A welcome trend in recent decades is economists writing about the ordinary business of life for a broader audience.
The latest addition is "Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation & Deception," by Nobel Laureates George Akerlof and Robert Shiller. Their definition of phish is "getting people to do things that are in the interest of the phisherman, but not in the interest of the target." (That's us.) A phool is "someone who, for whatever reason, is successfully phished." (Happens to all of us.)
With accessible language and everyday examples, Shiller and Akerlof are taking on the powerful belief that aside from a few blemishes (like widening income inequality) only fools advocate interfering with the free market. Yes, markets are incredible, they note. Adam Smith rightly praised the invisible hand that allows countless business people to match the supply of products and services to the demand for those products and services.
But the invisible hand comes with a downside, the traps and tricks created by countless business people phishing for phools. "Free markets produce good-for-me/good-for you's; but they also produce good-for-me/bad-for-you's," they write. In other words, there are good reasons for financial regulation and other mechanisms for dealing with systemic trickery and deception in markets.
A good number of their examples are drawn from personal finance. "A fundamental fact of life has never made it into the economic textbooks," they write. "Most adults, even in rich countries, go to bed at night worried about how to pay the bills."
To illustrate their thesis they tap into economic research demonstrating how credit cards encourage us to spend more than if we used cash. They highlight the steep price of closing costs, which for a first-time homebuying couple can match their down payment.
One reaction I had after reading their book is the power of phishing in markets is yet one more reason for embracing frugality when it comes to managing money and creating a lifestyle. Frugality or thrift doesn't mean being cheap. No, it's an approach that allows for both greater satisfaction with your spending and the building of a financial margin of safety. You'll still get phished and taken for a phool sometimes, just not as often or with such a steep personal finance cost. But you'll probably sleep well at night.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, Marketplace, economics commentator, Minnesota Public Radio