Ever since Adam Smith, the central teaching of economics has been that free markets provide us with material well-being, as if by an invisible hand. In Phishing for Phools, Nobel Prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller deliver a fundamental challenge to this insight, arguing that markets harm as well as help us. As long as there is profit to be made, sellers will systematically exploit our psychological weaknesses and our ignorance through manipulation and deception. Rather than being essentially benign and always creating the greater good, markets are inherently filled with tricks and traps and will "phish" us as "phools."
Phishing for Phools therefore strikes a radically new direction in economics, based on the intuitive idea that markets both give and take away. Akerlof and Shiller bring this idea to life through dozens of stories that show how phishing affects everyone, in almost every walk of life. We spend our money up to the limit, and then worry about how to pay the next month's bills. The financial system soars, then crashes. We are attracted, more than we know, by advertising. Our political system is distorted by money. We pay too much for gym memberships, cars, houses, and credit cards. Drug companies ingeniously market pharmaceuticals that do us little good, and sometimes are downright dangerous.
Phishing for Phools explores the central role of manipulation and deception in fascinating detail in each of these areas and many more. It thereby explains a paradox: why, at a time when we are better off than ever before in history, all too many of us are leading lives of quiet desperation. At the same time, the book tells stories of individuals who have stood against economic trickery — and how it can be reduced through greater knowledge, reform, and regulation.
"In an entertaining and lively account, Akerlof and Shiller show that while the pursuit of profits may lead to products that enrich our lives, it may also lead to manipulation and deception. Much of recent innovation has led to products that make cheating the public easier. The implications are complex and profound."
— Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics
"Phishing for Phools is an intellectual tour de force. It may change your image of the invisible hand into an invisible phoot, always looking to trip you up. Read it for phun; read it for wisdom."
— Alan S. Blinder, author of After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead
"A phabulous book! This is economics after the behavioral revolution at its best."
— Samuel Bowles, Santa Fe Institute
"Akerlof and Shiller provide a phenomenal guide to the pitfalls of the phree market. This redemptive revision of economic theory explains the built-in risks of rip-offs in a profit-maximizing world."
— Nancy Folbre, professor emerita, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
"As Akerlof and Shiller remind us, the same incentives that lead sellers to introduce innovations that improve quality and reduce costs also ensure that no profitable opportunity to cheat us will remain unexploited. This highly readable and insightful book will transform how we think about the role of government."
— Robert H. Frank, author of The Economic Naturalist
"Akerlof and Shiller extend the standard ‘market failure’ theory — which says that there is a potential role for government intervention when markets fail — by showing that markets fail not only because of the familiar reasons of externalities and unfair income distribution, but also because of the pervasive phenomenon of ‘phishing for phools’ (profit-seeking through manipulation and deception). They point the way to a new paradigm freed from the constraints of market failure theory, able to illuminate ‘control by capital’ (partly through phishing) and to prescribe for ‘control of capital’ (partly by techniques for limiting phishing suggested here)."
— Robert H. Wade, London School of Economics
"This insightful book exposes a fundamental contradiction in the market system. Consumers and policymakers beware: profit-seeking businesses foster efficiency and innovation, but have strong incentives to manipulate you and sophisticated new data tools allow them to do so in personalized ways."
— Laura D’Andrea Tyson, University of California, Berkeley
"This fun but serious book tells how the standard story about free markets often gets it wrong. Indeed, Akerlof and Shiller suggest that we should drop the view of markets as generally benign institutions. The argument is laid out with the help of fascinating anecdotes, the language is conversational, and the book is easy to read. It is addressed to a broad audience, but economists will enjoy it too."
— Dani Rodrik, author of The Globalization Paradox
"Phishing for Phools is a coherent and highly plausible explanation of why markets — although usually beneficial — can lead to undesirable outcomes. The book takes an intriguing approach and gives many interesting examples."
— Diane Coyle, author of GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History