Continuing this blog’s annual tradition (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013), 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.
- Burton A. Abrams – The Terrible 10: A Century of Economic Folly
Would make a good primer for an undergraduate or recent graduate on the intersection of politics and economics. The chapter on environmental policy is weak, representing a missed opportunity, but the rest of the book is quite good.
- Jason Brennan – Why Not Capitalism?
A rebuttal to G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism?, which appears below. Using an amusing parable involving the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Brennan shows that Cohen compares idealized socialism to real-world capitalism, which is a basic analytical mistake. He then makes a true apples-to-apples comparison.
- Howard Bryant – The Last Hero: A life of Henry Aaron
Great men are almost never good men. Henry Aaron is an exception to the rule. He may have been but a baseball player, but the role he played in improving the nation’s racial climate, and what he endured in doing so, as well as who he is as a person, make the word “hero” more than worthy of its inclusion in this book’s title.
- Bruce Caldwell – Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom: A Brief Introduction
This short e-book, priced under $3.00, repackages Caldwell’s introduction to the recently-issued definitive edition of Hayek’s most famous book. Useful for those who own an older edition and don’t want to pony up for the new one, or who do not want to read the whole book. Caldwell not only explains what Hayek thought; he also makes clear what Hayek did not think, which is a valuable service. Hayek’s opponents routinely ascribe to him ideas he never held, which harms both sides of the debate between emergent order and constructivism.
- Charles Calomiris and Stephen A. Haber – Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit
This is a lengthy book (just more than 500 pages), but incredibly edifying. Politics and banking are so tightly intertwined that one cannot exist without the other. Why are countries like the UK and especially the U.S. so crisis-prone, while Canada’s last banking crisis was in 1839? Because they each have different rules of the political game that shape coalitions and incentives differently. The authors also study banking history in autocratic countries such as Mexico and Brazil.
- G.A. Cohen – Why Not Socialism?
This campus favorite uses a parable about a camping trip to illustrate socialism’s superiority over capitalism. As Jason Brennan’s critique above notes, Cohen compares socialism in its best possible theoretical light to capitalism in its worst possible real-world light, which causes serious errors in Cohen’s reasoning and conclusions.
- W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm – Myths of Rich and Poor: We’re Better Off Than We Think
An important book I had never read until this year. Takes a data-heavy Julian Simon-esque look at economic progress, and finds that by almost any measure of human well-being, people are getting better off over time, especially the poor. The prose reads well, and surprisingly quickly (it helps that Alm is a journalist, serving as the Dubner to Cox’s Levitt). Now that it’s 15 years old, hopefully the authors will consider an updated edition.
- Diane Coyle – GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History
An entertaining look at a useful statistic that seems to be unaware of its own limitations. Coyle discusses the uses and abuses of GDP, and touches on some very deep insights, though she could have gone farther with them. She suggests that GDP should not be dumped, but needs to be supplemented with other measures, not all of which are purely quantitative.
- William Doyle – The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction
Less a narrative history than an explanation of the Revolution’s historical context and influence, and how its scholarly interpretations have changed over the years.
- William Easterly – The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor
A powerful and much-needed criticism of the development establishment. The prevailing top-down approach to developing the third world ignores history and individual circumstances. And it abets shocking human rights violations by governments who have successfully curried favor with the World Bank, UN, and other aid establishmentarians. Easterly also documents the West’s disappointing condescension towards the Rest.
- D.X. Ferris – Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff and Dave Years
A meticulously documented history of one of the most influential bands in the last thirty years.
- Joshua Hall, ed. – Homer Economicus
A collection of short essays using examples from The Simpsons to teach economics. It starts with the basics and then moves on to more advanced topics, including public choice theory and behavioral economics. This would be a perfect teaching tool for a high school or beginning undergraduate economics course.
