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Nuance Nation

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On the Freakonomics blog recently, Ian Ayres reviewed my new book Free Market Madness, and singled out a story I tell there. Ian has written many books himself, so it isn't surprising which story, of the many stories in my book, he discussed.

He picked out a section near the end of the book, where I describe my efforts to interest a leading editor in my book idea. After asking to know the bottom-line, take-home message of my book, the editor asked me whether I was "aiming for a nuanced argument?" I responded yes, and then explained how I hoped to write a nuanced book that could nevertheless be marketed with a crisp sound bite. I lost his interest at the word "yes."

Anyone trying to write a political book the last few years knows about this other "n" word: Nuance.

Publishers don't want nuance, they want controversy. They don't want authors to grapple with difficult choices, but prefer people like Ann Coulter who can sell books by making outrageous claims.

Perhaps with Obama in the White House, we can hope for a new era of nuance. Certainly, my new book is very much in the spirit of Obama's way of thinking.

In Free Market Madness, I try to do three things:

(1) Entertain readers with surprising examples of the often hidden forces that influence the way we humans think, decide and behave. I show the peculiar mix of rational and irrational that make up human nature, the often surprising combination of conscious and unconscious decisions that determine our life trajectories. Did you know, for example, that people named Paul are more likely to migrate to St. Paul, Minnesota than are people named Joe, unconsciously influenced by what social psychologists call implicit egotism?

(2) Give readers a brief and colorful history of the link between economists' beliefs in human rationality and libertarians' faith in free markets to promote people's best interests. Readers of my book will see that I am a huge fan of capitalism and liberty. But I also recognize that completely unfettered markets can harm not only those people who make unwise decisions, but have spillover effects on everyone else; that consumers' choices aren't as "free" as we think, because we humans can be manipulated by those who understand our weaknesses.

(3) Defend the idea of nuance. We have to find a balance between liberty and well-being, when the two collide. Freedom is a good, on its own, but freedom to take out mortgages we cannot afford, after being persuaded to do so by people who can make money off our decisions, can lead to widespread economic disaster.

Government regulations always have costs. But there are costs, too, in standing by on the sidelines and leaving everything up to the market. My hope is to get people arguing less about the extremes-- capitalism versus socialism; freedom versus government control-- and more about the large, gray zone in the middle, a zone where I expect we will often find the best policies.

In his inaugural address, President Obama had this to say:

"Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control."

Hallelujah.

Fittingly, my book came out on the day of Obama's inauguration. But now I'm wondering whether Obama, with all his newfound power, got hold of an advanced copy. Because his version of nuance, as expressed so eloquently in his inaugural address, is exactly the tone I tried to set in Free Market Madness.

Let the era of nuance begin!

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