Fatherhood means less time for reading than before, so this list is shorter than in previous years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). The tradeoff is well worth it, as is introducing our daughter to Dr. Seuss and other great authors. Here is what I found time for this year:
- Charles C. Alexander – Our Game: An American Baseball History
A thorough history of baseball from the the 1840s up to about 1990. It hits all the stages: mid-19th century amateurs such as the legendary New York Knickerbockers, the 1876 birth of the National League, its early competitors and eventual merger with the American League, the deadball era, the liveball era, segregation and the Negro Leagues, integration, expansion, the DH rule, player strikes, free agency, and more. But the book weakens when it gets to the mid-1970s. Alexander forgets to tell a story, and instead coldly lists the stats of the top teams and star players in a given year, along with verbal descriptions of the box scores from each year’s World Series. This stage of the book offers little else, with only occasional digressions into the Bronx Zoo, the Big Red Machine, the 1981 strike, and a few other compelling stories.
- Mary Beard – SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
Highly recommended. A lengthy and entertaining survey of Rome from its alleged 753 B.C. founding up to about 200 A.D., just after where Gibbon’s Decline and Fall begins. Beard is a distinguished classicist with a healthy sense of skepticism. She is knowledgeable about archaeology as well as texts, and regularly refers to new findings. As for the title, SPQR abbreviates “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” or “The Senate and People of Rome.” It roughly meant “this is mine,” and was stamped everywhere in the ancient world. Fitting.
- Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski – Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests
Their thesis is the best kind: simple but deep. If you can give something away for free, you can sell it for money. This implies legal markets in organ transplants, prostitution, drugs, surrogate pregnancy, and other controversial areas. Things that are inherently wrong–slavery and child pornography, for example–remain wrong. This is because “the problem isn’t the market in those things; it’s those things themselves.” (p. 224).
- Jason Brennan – Political Philosophy: An Introduction
A quick-reading take on the major problems facing political philosophers, from natural rights to political legitimacy and authority, to the advantages and disadvantages of utilitarianism. It also contains several valuable insights on John Rawls’ thought. The link goes to a menu of free electronic versions.
- Sean B. Carroll – The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why it Matters
How do ecosystems know how many of each species to maintain? From predators to prey to plants to microbes, a delicate balance has maintained itself for literally billions of years. But how? Carroll’s answers are mainly uninspired environmentalism-by-rote. A deeper answer to his question lies in an ongoing equilibrating process that never ends. The equilibrium point is never actually reached, even though every ecosystem is constantly moving that direction. Random outside events, from rainfall to drought, from migration to climate change to meteor strikes, constantly shift where that equilibrium point lies. The parallels to economics and its ongoing spontaneous order vs. central planning debate are obvious. It is also obvious that Carroll’s focus on only one academic discipline has left him almost entirely ignorant of that debate. His unintentional message may be the profound conservatism that animates the environmental movement. Whether it’s climate, overpopulation of one species, or underpopulation of another species, everything should stay just as it is at this flashpoint in Earth’s 4.7 billion-year history. As Pangloss said in Voltaire’s Candide, we live in the best of all possible worlds.
- John Cleese – So, Anyway…
Cleese recounts his long and varied career in comedy, but only until he became famous. It ends at the early days of Monty Python, and does little more than mention Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda. Though tactless at times, Cleese offers excerpts from a number of his early scripts that had me laughing hard enough to earn several quizzical looks from my wife. That is this book’s real treat.
- Tom Haudricourt – Brewers Essential: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Real Fan!
Less a narrative history than a series of vignettes of Milwaukee baseball. Covers everything from the Atlanta Braves’ 1953-65 tenure in Milwaukee, including a 1957 World Series victory over the Yankees, to profiles of Brewers players from Henry Aaron to Robin Yount to Gorman Thomas, on down to the 2007 season. The author is a Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
- Robert Heinlein – Starship Troopers
The movie was awful, but the book is pretty good. It’s both military-themed and violent, neither of which play to my tastes. But Heinlein’s creativity about lifestyles and forms of government, and his rare-for-his-time rejection of racism, nationalism, and isolationism are refreshing. He does it mostly without editorializing; he lets some of his characters express disgusting views without comment, trusting his readers to know better. Other characters are far more progressive. And the final battle scene is one of the most memorable bits of fiction I’ve ever read.
- Israel Kirzner – Competition and Entrepreneurship
Markets are not places or things; they are ongoing processes. Entrepreneurs and consumers continually adapt, compete, enter, exit, and evolve in a never-ending dynamic process. From that conceptual framework, Kirzner offers insights on equilibrium theory, monopoly, Schumpeterian creative destruction, the roles of information and advertising in markets, and short run-vs.-long run thinking. The author, now mostly retired, is Ludwig von Mises’ most accomplished student and a longtime NYU economics professor, as well as a practicing rabbi. His name still pops up in Nobel speculations every year, and he is considered one of the award’s biggest snubs.
- Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher – Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power
This quickly-written biography is a team effort by several Washington Post journalists. It came out shortly after Trump won the GOP nomination, and before he won the election. The book is not hostile or politically motivated, but Trump does not come off well. His braggadocio and insecurity apparently emerged early in life–as did his flexible approach to business and personal ethics.
