While reading it, I was reminded of the line in Ghost World where Enid says some kitsch performer has gone from being "Past being so bad it's good to being bad again." In this case, one of the main parts of book's overall argument is to go past being counterintuitive to where it is intuitive again. Earlier popular economics writers like Steven Landsburg have created a stage in which another economist talking about how much of the world of interpersonal relationships and intrapersonal striving is not, in fact, like buying bananas at the supermarket can be called channeling one's Inner Economist, instead of, well, one's Humanity. That is, sometimes Cowen is arguing to a popular audience against standard economics and more toward the view the popular audience would have if it hadn't paid attention to some of the excesses of standard economics in the first place.
Apparently also, if you have a Ph.D. in economics, you can give whatever life advice and theories about human nature that you have and pass it off as manifesting economic expertise. Much of the book is about Cowen's vague ideas about the human need for "control." The last anecdote that made me decide I couldn't justify spending any more time with the book began:
On a more personal level, a willingness to give up control can make us better teachers. When we teach our children how to drive, we like to pretend they will never do anything stupid. We give them a lecture about the long list of things they should never do.Some people might find these expositions more interesting or amusing than I did, but they also provoked this recurrent sense that we were straying far for a book that said it was going to be about incentives. He has this whole chapter about how to appreciate art better, parts of which were interesting, but even then I kept wondering how particular points were "economic." It's as if anything that evinces wisdom in a social setting is to be understood as channeling your Inner Economist.
My approach is different. I taught Yana, my then-fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, how to drive. One day I started with: "The first thing we are going to do is hit the curb. Drive over the curb, just not too fast." This is the best way to learn where the curb is. Yana is going to find the curb anyway, sooner or later, so let this learning occur under safe circumstances.
* This column by Landsburg in Slate singlehandedly stunted my growing interest in economics for almost a year, by making an enterprise that I was coming to better appreciate suddenly seem ludicrous (the stunting abated when I realized that Landsburg was not the ambassador of mainstream economics he presents himself as being).