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Who Wants to Be a Cultural Billionaire?

Cowen’s book does run up against another kind of scarcity. There are not enough economic tricks that distill neatly into interesting advice. When he discusses the techniques for motivating your dentist, like giving them a bonus for cavities well filled, he ends with, “I don’t think I can control my dentist or receive the very best care. By giving up this quest for control, however, I might get care that is just a little better than average.” Is that our Inner Economist talking, or our Inner Beaten-Down Dude?

Whatever good it does for everybody else, Discover Your Inner Economist has already rewarded its author. At the beginning of the book, Cowen discusses the resistance of his stepdaughter, Yana, to washing the dishes. After he and his wife resorted to paying her, “she did them for about a week and then stopped,” he says. “I knew this could happen. I understood that there is such a thing as intrinsic motivation and that if you pay people, you might weaken that. What I didn’t really get was the control issue. That when you start paying people to do a thing, they often see it as control.” Here’s the happy ending: After Yana read the book, she started doing the dishes. For free.

Discover Your Inner Economist
By Tyler Cowen. Dutton Adult. 256 pages. $25.95.