- Don Lavoie – Rivalry and Central Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Reconsidered
On its surface, this book is a history of the 1920s-1930s ivory tower socialist calculation debate. It is actually far less dry. That debate, as Lavoie makes clear, is just one chapter in an ongoing debate between spontaneous order and central control that has raged for almost the entire history of civilization. Lavoie mostly focuses on the main 1920s and 1930s combatants, with Lange and Lerner on the central planning side, and Hayek and Mises on the spontaneous order side. Both sides have arguments more nuanced than can be summarized in this capsule review. But Lavoie’s deep understanding of both sides and surprisingly clear writing make this book a highly recommended read.
- Janna Levin – Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space
Gravitational waves are one of the most important discoveries in physics in decades. Levin, a Ph.D physicist, explains the science with both clarity and detail. But the book’s real emphasis is the messy, unpredictable process of scientific discovery. Personality conflicts, funding problems, land-use regulations, and more all put in appearances. Gordon Tullock’s The Organization of Inquiry is a good complementary work on scientists’ behavior.
- Deirdre McCloskey – How to be Human*: *Though an Economist
A collection of essays on economists and economics itself. She praises qualities such as having outside interests, reading books (many economists don’t, sticking to journal articles), humility, and having physics department values, not math department values. By this she means that economists should use quantitative methods to study real-world phenomena, like a physicist–as opposed to using math for its own sake, like a mathematician. Don’t use arbitrary numerical standards for statistical significance, use your human judgment. She develops this last theme in greater detail with Stephen Ziliak in The Cult of Statistical Significance.
- Deirdre McCloskey – Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World
The conclusion to Deirdre’s brilliant Bourgeois trilogy. Why are some countries rich, and others poor? Most economists will say secure property rights, limited corruption, stability, and other good institutions are the answer to getting rich. Yes, Deirdre says, but those are not enough. People need to value such things before they can emerge. Rhetoric, persuasion, and public opinion are the root causes to those positive institutions. Her thesis goes at least one level deeper than the average economist in explaining the last two centuries’ Great Enrichment, and all of her books deserve at least one close reading. This one is no exception.
- Carl Menger – Principles of Economics
This 1871 textbook revolutionized the profession. It contains one of the first explanations of the subjective theory of value, which replaced the labor theory of value favored by John Locke, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx. Menger, along with Walras and Jevons, also sparked the marginal revolution in economics with this book. Finally, Menger’s theory of the emergence of money is an early example of what economists today call spontaneous order. Because of these accomplishments, Menger is considered the founder of the Austrian school of economics. The link goes to a free PDF.
- Jared Meyer – Uber-Positive: Why Americans Love the Sharing Economy
A short primer not just on Uber’s business model, but on the sharing economy in general. This business model will play a big role in the economy going forward, so might as well learn about it now. Jared’s book is the best introduction there is.
- Isaac Moorehouse, ed. – Why Haven’t You Read This Book?
Isaac and his collaborators flip the burden of proof. Instead of asking yourself why you should move across the country, get a new job in a field you’re passionate about, climb a mountain, travel the world, and so on, why shouldn’t you? Why not? What’s stopping you? An inspirational way to think outside the box.
- Johan Norberg – Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future
Media reports focus on the here, the now, and the rare. Every plane crash makes headlines for days, but the 40 million flights that land safely every year are ignored. Do the math; there is no reason to be scared. Norberg takes this numerate perspective, and pairs it with a conversational, easy-reading prose style. For two centuries and counting, life expectancy has been going up, disease rates have been going down, and new technologies are continually making people’s lives better, to the point where mass prosperity is finally starting to reach the developing world. Moreover, violence, war, and terrorism are rarer threats than ever, despite their wall-to-wall sensationalist coverage. That is what is really newsworthy.
- Daniel Okrent – Nine Innings
On June 10, 1982, the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles played a baseball game. This book chronicles that game from start to finish. Rather than a simple play-by-play narrative, Okrent breaks up the action with frequent vignettes on the players’ backstories and playing styles, including Hall-of-Famers such as Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, and Rollie Fingers. Okrent also explains how managers and GMs go about their jobs, delves into the history of the game, and even shows how groundskeepers slyly try to give the home team an edge. Some of the tangents are too long, and this book would be better if it was about 50 pages shorter. It is still beautifully written, and a classic baseball book.
- Jeff Pearlman – Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre
Not a hagiography, and a much better book for it. The reader gets a flavor of what it’s like to grow up in the deep South, and how Favre’s family life may have played into his loutish behavior when he was young. One also learns how combining raw talent with a relentless work ethic can create amazing accomplishments.
- Murray Rothbard – Man, Economy, and State, with Power and Market
Two books which together comprise a long and thorough economics textbook. In a way, it’s a more approachable version of Mises’ Human Action, and begins with what is probably the clearest explanation of Mises’ theory of human action (praxeology) ever written. This makes it a valuable read for any aspiring economist. The trouble is Rothbard’s distasteful stridency and capital-C Certainty. This is actually the book’s most important lesson. The sheer number of times words such as “all,” “none,” “always,” “never,” “fallacious,” and the like evince a simpliste, Manichaean, and black-and-white way of thinking that serious scholars should avoid. The link goes to a free PDF. Worthwhile, despite (or because of) my criticisms.
- Matt Taylor – Metallica: Back to the Front: A Fully Authorized Visual History of the Master of Puppets Album and Tour
The lengthy opening chapter details all four members’ early lives, their early history as a band, and ends with bassist Cliff Burton’s death in a bus accident while on tour in Sweden. He was 24. The rest of the book is a scrapbook-style collection of memories, with interviews, pictures, hand-written notes and lyric sheets, and recollections from the band.
