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The Phantom Tollbooth as Economic Document

June 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Norton Juster’s classic children’s story The Phantom Tollbooth ostensibly has nothing to do with investing and economics, yet to my view, it is foundational. I bought a copy for my 3 year old nephew the other day, and ended up reading it myself on a plane ride today.

It struck me that every economist should read and heed this story. It’s as good or better at wordplay than Lewis Caroll, but goes to greater lengths to show the distortive, squirrely properties of words and numbers, and how often they’re used to obfuscate. Aside from lawyers, few do that better than economists to both make a display of “rigor” and also to veil the inherent uncertainty and slipperiness underlying most analyses.

A snappy and fun summer read.

(Make sure to get the version with Jules Feiffer’s classic illustrations.)

Wait a Week to Read

January 28, 2011 Leave a comment

For years I’ve made a practice of reading the Wall Street Journal daily. And to really do it, even for a very skilled skimmer, takes the better part of an hour. In any given week, I generally have a goal of reading the WSJ, FT, Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The New Yorker. Then monthly (or bi-weekly), the New York Review of Books, Forbes, Fortune, and Foreign Policy.

That’s a lot of reading, but to my mind that’s what the investing job requires. I know people who do considerably more. I tried a tactic over the last month that’s worked beautifully so far: for daily newspapers, let them build up and then bang them all out one day each week. It’s simply amazing how many stories become generally irrelevant after just a couple days. Yet, it’s all still fresh enough that you stay informed and don’t miss an important op ed or editorial. It’s simply a myth that investors (except very specific types of jobs, like for traders) need to have up to the second information in most cases.

In the meantime, I’ll keep experimenting—reading is a skill set that needs to be continually honed and absolutely can be improved (both speed and comprehension). Most folks don’t bring much consciousness to how they read, but it matters.

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