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Reading Room: Trading Places

22 Jan 2017
Reviewed by Dr Giovanni Di Lieto

Does Asia dominate Australia’s economic future? Is China just for big business? Why are South Koreans eating so much Aussie beef? Why do the Danes love all things Tasmanian? Are Canadians just like Australians? These are just a sample of the many intriguing questions that the reader of Tim Harcourt’s sequel to The Airport Economist, Trading Places: The Airport Economist’s Guide to International Business, can find on the cover page of each chapter dedicated to a selection of countries which trade with Australia.

Sticking to the practical and entertaining nature of the Airport Economist blog and television show, Tim Harcourt presents a plethora of cheat cards on international business. At 400 pages, Trading Places takes the reader to 33 different countries spanning the globe with self-indulgent flair and wit.

The book is structured around brief chapters covering each country, with a cover setting the questions, a fast fact sheet with economic figures, the core content and in conclusion, ‘Tim’s tips’ and key contacts.

Regardless of the reading aim, be it education, infotainment or mere curiosity, the best thing in the various chapters is the section comprising cover questions, as they wittily stimulate your spirit of inquiry and make you want to read on. The same goes with ‘Tim’s tips’, as they deftly sift through the important information about the country in question.

The core content, albeit articulate and easy to read, is generally haphazard and at times too self-referential. Tim Harcourt’s charismatic personality is reflected on paper (or digital bit, as the book is also available as an EPUB), but gets somewhat tiresome towards the end of the book. The formulaic structure does not help the reader to indulge in Harcourt’s most high-handed passages. Nevertheless, there are a number of brilliant and well-placed anecdotes, such as the one about Harcourt’s visit to China some years ago:

‘The Australian trade union delegation, of which I was a member, was taken to a factory making watch components. While on the tour, I asked our hosts “Do you have workers’ compensation in China?” After much deliberation, the translator replied, “No. If the workers break anything, they don’t have to compensate us… straight away.”

On the book’s webpage, publisher NewSouth claims Trading Places to be “essential reading for business travellers, students of economics or business, and anyone who wants to understand the complexities of our modern globalised world”. Certainly, this is a book that would easily catch your eye in the bookshop of an airport or train station, and possibly convince a bored traveller to purchase it for the promise of a more interesting read than celebrity gossip and psychological self-help in popular magazines.

I would also certainly recommend the book to a high school pupil who entertains the idea of an international career path, as Trading Places provides plenty of cues and stimulating facts with accurate information and a well-thought conceptual approach. However, I suspect that an undergraduate business student would already find this book less compelling and a bit predictable. As an academic in the discipline, I found myself rather disappointed with the substance of the book. I admit that I was a bit fooled by the book cover—once again confirming the famous saying—as Trading Places did not go much beyond basic business themes extrapolated by entertaining anecdotes, whereas I was hoping for deeper insights and more innovative tropes.

Nevertheless, it is refreshing to find a book that promotes global trade from the ground up within quite a balanced perspective. Trading Places’ merit is that it will hardly affront trade neophyte readers from either the neo-liberal or anti-globalisation political camp. If you do not expect more than a first reference in the discipline, Tim Harcourt’s Trading Places is a worthwhile read.

Tim Harcourt, Trading Places: The Airport Economist’s Guide to International Business, NewSouth, 2014.

Dr Giovanni di Lieto lectures in international trade law in the Bachelor of International Business program at Monash University. His research agenda focuses on international economic law, in particular the global governance of cross-border socioeconomic relations and its repercussions on the international regulation of trade and labour markets.