- Abigail Tucker – The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World
Lots of good stuff about feline biology and evolution. Our little friends aren’t entirely domesticated, unlike many dog breeds and even certain kinds of foxes. Later parts of the book are weaker, with scare stories about cats’ impact on birds and other wildlife, and some comical recommendations about how to make our homes more accommodating. These range from keeping the thermostat at 85 degrees to getting rid of computers and televisions, which emit high-frequency noises that we can’t hear, but cats can. An hour-long documentary with the same title is much better.
- Congressman X – The Confessions of Congressman X: A Disturbing and Shockingly Frank Tell-All of Vanity, Greed and Deceit
Most people aren’t nearly cynical enough about politics. This anonymously written rant by a current Democratic member of Congress is a good antidote. Pairs well with works by Ronald Kessler and Peter Schweizer.
- David Zimmerman – In Search of a Hero: The Life and Times of Tony Canadeo, Green Bay Packers Gray Ghost
A biography of the hall-of-fame Packers running back who played in the 1940s and 1950s. Canadeo grew up in Chicago and went to college at Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington, where he earned the nickname “Gray Ghost” because of his prematurely gray hair, as well as his elusive running style. After his playing days ended, he served for more than 30 years on the Packers’ executive committee, and played a role in hiring Vince Lombardi, who won five championships, including the first two Super Bowls.
- Paul Zimmerman – The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football
One of the most renowned sports journalists of all time, Dr. Z’s book is filled with fantastic storytelling, a clean prose style that writers of any genre can learn from, and a keen eye for the little things about the game. His love for overlooked aspects of offensive line play–he was a lineman in college–shows throughout.
From p. 137 of Cornell political scientist Theodore Lowi’s 1969 book The End of Liberalism: Ideology, Policy, and the Crisis of Public Authority:
The move from concreteness to abstractness in the definition of public policy was probably the most important single change in the entire history of public control in the United States.
Lowi’s point concerns the separation of powers. In theory, Congress passes a law directing a regulatory agency to regulate something in a specific way, then the agency does so. The executive branch executes legislation; hence its name.
This is not how things work in practice. More and more, Congress delegates its legislative powers away to the executive branch. On issues ranging from health insurance subsidies to power plants to Internet infrastructure, executive branch agencies act unilaterally. And when they cite congressional statutes, they do so abstractly, not concretely, just as Lowi said nearly 50 years ago.
An example: the text of the Clean Air Act says nothing about CO2 emissions. But a few years ago, the EPA issued a cap-and-trade regulation for CO2 emissions, even though Congress explicitly rejected a bill to do so. The EPA justified its decision on the abstract principles on which the Clean Air Act is based. The fact that the text of bill, as amended over the years, does not mention CO2 emissions as a pollutant, did not matter to the EPA.
There is a role for discretion in regulatory matters. Discretion makes it possible to avoid regulatory abuses, clear needless bureaucratic hurdles, and avoid obvious stupidities such as suspending children from school for wielding Pop-Tart “guns” in cafeterias.
But Lowi makes a good point: discretion is a double-edged sword. Without a clear separation of powers, its outer edge can spill blood by executive order just as easily as the inner edge can cut innocents loose from government-mandated ropes.
John Locke, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx all used a labor theory of value in their very different works. To them, a good is worth however much work someone puts into making it. This is incorrect. Value is actually subjective; there is no absolute standard.
As a personal example, I would place a very high value on a nice guitar, since I would play and enjoy the instrument–talent level aside. Someone who isn’t interested in music would be unwilling to pay much money for the exact same good, and rightly so–they would get little use out of it.
So what is a good worth? That’s something every individual decides for himself. There is no single right answer. Value is subjective.
This subjective theory of value originated in part in 1871 with Carl Menger’s textbook Principles of Economics. But this theory is actually best explained by an Italian economist, Ferdinando Galiani, who the German-speaking Menger quotes on p. 296 of his Principles:
ch’essendo varie le disposizioni degli animi umani e varj i bisogni, vario é il valor delle cose.
Any Italian-speaking readers, please correct any of my mistakes. The same quotation reads in English:
since the dispositions of human minds vary, the value of things varies.
Another aphorism that captures the spirit of subjective value is “one man’s trash is another’s treasure.”
Economics can be a dismal science. It can quickly get technical and unnecessarily complicated, but the basics are understandable to everyone. The subjective theory of value is one of those basics–language barriers aside.
Whether it’s the local weatherman getting it wrong, or especially some economic shaman predicting the stock market’s next swing, forecasters have a record that doesn’t always outperform chance. This poor record has been known since at least Roman times, as Deirdre McCloskey notes on p. 265 of her 2000 book How to Be Human, Though an Economist:
The early Latin poet Ennius sneered at forecasters “who don’t know the path for themselves yet show the way for others.”
Or, as the philosopher Yogi Berra put it, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
From p. 1097 of Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market (two books in one, and available for free):
[T]he government defines “bread” as being of a certain composition. This is supposed to be a safeguard against “adulteration,” but in fact it prohibits improvement.
Considering similar regulations for the size of holes in Swiss cheese, the definitions of certain kinds of pasta, and hunreds of other rules, it is a minor miracle that food innovation happens at all. Fortunately, people can make up new words faster than the government can regulate them.
