Ever since Adam Smith, the central teaching of economics has been that free markets provide us with material well-being, as if by an invisible hand. In Phishing for Phools, Nobel Prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller deliver a fundamental challenge to this insight, arguing that markets harm as well as help us. As long as there is profit to be made, sellers will systematically exploit our psychological weaknesses and our ignorance through manipulation and deception. Rather than being essentially benign and always creating the greater good, markets are inherently filled with tricks and traps and will "phish" us as "phools". Phishing for Phools therefore strikes a radically new direction in economics based on the intuitive idea that markets both give and take away. Akerlof and Shiller bring this idea to life through dozens of stories that show how phishing affects everyone in almost every walk of life. We spend our money up to the limit and then worry about how to pay the next month's bills. The financial system soars then crashes. We are attracted, more than we know, by advertising. Our political system is distorted by money. We pay too much for gym memberships, cars, houses, and credit cards. Drug companies ingeniously market pharmaceuticals that do us little good and sometimes are downright dangerous. Phishing for Phools explores the central role of manipulation and deception in fascinating detail in each of these areas and many more. It thereby explains a paradox: why, at a time when we are better off than ever before in history, all too many of us are leading lives of quiet desperation. At the same time, the book tells stories of individuals who have stood against economic trickery - and how it can be reduced through greater knowledge, reform, and regulation.
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As an econ buff and a business law professor, I think I have seen most everything here, slightly different terminology. I have recommended this book to several friends and acquaintances not as versed as I am in this field. I have not all seen these topics all in one place, and at this popular level. But what I call "different terminology," points to gaps here which puzzle me. For example, the classical law of fraud, for centuries, has dealt head-on with minimum boundaries and outlines of factual truthfulness required in arm's-length deals. This law provides an elegant framework that allows for the (widely known) situation that sales people and negotiators play more loosely with matters of mere opinion, versus tighter strictures on claims of fact. This fuzziness is everywhere in our consumer world, and people deserve to be sharply educated about it. But they are not educated about it, in its classical language and concepts, here. This overflight, if you will, is puzzling. Business people, lawyers, and drafters of laws have followed these contours in countless instances, and I see this as basic as arithmetic is to learning and thinking about higher math. On a wider scale, each and every contract is a micro-equilibrium reached between crossing representations of both parties, so there is a sort of "phishing equilibrium" element (without the new term here used). These are fundamental to this field, reenacted at some level in every contract, meaning millions per day. The paucity of treatment here of the basic rules of fraud and legal factual standards is astonishing to me. Yes, indirect allusions are made, but not in any clear way. Similarly, the concept of information asymmetry is at the foundation of understanding these situations, and this gets some mention, but mostly obliquely. This reminds me of a statistics book I read where the author tried to re-name everything, but the new content substantively didn't seem as novel or informative as it claimed to be. (And some print real estate in this book is devoted to how different and special and needed this boo's approach is. I somewhat agree, if reaching a new audience is the aim.) I agree that public policy makers and citizens should know this stuff, and sadly, victimizations large and small are visible all around us in everyday consumer life, not to mention, at the scale of big finance and politics. People who are not bright or well-informed are always with us, in droves. So this book does fill a need, though the particular people being blind-sided in real life are unlikely to read this. (Sadly, as in teaching, the people present and focusing on my best content are the ones who least need it, and the ones drifting off and absent need most urgently to hear what I am saying.) So a lot of this content may wind up as "preaching to the choir," as it was to me. Then again, I make an explicit professional focus on things like complex consumer contracts, so I'm not average. Also, listening to this, my mind would toss up counter-ideas I would like to flesh out about the virtues of market discipline and so on, rather than the curt and fairly rote dismissals here. I do admire that Robert Shiller has repeatedly extolled the praises of finance and free markets, so he gets points for that, and has kept me in his audience, versus the lopsided drivel I hear from both extremes, in books and elsewhere. But as to market discipline: some people are patently so little interested in protecting their own interests that they perhaps deserve the just desserts of their indolence. We really can't afford a government that will pick up after every lazy slob who doesn't care about himself or bettering his sharpness as a dealmaker. If some loll around on the beach and then expect someone to appear to magically protect them ex post, and at no cost, as many Americans seem to, perhaps they are begging for a harsh lesson. I realize, in defense of the authors' approach here, apologists for free markets are not in short supply. I am a great admirer of Robert Shiller in particular and will continue to read his books.