Category Archives: Books

Leland Yeager – Free Trade: America’s Opportunity

Leland Yeager – Free Trade: America’s Opportunity

Short, but packed with useful and principled arguments in favor of free trade, along with plenty of laugh-out-loud examples of actual tariffs. Much of what Yeager wrote in 1954 still applies to today’s trade battles. Yeager passed away in 2018, and the spontaneous outpouring of admiration from his former students and colleagues was truly impressive. Yeager was not as famous as Hayek or Friedman, but he certainly left his mark on the profession both in trade and monetary theory.


Bob Woodward – Fear: Trump in the White House

Bob Woodward – Fear: Trump in the White House

I usually avoid books about politicians, or at least ones current enough where partisan emotions still run hot. I made an exception for this one because two of Trump’s most active issues—trade and regulation—are my research specialties.

Containing the damage he is doing on trade, immigration, deficit spending, and foreign policy is an important priority for both parties. At the same time, leveraging his various personality tics on issues where he has been a net force for good, such as regulation, is also important.

Aides describe “Groundhog Day” meetings where they have to explain over and over again, often with colorful, simple visual aids, and non-controversial basic facts  the president either ignores or does not understand. When an aide once asked Trump why he holds his eccentric trade views, for example, the President simply explained that he had held them for a long time.

He did not cite any sort of principle or argument, just that he had felt that way for a long time. In this way, Trump is a modern-day Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Trump’s hiring choices compound the problem. Trade advisor Peter Navarro, for example, self-describes his job not as offering sound economic advice, but as supporting and confirming whatever intuitions the President already holds. President Trump’s intellectual and managerial qualities will no doubt make the next two to six years highly entertaining.

Martin Wolf – Why Globalization Works

Martin Wolf – Why Globalization Works

Of all the books in the early- and mid-2000s boomlet of popular-level books on trade and globalization, this is probably the one written at the highest level. Wolf is a longtime writer for the Financial Times, and before that was an academic and a think tanker. He offers some deep insights into the economics of trade, devastating critiques of anti-globalization activists, and a qualified defense of the current international trading system, which, as of this writing, is still governed by the WTO’s dispute resolution process and a number of bi- and multi-lateral trade agreements around the world. This system is imperfect and overly complicated, but it is a world better than what trade’s enemies had in mind back then and still do today.

Forrest White – Fender: The Inside Story

Forrest White – Fender: The Inside Story

Fender is the largest musical instrument company in the world. It was founded in the 1940s by Leo Fender, who got his start repairing radios and building PA systems and amplifiers. Despite not knowing how to play or even tune a guitar, he also invented the Telecaster and Stratocaster, the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitars. Both are still popular today. Fender also invented the electric fretted bass.

The author, Forrest White, was Leo Fender’s right-hand man, running the business while Fender and his team designed the products. White writes a blue-collar everyman prose, admiring Fender while acknowledging some of his faults—he had his quirks and was a bit of a nutty professor type. White also shares some fun stories and little-known facts, and shares tidbit about how some well-known quirks and features in Fender instruments came about.

The Jazzmaster guitar’s two-channel electronics, for example, were inspired by a design White himself tried in a home-built lap steel guitar he made before joining Fender. White also shares in-house patent applications, advertising copy, blueprints, and wiring diagrams for several Fender instruments, which readers can use for their own repairs, modifications, or even to build their own instruments.

Andy Weir – Artemis

Andy Weir – Artemis

A heist story set on a moon colony, by the author of The Martian. Plenty of smart-alecky humor, and an entertaining way to learn some science about gravity, vacuums, and explosives. There is also a surprising amount of economics content, ranging from private currency to rent-seeking to spontaneous order. Might be good supplemental reading for an undergrad-level econ or physics course.

Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan – In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom Is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty

Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan – In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom Is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty

Argued from a philosopher’s point of view, though both authors are economically literate. They argue that the most effective poverty-relief policies involve positive-sum interactions. A more open approach to trade, immigration, and entrepreneurship are the most important positive-sum policies, and they back them with strong moral and consequentialist arguments.

People have the right to make deals with each other, or to move somewhere else if they like. For a third party to get in the way and forcibly stop them requires a very strong reason. The burden of proof is on that third party.

Conservatives and nationalists offer few strong justifications for their force-happy trade and immigration policies. Progressives also come off poorly for preferring zero-sum redistribution policies even when positive-sum policies are readily available. Both authors argue instead for a more permissive, open, and liberal approach–liberal in its original, correct sense.

Barbara Tuchman – The Guns of August

Barbara Tuchman – The Guns of August

A history of the first month of World War I, and the events leading up to it. Tuchman writes well and tells a good story, but more than anything this book re-taught me why I’m not much on military history.

War is what happens when something goes seriously wrong; it is the breakdown of society. Soldiers and generals are a bit like doctors in that they are trying to fix what’s wrong. But they’re more the type of doctor that treats a tuberculosis patient’s cough while leaving the root disease untouched. There is value in having some people study symptomatic relief, but treating the root problem does more good.

This is why I am more interested in culture and institutions than in pincer movements, multiple fronts, and the quarreling opinions of various generals. Why is often a much more useful and interesting question than what.