As is longstanding tradition at this blog, (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014), here are capsule reviews of all the books I read this year. Only books read all the way through are included. Unless stated otherwise, I enjoyed them all and recommend them. There are also a couple honorable mentions at the end.
- A.J. Ayer – Hume: A Very Short Introduction
Not recommended. Ayer editorializes so often that it is difficult to tell which parts are badly written summaries of Hume’s thought, and which are badly written summaries of Ayer’s thought. He also spends most of the book on precisely the least interesting parts of Hume’s work–epistemology and the philosophy of the senses. Hume’s more useful and interesting contributions to skepticism, history, economics, and political philosophy get cursory treatment at best, and his influential friendships with Rousseau, Adam Smith, Voltaire, and other major thinkers go practically unmentioned. I remain a fan of Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, but stay away from this one.
- David Boaz – The Libertarian Mind
A revised and expanded edition of 1997’s Libertarianism: A Primer. I read the original as a teenager, which played a large role in why I pursued a career in the think tank world. Reading this new edition reaffirmed that decision. If you are a layman looking to understand what lies beyond the binary progressive/conservative views on tv news, this is perhaps the best place to go. The early section on the rich global history of classical liberalism is especially strong.
- Don Boudreaux – The Essential Hayek
Hayek had a long and varied career, contributing to economics, philosophy, law, and psychology, among other disciplines. His ideas, while deep, aren’t necessarily difficult to grasp. But Hayek did little to make them accessible to non-academics. Don fixes that with this easy-reading short book which summarizes Hayek’s major themes and ideas. The link goes to a free PDF version, of which at least the first two chapters are essential reading (the rest is also excellent, so do keep going after that). The Fraser Institute, which published this book, also put together an accompanying website with videos and other materials.
- Peter Brannigan and Ian Winwood – Birth, School, Metallica, Death: The Inside Story of Metallica (1981-1991)
A surprisingly literate history of Metallica’s first ten years. This volume, the first of two, covers the band’s best work.
- Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood – Into the Black: The Inside Story of Metallica (1991-2014)
Metallica was past their artistic peak by the time this book even starts. But they never stopped taking risks, regardless of how the results turned out. Whatever one’s feelings about Metallica’s output in the second half of their career, this is a fun read, not least because it focuses on the group’s personalities, motivations, and restlessness. Rather than writing a series of album reviews, the authors decided instead to tell a story. Good choice.
- Kate Anderson Brower – The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House
In a way, the White House is a 6-star hotel for temporary tenants. This book is about the career staffers who run it. It shares plenty of stories about some of those tenants, and humanizes often-anonymous staffers. The Lyndon Johnson stories, especially regarding his shower, reveal a lot about his personality. So do Nancy Reagan’s and Hillary Clinton’s callous treatment of the people who help them (both of their husbands were/are apparently much nicer). The dedication and sacrifices many White House staff have made for their jobs, from FDR’s time to the present, are genuinely impressive.
- Chris B. Brown – The Art of Smart Football
Brown is a lawyer and a sports journalist. This short book captures the strategies and personalities of several of football’s best players, coaches, and strategists, at both the college and professional levels. Brown also shows how the game is continually evolving. Offense and defense are constantly seeking an edge over each other–sometimes through complexity, sometimes through simplicity, and sometimes both. As an economist with an eye for how rules affect behavior, I find this dance absolutely fascinating. The games are fun to watch, too. Brown has written a few other books in a similar vein; I may read one or two of them in advance of next football season.
- James M. Buchanan – What Should Economists Do?
A collection of essays on the limits of economic science, the importance of methodological individualism, how economics needs to both influence other disciplines and be influenced by them, and other related topics.
- James M. Buchanan – Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism
Collects a dozen of Buchanan’s late-career essays. A common theme is the contrast between Plato and Adam Smith – Plato believed in enforcing a natural hierarchy of men, while Adam Smith believed in treating people as equals. Buchanan applies this framework to construct an inspirational vision for classical liberalism, to explain why classical liberal ideas remain unpopular, and why some people are seemingly inborn illiberals (including many conservatives). Buchanan at his most philosophical.
- James L. Buckley – Saving Congress from Itself: Emancipating the States and Empowering Their People
Buckley is a former U.S. senator and the brother of National Review founder William F. Buckley. This book is about federalism. He argues for ending federal grant programs to states, so the states can run those programs (or not) as they see fit. Federal money invariably comes with strings attached, preventing states from effectively administering programs. The hundreds of redundant programs also distract Congress from more pressing matters. A solution, Buckley argues, is to shrink the federal government and grow state governments.
- Eammon Butler – Classical Liberalism: A Primer
A work of great breadth, and very little depth–on purpose. It’s the shortest, easiest-to-read primer out there, and Butler hits all the important notes, from history to economics to philosophy. While the book is short enough to read in an afternoon, some of those notes could have used more sustain. Fortunately, Butler includes a quality list of further reading. The link goes to a free PDF version.
- Max Cavalera with Joel McIver – My Bloody Roots: From Sepultura to Soulfly and Beyond: The Autobiography
This book will win awards for neither elegance or eloquence. And Cavalera gratuitously insults some of his bandmates’ musical abilities, especially Sepultura bassist Paulo, Jr. Despite its flaws, this was an enjoyable look at Sepultura’s career, from their start as teenagers in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, to gold-selling albums and international fame. It also tells Cavalera’s side of his 1996 split from Sepultura, and narrates the successful second act of his career with several bands including Soulfly, Cavalera Conspiracy, and Killer Be Killed.
