Economics books: Casting light on the dismal science


An economics columnist for the New York Times, David Leonhardt, opened the discussions on the best economics books of the year in his column.

His nominee? A book about medical care: Overtreated: Why too much medicine is making us sicker and poorer, by Shannon Brownlee.

Here’s the hook to the story, retold from Brownlee by Leonhardt, and the reason I think economics is so interesting when done well:

In 1967, Jack Wennberg, a young medical researcher at Johns Hopkins, moved his family to a farmhouse in northern Vermont.

Dr. Wennberg had been chosen to run a new center based at the University of Vermont that would examine medical care in the state. With a colleague, he traveled around Vermont, visiting its 16 hospitals and collecting data on how often they did various procedures.

The results turned out to be quite odd. Vermont has one of the most homogenous populations in the country — overwhelmingly white (especially in 1967), with relatively similar levels of poverty and education statewide. Yet medical practice across the state varied enormously, for all kinds of care. In Middlebury, for instance, only 7 percent of children had their tonsils removed. In Morrisville, 70 percent did.

Dr. Wennberg and some colleagues then did a survey, interviewing 4,000 people around the state, to see whether different patterns of illness could explain the variations in medical care. They couldn’t. The children of Morrisville weren’t suffering from an epidemic of tonsillitis. Instead, they happened to live in a place where a small group of doctors — just five of them — had decided to be aggressive about removing tonsils.

But here was the stunner: Vermonters who lived in towns with more aggressive care weren’t healthier. They were just getting more health care.

A good economics book has a story at its heart, making the economics easier to illustrate and much more memorable for students of economics — this story should echo every time a person enters a physician’s office or stops by a hospital for any reason.

Health care is often a clash between good science and economic policies expounded by hard-core fanatics of one hypothesis or another who don’t understand the science; of course, neither do the scientists speak the economics language. And so our health care crises continue, deepen, drain our pockets, defy efforts to solve them and threaten to ruin the nation.

Put this book on the list of every policy maker you buy for, eh?

(No, I haven’t read the book.)

Leonhardt also recommends these:

I have been in about 20 different classrooms for high school economics this fall. In each one, the teacher had a copy of Freakonomics. Is economics taking off as a subject that is cool to study?

3 Responses to Economics books: Casting light on the dismal science

  1. gspence1173 says:

    this is great–I knew my skepticism everytime I went into a dr’s office, handing over my ATM card, wasn’t unfounded! thanks.

    Like

  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for dropping by. Another post has been very popular, and that sometimes bumps other posts into the mix for feature on that page. Odd, isn’t it?

    How about dropping by one of the creationism controversy posts and commenting?

    Like

  3. the forester says:

    Saw this post is featured here. Maybe you’re a regular there and I just didn’t realize it. But wanted to say, way to go!

    Like

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