BOOK REVIEW: History of economics in tweets

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By Nic Compton, Adam Fishwick and Katie Huston
Barron’s, $10.99, 128 pages

First, a word about the title. Kids these days will have no problem understanding it, but oldsters, late adopters and Luddites may need a pointer. There’s this popular social networking website called Twitter at Just about anybody can register for an account there. Your reviewer has been signed up by proxy twice, though he isn’t, yet, a regular user.

People can post pretty much whatever text they want to Twitter from their computers, cell phones or other hand-held devices - with one huge and defining limitation. Each post, or “tweet,” is limited to 140 characters. This book is presented as a series of tweets that explain the basics of economics to today’s low-attention-span readers. The authors’ tweets answer 140 questions in nine chapters. These chapters are illustrated by talented British caricaturist Daniel Mackie and bookended by an introduction and a glossary of essential terms.

In theory, this could work. The authors rightly explain in the introduction that “having to pare things down and cut words to a minimum can lead to a startling degree of clarity.” “Yes,” they grant, “some of the nuances might be lost.” After all, whole non-Twitterpated books have been written on most of these questions. But they insist that “the reward, when it works, is an immediate understanding of some quite complicated ideas.”

OK so far, and the authors avoid some of the pitfalls that could have ruined the project. Users of Twitter have developed shortcuts for dealing with the small word count as well as a jargon that can be baffling to outsiders. “Tweetonomics” does not carry its literary conceit too far. It simply insists that the paragraphs that fit together to answer questions be tweet-sized.

To wit, here are the first two tweets that begin to answer the question, “What is liquidity?”: “Liquidity is the ability of an asset to be sold with minimum loss of value. For this to happen, there must be a ready pool of buyers” and “The easier an asset is to sell, the more ‘liquid’ it is. Cash is the most liquid asset of all.”

Shakespeare this is not, but it is clear and brief, and the authors tackle a number of economic terms that most people find bewildering. Ever wanted to know about asset-backed securities, credit default swaps, CDOs, structural adjustments or use value? There are worse places to start than “Tweetonomics.”

There are, however, two flaws in this book that make it less valuable than it could have been. President Truman famously longed for “one-handed economists” because he was sick of advisers who framed their answers in terms of “on the one hand; on the other.” Economists want to be thought of not as interested parties but as sages. Giving a straight answer could put them to the test, and who wants that?

There are many economic matters subject to dispute, but “Tweetonomics” is not decisive when it ought to be. For instance, of China’s late-20th century economic renaissance, the authors write, “Some claim that this success is because of the role of liberalization, while others point to the role of government.” The next tweet actually begins, “On the one hand … .” Another hilarious tweet begins, “Whether you love it or hate it, Marxism… .”

Maybe it’s better that way, because the one time the authors decide to lower one hand, things do not work out well. The book’s final chapter, “Green Economics,” is deeply annoying. It proposes such notions as “non-use value,” “natural capital,” “appropriate scale” and a “steady-state economy” without showing why these ideas might be deeply flawed as tools of economic analysis.

The “Buddhist economics” of “Small Is Beautiful” author Fritz Schumacher is said to have played a role “in the 1970s,” when Schumacher “advised India’s Prime Minister Nehru on rural development and came up with the concept of appropriate technology.” The first problem with that statement is that the authors never ask, “So how’d that work out for the Indians?” The second is that Nehru died in 1964.

Jeremy Lott is editor of and author of “William F. Buckley” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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