- Robert Conquest – Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps
Conquest, who died this year at age 98, was a Soviet historian who also published multiple books of poetry, and even a science fiction novel. This book is more realistic, and rather more harsh. Kolyma, located in northeastern Siberia, stands alongside Auschwitz in the competition for the worst places in human history. As many as 3 million people died in its gold mines and labor camps during the Stalin era and its immediate aftermath. Most prisoners were innocent. Their average life expectancy upon arrival was three years or less; this was on purpose. This book looks at Kolyma as a whole; I also highly recommend Kolyma survivor Janusz Bardach’s memoir Man Is Wolf to Man for an individual’s perspective.
- Jay Cost – A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption
Longer than it should be, and less profound than it could be. Even so, this is a good history of corruption from America’s founding and the Jefferson-Hamilton controversy up to today’s Fannie-Freddie mess. Cost constantly reminds the reader that Founding-era governmental institutions are poorly suited to today’s expanded purposes. But he waits until the last few pages of a more-than 300-page book to take a weak half-swing at solving the problem, and then misses badly. Deirdre McCloskey, in her perceptive review of this book, adds that appropriate institutional design is necessary for limiting corruption, but not sufficient. Limiting corruption requires certain cultural norms and attitudes, which are the result of a long-term, bottom-up process of people talking to each other about ideas and ideals.
- Angus Deaton – The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality
Deaton won the 2015 economics Nobel. This 2013 book sums up much of his work. He won his prize for his innovations in data collection, especially in the developing world. This book has some insights into that work, but the feature attraction is the final chapter, in which Deaton is highly critical of top-down, government-to-government foreign aid. He prefers bottom-up approaches, such as remittances and investment. Since Deaton studiously avoids taking almost any policy positions at all elsewhere, his criticisms are especially damning.
- Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler – Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World
A how-to guide for dynamists and exponential entrepreneurs, plus a brief tour through emerging technologies. Overly idealistic, but still inspiring.
- Kevin Dowd – The New Private Monies: A Bit-Part Player?
This IEA monograph looks at private currencies past, present, and future. Dowd tells the stories of the Liberty Dollar, e-gold, and Bitcoin. Like me, Dowd is bearish on Bitcoin, but bullish on the future of private digital currency. The link goes to a free PDF.
- Harry G. Frankfurt – On Inequality
Frankfurt’s main point is similar to the one Iain Murray and I make in a forthcoming paper. Inequality doesn’t matter in and of itself. The goal is for everyone, even at the economic bottom, to have enough to live a comfortable, dignified life. People, not ratios. Some of his other points are off base, and his attempts at economic reasoning make it clear he is not an economist. Still a valuable addition to the literature.
- David Friedman – The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism, 3rd Edition
The definitive statement of anarcho-capitalism. Unlike the Murray Rothbards and Ayn Rands of the world, Friedman has a delightful lack of capital-C Certainty, and no interest in stridency. He enjoys thought experiments, frequently reminds the reader of his own limitations as well as those of economics, law, and other disciplines, and his genial tone is a joy to read. This edition is a 2014 update of Friedman’s 1971 original, with plenty of expanded content. The Kindle edition is priced at $2.99.
- Denis Gullickson – Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally
A contender for the most interesting man in the world. Johnny Blood was the Packers’ first superstar, playing on its first four championship teams in 1929-31, and 1936. He was also a notorious free spirit who hopped trains across the country to work odd jobs in the offseason, dodged curfews, got into trouble with booze and women, and was the subject of countless colorful stories, many of which Gullickson shares. Later in life he completed the work for a master’s degree in economics, taught as a college professor, and wrote an economics book called Spend Yourself Rich (though it sounds like an unfortunate synthesis of Malthus, Keynes, and a misinterpretation of Say’s Law). He also once ran for sheriff in his Wisconsin hometown, and counted Supreme Court Justice Byron White as a close friend.
- Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Highly recommended. Haidt, a psychologist, looks at how our brains form beliefs, and the different lenses through which progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view the world. He also offers insights on the evolutionary origins of morality and mankind’s ultra-social nature. Per the subtitle, he also sheds much light on how people of different ideologies can look at the same data and see completely different things.
- Jerry Izenberg – Rozelle: A Biography
Pete Rozelle was NFL commissioner from 1960-89. He oversaw the AFL-NFL merger, the birth of the Super Bowl, and league-wide television contract bargaining (it was previously each team for itself, hurting small-market teams), among many other developments. Izenberg, a veteran sportswriter who knew Rozelle, is overly chummy at times. But he communicates very clearly Rozelle’s remarkable drive, diplomacy, and PR-savvy. The world of sports would look very different today without Pete Rozelle. Izenberg mostly focuses on Rozelle’s professional life, though the end, when he switches more to the personal, is surprisingly poignant.