- Thomas E. Hall – Aftershock: The Unintended Consequences of Public Policies
Intentions are not results. This book is a brief look at four policies with actual effects almost completely different from their intended effects: income taxes, tobacco taxes, the minimum wage, and alcohol prohibition. A lesson in humility for policymakers.
- F.A. Hayek – The Denationalisation of Money
Hayek’s vision of competing currencies. If people around the world were free to choose among euros, yen, pesos, and dollars as they please, governments everywhere would have more incentive to limit inflation. And if governments additionally allowed privately developed currencies to compete with government currencies, the competitive discipline would become even more intense. Forty years after Hayek wrote this book, Bitcoin and other currency technologies are making him look very prescient. The link goes to a free PDF version from the Institute for Economic Affairs.
- David Harsanyi – The People Have Spoken (And They Are Wrong): The Case against Democracy
Rather more subtle than the shrill title would indicate. Harsanyi is skeptical of populist demagoguery from the right and the left, and reminds the reader to be thankful for checks on pure democracy. Bicameral legislatures, the Electoral College, voting age requirements, and more are all good things. In some ways this is a popularization of Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, though there are certainly areas where Harsanyi and Caplan do not see eye to eye.
- Robert Heinlein – Double Star
When Heinlein is at his best, both he and his characters are genuinely having fun. This book captures that sense of joy. It’s about a struggling actor who is enlisted to act as a body double for an important, but ailing politician. It quickly escalates from there, and makes an important point about the similarities between actors and politicians.
- Alistair Horne – The Seven Ages of Paris
A history of a beautiful city from its earliest days up to the mid-twentieth century. It greatly enhanced my visit earlier this year. It reads well and teaches much, though it is rather longer than it needs to be.
- Philip K. Howard – The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government
Howard does not impress with the depth of his thought. But his overall approach to law and regulation is right in line with my own: simplicity is beautiful. Today’s complicated legal and regulatory thickets are almost purely ugly. Allowing some discretion on the part of teachers, judges, and bureaucrats is a good thing. They can and will make mistakes, but the overall results will be far more humane than today’s regime of zero-tolerance policies, mandatory minimum sentences, and multi-thousand-page legislation.
- Cecil Jenkins – A Brief History of France
A useful survey of French history I read in preparation for a Paris vacation. The narrative is very good, but late in the book the author spends too much time describing the then-current (read: ephemeral) political situation and defending France’s dirigiste economic system.
- Zachary Karabell – The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World
Highly recommended, despite the occasional slip in Karabell’s economic reasoning. Going all the way back to the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s post-1066 census of his new kingdom, Karabell also covers the fascinatingly politicized birth of modern GDP, inflation, and trade statistics, and looks forward to a future of customizable “bespoke indicators” that Google and other new technologies make possible.
- Ronald Kessler – The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents
Kessler is a guilty pleasure. His books do have substance; this one is full of criticisms of the Secret Service’s management practices, and offers reform ideas. But really, I read Kessler because he’s the National Enquirer for the federal government’s upper echelons. There is juicy stuff in this book about very powerful people.
- Tim Layden – Blood, Sweat, and Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today’s Game
If you want to learn about offensive strategy in football, this is a good place to go. It starts around 1910, when Pop Warner came up with the single wing offense, and moves on through through the Wing-T, I-Formation, and today’s spread-based passing attacks. Later on, there is good discussion of defensive schemes, from the cover two to the zone blitz. It also provides an entree into the fraternity of football coaches. The book is too technical at times for a football layman like myself, but was still very enjoyable.
- Michael Malice – Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il
This darkly funny book (opening line: “I remember the day that I was born perfectly.”) has the serious humanitarian purpose of exposing the north Korean government’s atrocities to a wide audience. It is also a historiographical innovation, being the world’s first unauthorized autobiography. Malice traveled to north Korea and came back with a suitcase full of English-language propaganda. The book is written in the first person in Kim’s voice, drawing from that propaganda.
