his readers feel by using words like “obfuscation” (7) and by referring to Adam Smith (4), William James (10), and Tammany Hall (11) without any sort of introduction or explanation (Yet he does explain that William Shatner is famous for Star Trek…)? Sure, plenty of people know what “obfuscation” means, who Smith and James are, and what happened at Tammany Hall, but I doubt all, or even most, of the readers of this book know about all four. It simply seems like Cowen is trying to build himself up as a know-it-all economic and life guru by making his readers feel inferior (e.g., You should know what all of these things are, and if you don’t, then you’re worse off than you thought, so you have to finish reading this book to let me enlighten you.). Thankfully, most of the obscure (obfuscated??) references are found only within the first few pages, but readers might not hold out long enough to get to the rest of the book.

Also, Cowen tries to be funny with chapter titles like “How to Control the World,” “Look Good…While Being Tortured,” “Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins (or Not),” and “How to Save the World,” but what if you just want to “Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist”? Readers might doubt whether this book contains truly helpful, academic advice or whether it was written by some guy who knows enough about economics to know that he can get your $25.95 US/$32.50 CAN.

So, to take Cowen’s postcard advice, it turns out that he is actually worth his salt, so readers should ignore their pride, grab a dictionary and Google access, and dig into the book. After all, Discover Your Inner Economist does contain very valuable material; readers just have to fight through Cowen’s ego to get to the material.

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