- Garett Jones – Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own
Garett taught my graduate macroeconomics class. He had recently begun this line of research, and occasionally talked a little bit about it. Now he has a book out, and it’s very good. It reads quickly and easily, and he has a gift for making the technical bits accessible to laymen. IQ has a heritable component–smart parents tend to have smart kids–but race has little or nothing to do with a nation’s IQ. But factors such as nutrition and education do. People with higher IQs tend to be kinder, more patient, cooperative, and empathetic, and have other important social skills that breed prosperity. If you live in a high-IQ nation, odds are you’re wealthy by global standards, regardless of what your individual IQ is. A valuable contribution to the discussion on how to continue the world’s escape from poverty.
- Suki Kim – Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite
Highly recommended, and extremely moving. Kim is a Korean-American who spent two semesters teaching English to north Korean university students in Pyongyang. Most tales of north Korea involve violence, deprivation, and horror, in some order. Kim was spared the violence and horror because she spent her time with the very top of north Korea’s rigidly hierarchical society. She instead experienced a maddening isolation. While she tried to reach out to her students on a personal level, both her superiors and the students themselves would not let that happen besides the occasional accidental opening, which quickly closed.
- Peter King- Monday Morning Quarterback
King is the dean of football journalists. This book collects some of the best columns from his career, plus some original material. Surprisingly heartfelt in places.
- Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap – Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer
Kramer played right guard for the Green Bay Packers during the Lombardi years. This book is an account of the 1967 season, from training camp all the way to the famous Ice Bowl game, and then Superbowl II. It turned out to be Lombardi’s last season as Green Bay’s head coach. The Packers won their third straight NFL championship, and second straight Superbowl (played against the champion of the AFL, a then-rival league. The leagues would merge in 1970). Almost every day, Kramer would speak into a tape recorder about that day’s events, how he was feeling about practice, the games, the season, outside business opportunities, his teammates, and especially about Lombardi, who he described as simultaneously a terrible and beautiful man. He would mail each week’s tapes to Schaap, a renowned journalist, who put Kramer’s dictations into book form. The result is a classic that is still in print today, nearly 50 years later.
- Charles Leerhsen – Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty
The author’s goal is to rehabilitate Cobb’s image as an inveterate racist with a hair-trigger temper. Leerhsen likely oversells his case, but is correct that despite Cobb’s prickly personality, he was surprisingly progressive on racial issues, at least by the standards of his time–especially for a Jim Crow-era southerner. History has forgotten that Cobb publicly supported integrating baseball, and openly admired black players such as Jackie Robinson and especially Roy Campanella. The book also contrasts Cobb’s small-ball batting style, baserunning antics, and relentless psychological tactics with Babe Ruth’s unsubtle swing-for-the-fences approach. It must have been a lot of fun to watch Cobb play–he stole home 54 times in his career.
- Gary Meyers – Brady vs. Manning: The Untold Story of the Rivalry That Transformed the NFL
Brady and Manning represent two very different kinds of greatness. Brady was the underdog who struggled to start in college, nearly went undrafted, and got his current job because the Patriots’ incumbent starter got hurt. Manning’s father Archie was a star NFL quarterback, he had his choice of scholarship offers, and was drafted No. 1 overall. Much as I enjoyed all the biography and strategic analysis in the book, that difference was my biggest takeaway. So long as you have some talent, work hard to develop it, and get at least a chance, you can accomplish great things. Another nice point: these two very different rivals are good friends off the field.
- Michael C. Munger – The Thing Itself: Essays on Academics and the State
Munger heads Duke University’s Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program. He is a rare combination: a deep thinker with a healthy sense of humor. This book collects articles written from 2003-2014. The story of his visa-less trip to Cuba excels on both fronts, and his essay on how college fails to challenge progressive-minded students is essential reading.
- Charles Murray – By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission
The first 100 pages, which could have been 10 pages, lay out the case for why reform is needed. Regulations are numerous, costly, contradictory, and unpredictable. The second half of the book is where the action is. Murray proposes a massive civil disobedience program. People should simply ignore unjustified rules. Just as people insure against fire and theft, they should take out insurance policies against arbitrary regulatory fines and takings. This deligitimizes regulation by getting people to think of it as a random nuisance. Murray also proposes the Madison Fund, which is basically the Institute for Justice on steroids. The Fund would give free legal representation to people who run afoul of unjust regulations, and would so tie up agencies in court that they would have no choice but to tamp down their activities to more reasonable levels.
- Bill Nye, with Corey S. Powell – Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation
This book springs from Nye’s 2014 debate against Ken Ham, a high-profile creationist. Nye is consistently less than kind to his opponent, which I don’t care for. Even so, Nye is correct that the facts are on his side. It reads easily, and offers some surprisingly deep insights on how natural selection processes work.
- Anne Pallister – Magna Carta: The Heritage of Liberty
Go elsewhere if you want a history of the document itself–Nicholas Vincent’s book, listed below, is a good place to go. But Pallister does a good job of documenting Magna Carta’s influence over the centuries, right on up through the 1960s.
- Yeonmi Park – In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
Park defected from north Korea at age 13 with her mother. Her difficult escape included being a victim of human trafficking in China, as well as a kidnapping. She lost her father to cancer, made a trip on foot through part of the Gobi desert to reach Mongolia, and endured a rough adjustment period after she made it to South Korea. Today, Park is pursuing a college degree at Columbia University in New York and rapidly becoming a prominent human rights activist.
