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Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception

by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller Princeton University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 288 pages
AU$39.99 NZ$41.73
Product Status: Not Our Publication - we no longer distribute
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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.




INTRODUCTION Expect to Be Manipulated: Phishing Equilibrium 1
PART ONE Unpaid Bills and Financial Crash
CHAPTER ONE Temptation Strews Our Path 15
CHAPTER TWO Reputation Mining and Financial Crisis 23
PART TWO Phishing in Many Contexts
CHAPTER THREE Advertisers Discover How to Zoom In on Our Weak Spots 45
CHAPTER FOUR Rip-offs Regarding Cars, Houses, and Credit Cards 60
CHAPTER FIVE Phishing in Politics 72
CHAPTER SIX Phood, Pharma, and Phishing 84
CHAPTER SEVEN Innovation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 96
CHAPTER EIGHT Tobacco and Alcohol 103
CHAPTER NINE Bankruptcy for Profit 117
CHAPTER TEN Michael Milken Phishes with Junk Bonds as Bait 124
CHAPTER ELEVEN The Resistance and Its Heroes 136
PART THREE Conclusion and Afterword
CONCLUSION: EXAMPLES AND GENERAL LESSONS New Story in America and Its Consequences 149
AFTERWORD The Significance of Phishing Equilibrium 163

'[Akerlof and Shiller] want to go far beyond behavioral economics, at least in its current form. They offer a much more general, and quite damning, account of why free markets and competition cause serious problems. . . . They are intellectual renegades. . . . Akerlof and Shiller make a convincing argument that phishing occurs because of the operation of the invisible hand, not in spite of it. . . . [This] extraordinary book tells us something true, and profoundly important, about the operation of the invisible hand.'--Cass Sunstein, New York Review of Books

'No question, Phishing for Phools is a radical book. It may also be a radically important one.'--Fortune

'I highly recommend this, even for those who might disagree with the authors' outlook. Their case studies are illuminating, and their insights on the way markets work are fascinating. When you consider the sorry state of the personal finances of the median working age family in the United States today, it's hard to disagree with their central thesis that our current system isn't working properly.'--John Reeves, The Motley Fool, USA Today

'Entertaining, readable and provocative.'--John Lanchester, London Review of Books

'A needed call for skeptical economics and financial mindfulness.'--Nature

'Using compelling examples of flawed decision making from advertising, health care and personal finances, the authors identify our rational weak spots and arm readers with the ability to resist manipulation.'--Scientific American Mind

'As you would expect, it's a very clearly written book with tons of examples. And it makes a simple and powerful point about the fragility of the normative, welfare economics conclusions economists tend to draw.'--Diane Coyle, The Enlightened Economist

'Akerlof and Shiller present convincing evidence of how tobacco, pharmaceutical, and liquor companies and politicians weasel a chapter of their own into our life stories, abusing the mutual storytelling--with all its signs and wonders--that is elemental to our humanity.'--Peter Lewis, Barnes & Noble Review

'With accessible language and everyday examples, Shiller and Akerlof are taking on the powerful belief that aside from a few blemishes (like widening income inequality) only fools advocate interfering with the free market.'--Chris Farrell, Minneapolis Star Tribune

'The book's central message is certainly thought-provoking.'--The Economist

'Phishing for Phools forswears technical language, making this book accessible not only to economists but to consumers and policymakers. It should make everyone rethink the unfettered free-market model.'--Brenda Jubin,

'It's a very clearly written book with tons of examples. And it makes a simple and powerful point about the fragility of the normative, welfare economics conclusions economists tend to draw.'--Enlightened Economist

'Its critique of conventional economics is more powerful and comprehensive--and more paternalistic--than that of Animal Spirits.'--Carlos Lozada, Washington Post

'[Akerlof's and Shiller's] insight is a powerful one.''s Buttonwood blog

'Akerlof and Shiller show that unregulated free markets systematically make people worse off by providing the unscrupulous with opportunities to take advantage of the unwary.'--Adam Bouyamourn, The National