- Michael Pye – The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe
Like many history buffs, I spent a good chunk of my twenties devouring everything I could find on ancient Mediterranean history. Greece and Rome especially, but also Egypt, early Judaism and Christianity, Carthage, and the nearby Mesopotamian civilizations. Pye argues that the people ringing the North Sea deserve similar attention, and a similar unified treatment. From early Frisian traders and Viking explorers/raiders to 16th-century Hanseatic and 17th-century Dutch traders, Pye traces a millennium of interconnected development and trade from Holland and northern Germany and France, through to Britain and Ireland, and on to Iceland, Greenland, and even Vinland, now known as America. Very enjoyable.
- Matt Ridley – The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge
Spontaneous order is everywhere. Ridley, a gifted science writer, finds emergent order processes not just in biological evolution, but in social interactions ranging from language to economic exchange to technological advancement. Highly recommended. Pairs well with Ridley’s previous book, the similarly excellent The Rational Optimist.
- Matt Ridley – The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation
The question is not why do a few people behave badly, but why do most people behave virtuously? Ridley uses cellular biology, anthropology, entemology, game theory, and more to build a case that virtue is built on trusting others. Building that trust requires trade and exchange, which some animals are better at than others. There’s much more to the story, but in a way, Adam Smith-style free trade makes people kinder, more peaceful, and more virtuous.
- Bertrand Russell – History of Western Philosophy
This nearly 800-page book covers all the major Western philosophers from the Pre-Socratics to the Scholastics to the Enlightenment to 19th-century Romanticism, right on up through 20th-century thinkers such as Henri Bergson and William James. Russell was known for his caustic wit, and his occasional insults made me laugh out loud more than once, especially the bit about Nietszche’s attitude towards women.
- Carl Sagan – Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science
This essay collection is not Sagan’s best work. Pale Blue Dot, Cosmos, and especially Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are transcendent; this book is merely good. But it did much to inspire the modern skeptic movement, which is its real value–though Sagan’s later book Demon Haunted World did it better. I was also surprised to find that some parts, particularly the final essay, have their own brand of mysticism. Sagan’s belief that mankind will destroy itself with nuclear weapons is also as omnipresent as it is tiresome and wrong, though it was a fashionable idea at the time.
- Peter Schweizer – Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich
Schweizer’s previous books exposed bipartisan corruption. This one focuses exclusively on two Democrats, resulting in heavy criticism from aggrieved partisans. Schweizer is apparently working on a similar project on Jeb Bush, which will likely provoke similar reactions from the other team.
- Michael Shermer – The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom
Part update of Shermer’s previous work, especially Mind of the Market and The Believing Brain, and part reinforcement of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Maybe not Shermer’s most original or important book, but still an important contribution to the ongoing quest to understand how humankind can continue and accelerate its escape from Hobbesian poverty, repression, and brutality.
- Vernon L. Smith – Discovery – A Memoir
Vernon is one of the fathers of experimental economics, and won the economics Nobel in 2002. He also has a colorful personality and has led an eventful life. Besides the birth and development of his research program, he shares a lot about how his mind works, his thoughts on life and family, his outdoor adventures, and even gives recipes for a Wichita-style Nu-Way burger, as well as a mean chili. Apparently, he also hates ketchup. On that we must disagree.
- Barry Svrluga – The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season
Baseball has the longest of all sporting seasons. From spring training to the World Series, teams can play more than 200 games from February through November, usually with less than a day off per week. This book, by a Washington Post sportswriter, profiles players and employees of the 2014 Washington Nationals to show how the season’s long grind affects not just players, equipment managers, GMs, scouts, and all of their families. Much as I love baseball, it made me glad to be in a different line of work.
- John Tamny – Popular Economics: What the Rolling Stones, Downton Abbey, and LeBron James Can Teach You about Economics
Excellent for laymen or students, and well-written. I do not share all of John’s views (I oppose the gold standard, which he favors). But his explanation of saving and investment is brilliant. By helping entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life, saving and investment are not just agents of dynamism, but potent sources of income redistribution that help the worst-off. This is an important point that needs to be made again and again.
- Elizabeth Marshall Thomas – Reindeer Moon
A novel about a young woman’s life in hunter-gatherer times in the Lake Baikal area of Siberia, roughly 20,000 years ago. Thomas is well-versed in the science, archaeology, and anthropology of the time, and I read this at an anthropology professor’s recommendation. It is also well-written, fast-paced, and emotionally investing. It also unintentionally makes a wonderful case for modernity. Highly recommended, both as a moving story and a vivid picture of hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
- Michael Tomasello – A Natural History of Human Thinking
Tomasello’s writing is so bad, it’s almost comical. But I stuck with it, because learning about his ideas is worth the cost in eye-crossing prose. Humans and their immediate ancestors have a greater degree of inborn empathy than other primates; this is a defining characteristic of our species. This applies both in one-on-one interactions and especially in the larger, more abstract group sense. Humanity’s greater ability to mentally put ourselves into others’ shoes has a lot to do with why modernity exists. At times I felt like I was reading a badly written summary of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, but with added scientific and empirical content. Tomasello would do well to pair with a professional writer for future work, a la Levitt/Dubner or Diamandis/Kotler.
- Daniel Tudor and James Pearson – North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors
One of the most famous lines from the movie Jurassic Park is that “life finds a way.” This also applies to markets. North Korea may well be the worst place on Earth, as Michael Malice argues. Even so, people still find ways to cooperate, get along with each other, and make mutually beneficial exchanges. Bribery is often necessary to get people out of a jam with the authorities (corruption can actually be a good thing in such situations!). And mutually consenting buyers and sellers still face threats of confiscation, prison and worse. But markets still find a way. The north Korean regime is most likely here to stay. But in the coming years, look for a slow improvement in living standards for some of the world’s poorest and most repressed people as markets are gradually and increasingly tolerated.
- Gordon Tullock – Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, Volume 8: The Social Dilemma
Collects most of two of Tullock’s books, Autocracy (1987) and The Social Dilemma (1974). Worldwide, most governments are autocracies, not democracies. The public choice literature mostly neglects them, preferring to focus on liberal democracies instead. Tullock tries to fill this gap, and offers many useful insights about illiberal governments along the way.
- Gordon Tullock – Rent Seeking
A short collection of Tullock’s articles reflecting on and refining his path-breaking work on how people seek special privileges from governments.
- Gordon Tullock – Public Goods, Redistribution, and Rent Seeking
One of Tullock’s last works, and certainly not his best–it contains numerous typos, and some of the strangest comma usage I’ve ever seen in a published work. But it also contains useful insights on externalities, and a few fine examples of Tullock’s famously caustic humor.
- Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith – Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution
The companion book to a Tyson-hosted PBS series. Reminds me of Carl Sagan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It starts big–really big–with the birth of the universe. From there it narrows down to galaxies, individual stars, planets and other star-orbiting objects, and concludes with what scientists have learned so far about the origins of life on Earth, and the possibility of finding life elsewhere. Two minor criticisms: Tyson exhibits his usual tendency to focus more on scientists than on the science itself. And despite the word “Evolution” appearing in the title, there is little discussion of natural selection processes. This is a topic on which Tyson has much expertise and a gift for explanation, and the book could have used more of it. Even so, highly recommended. But look elsewhere if biological evolution is what you’re interested in.
- Nicholas Vincent – Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction
Vincent places Magna Carta in its proper historical context during the Plantagenet dynasty. The Great Charter did not appear out of nowhere. It is part of a long pre-existing tradition of placing limits on royal power, and relatedly, the rule of law. Many Magna Carta clauses go back centuries before 1215 at Runnymede. At the same time, Vincent argues that Magna Carta is not the sanctified essence of liberalism many of its defenders paint it to to be. I also recommend the author’s hour-long EconTalk interview with Russ Roberts.
- Nicholas Wapshott- Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics
Wapshott makes no bones about preferring Keynes over Hayek–this transparency is a good thing–but he gives both men plenty of space to make their ideas known. This book is a good way to learn about two competing ideologies, even if both combatants are incomplete and imperfect representatives. One thing that stuck out was how quickly Hayek’s former students and supporters turned on him once Keynesian economics became politically popular. Nicholas Kaldor’s public barbs were particularly stinging and tactless. Hayek was a lonely man for a long time, and his struggles with depression are not a surprise. And had Keynes lived longer, he might have been surprised to see his disciples became more Keynesian than Keynes himself ever was. Haidt’s book above is much better for understanding ideology itself, but Wapshott does well in explaining the friendship and rivalry of two individual ideologues. Larry White’s Clash of Economic Ideas is another, wider-ranging addition to the genre.
- Bill Watterson and Jenny Robb – Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue
Comes from an art exhibition at Ohio State University that featured Watterson’s work. Features a 35-page interview with Watterson–probably the longest he’s ever given. From there, Watterson and Robb offer an extended lesson in the history of comic strips and even art in general, plus a tour through what made Calvin and Hobbes both endearing and enduring. My wife and I are very much looking forward to introducing our baby daughter to Calvin and Hobbes when she’s a little bit older. We also hope she’ll spare us most of Calvin’s hijinks.
- Andy Weir – The Martian
My wife and I saw the movie, and liked it very much. The book is pretty good, too. It gets technical at times–much moreso than the movie. But it’s great for science fans. Weir moves the plot quickly and leavens things with humor often enough to make the book feel like an adventure story, not a dissertation.
- Armin A. Brott – The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year: Second Edition
I’m still pretty new to this whole fatherhood thing. This book, aimed at men, has been helpful. As with Brott’s guide to pregnancy, it condescends towards men, but has useful information. Each of its twelve chapters covers a month, listing what milestones to expect, how to adapt to them, care strategies, and so on. It also has advice on being a good father and how to help Mom out. My daughter is 8 months old as of this writing, so that’s how far along I am in the book. Useful, though best taken with a grain of salt.
- Ramón Oscuro Martos – …And Justice for Art: Stories about Heavy Metal Album Covers
Beautifully illustrated, and highly recommended for heavy music fans. I haven’t yet read the whole thing, but it is a joy to flip through, look at classic album artwork in a new light, and learn the stories behind each image. Martos tells the stories in chronological order from Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut, through the 1980s thrash movement, to 1990s death metal, right on up to newer bands such as Baroness. He interviews band members, the artists themselves, record label execs, and more. Martos self-published the book, so it is extremely limited edition; the link goes to the website he set up. He is currently working on a sequel.
From p. 262 of Matt Ridley’s excellent 1996 book The Origins of Virtue:
[Margaret] Thatcher and her allies were articulating what is, in some ways, the most Rousseauian argument–that government does not impose virtue on inherently evil people, but corrupts the original virtue of the market place.
Rousseau would likely disagree, but Ridley has potentially hoist Rousseau by his own petard.