'[Phishing for Phools] serves the important purpose of holding up a mirror to economics, a subject that prides itself on (supposedly) being the most sophisticated of all the social sciences. Economics may look sophisticated on paper, but it is often completely out of touch when it comes to reality.'--Victoria Bateman, Times Higher Education

'The book offers powerful support for a skeptical view of free markets, but it's also a helpful guide for consumers to avoid getting ripped off in the course of making important purchases.'--Chris Matthews, Fortune

'An interesting and entertaining new book by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller looks at the role of trickery in market economies. Phishing for Phools explains that sellers are often out to deceive you, and shows that this isn't an occasional glitch in the market system so much as an intrinsic and pervasive trait. . . . Phishing for Phools aims to help readers understand their psychological weaknesses, so that the phishermen can be phended off more ephectively.'--Clive Crook, Bloomberg View

'Where Akerlof and Shiller break new ground is the sweeping application of the idea of the ‘phishing equilibrium' to finance. . . . The style of Phishing for Phools will be familiar to fans of Shiller's work: light on jargon and pacy enough not to outstay its welcome. The authors tell some engaging tales.'--Robin Harding, Financial Times

'[A] surprisingly readable yet highly original book . . . the evidence and explanations marshaled by Akerlof and Shiller are compelling and they have profound political implications . . . an enlightening read by two expert economists. It should be required reading for policy makes and for consumers (which is to say, all of us. . . . [An] important, sobering book.'--Oliver Kamm, The Times

'Narratives in this impressive book tell how to avoid being tricked by means of better enforcement and being told of pending scams. . . . [O]ne of the few titles dealing with fraud in the marketplace.'--Library Journal

'The authors provide is a . . . unifying theory for all kinds of trickery, an economic explanation for why deception is so rampant. It takes many of our scattered findings about humanity's blind spots--both psychological weakness and a lack of perfect information--and weaves them into a comprehensive framework that has the potential to be devastating for free market fundamentalists.'--Victoria Finkle, Washington Monthly

'Its central idea is an important one and merits more attention.'--Emran Mian, Prospect

'Phishing for Phools is packed with examples--including subprime mortgages, pharmaceuticals, political campaigns, gym memberships, credit cards, cars and cranberry juice labels--of the pervasiveness of deception and manipulation in our economy and the price it exacts on individuals and the society at large.'--Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World

'This interesting book is written by economists mainly for economists, but it includes many entertaining stories about business behavior (and some disturbing ones), told in lively and accessible prose.'--Foreign Affairs

'The book is easy to read and relate; and more importantly will make you start thinking of the number of times you have been phished. The list would be endless!'--Madan Sabnavis, BusinessWorld

'This unusual book offers a simple but challenging corrective to the assumptions made by most mainstream economists. . . . Probably not every reader will agree with every interpretation or argument--but every reader will find something that enlightens and stimulates.'--James Ledbetter, Yale Alumni Magazine

'This book was enjoyable to read, and the expertise and knowledge of the authors are abundantly evident.'--William Holcomb, PsycCRITIQUES

'Bob and George urge us to slap Adam Smith's invisible hand when it steals from everybody's cookie jar. They ask us to ponder those situations, economic or political, that provide particularly tempting opportunities to phish for phools. . . . Penetrating insights rendered in accessible prose.'--Marlene Lang May, Commonweal

'The book is the result of deep thinking and presented in an entertaining and easy-to-grasp manner.'--Leonhard K. Lades, Journal of Bioeconomics

'George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, two of the biggest names in economics for the past half century, take aim at the widespread assumption that free markets ted to produce the best outcomes.'--Adam Creighton, The Australian
George A. Akerlof is University Professor at Georgetown University and the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize. Robert J. Shiller is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University, the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize, and the author of the New York Times bestseller Irrational Exuberance (Princeton). Akerlof and Shiller are also the authors of Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (Princeton).