- Deirdre McCloskey – The Vices of Economists, The Virtues of the Bourgeoisie
The three vices of modern economists are a laser-like focus on statistical significance (as opposed to real-world significance), too much blackboard economics, and a fondness for social engineering. The first two of these can often be good and useful things in moderation, but science- and math-envy have turned these useful tools into vices. Social engineering, with its hubristic roots, is simply vice, at least in my view. Most of the book is about economic methodology, but it is filled throughout with other nuggets of wisdom, some of which prefigure Deirdre’s brilliant Bourgeois trilogy, the third volume of which should come out in 2015.
- Nina Munk – The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty
Sachs, a leading proponent of top-down economic development, does not come off well. On one hand, his capital-C Certainty has been his source of incredible fundraising success and celebrity glamor: $50 million grants, heads of state, Bono, and Angelina Jolie all make appearances. On the other hand, such Certainty is also at the root of the Sachs model’s reluctance to adapt and learn from its mistakes. Remember, the goal is for the developing world to actually develop, not to vindicate this or that method or ideology. Pairs well with Bill Easterly’s latest book, listed above.
- Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo – Baseball Confidential
In 1987, the authors sent a detailed survey to hundreds of major league players about the insidery parts of the game. What do pitchers and hitters do to try to psyche each other out? How do players deal with hostile umpires and vice versa? What goes on in locker rooms and bullpens? This book shares the results, along with humorous stories about every aspect of the game, on and off the field.
- Alex Nowrasteh and Mark Krikorian – Open Immigration: Yea and Nay
A neat little two-in-one book. Nowrasteh, a former colleague, takes the Yea position, while Krikorian takes the Nay side. Nowrasteh has the better arguments. But Krikorian’s half is a good look into the mind of someone who believes that one man’s well-being can be worth more than another man’s well-being simply because they come from different countries.
- Tom G. Palmer, ed. – Peace, Love, and Liberty
A collection of essays on the horrors of war and the beauties of peace and cooperation. Joining Palmer are Steven Pinker, Radley Balko, Emmanuel Martin, Sarah Skwire, and others. It also includes Mark Twain’s moving short story “The War Prayer” and poetry by Wilfred Owen, who died in battle just one week before the World War I armistice was signed.
- James Piereson – The Inequality Hoax
This short book is shrill in tone, which seems to be a common theme in the Encounter Broadsides series, of which it is a part. While this unfortunate choice of tone means Piereson is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with him, he still offers some valuable insights on inequality and Thomas Piketty’s Capital.
- Thomas Piketty – Capital in the 21st Century
The rare economics bestseller. Piketty argues that growing inequality is a structural feature of capitalism, and proposes an annual wealth tax to prevent large fortunes from accumulating. For a book ostensibly about helping the poor, he never asks some obvious questions: how are poor people actually doing? What policies would improve their living standards over time? Piketty is so focused on income ratios and statistics that he forgets about helping the poor. I have more to say about this common analytical mistake in a forthcoming paper.
- Steven Pinker – The Blank Slate
In the ongoing nature-nurture debate, many academics deny the very existence of human nature; environment is everything. This is mainly for politico-ideological reasons, as well as simple campus fashion. Pinker, through science, logic, history, art, and more, shows that there is nuance in the debate. Environment matters, yes. But human nature does, too.
- Mary Roach – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Roach has a sharp and surprising naughty sense of humor, which made this book much livelier than I expected. This is mostly to to the good, though some parts are rather gross; sensitive readers be warned.
- James Romm – Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero
Ostensibly a biography of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, but also much more. Romm makes the reader genuinely fear Nero, who also gets thorough biographical treatment. He also pauses often to ponder the troubled relationship between philosophy and power, and the morality of dissent and compliance. An excellent read.
- Russell Roberts – How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness
In a way, it’s a popular-level treatment of Adam Smith’s “other book,” the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Russ once again shows why he is one of economics’ best popularizers. It reads easily and quickly, and any layman can read this book without difficulty. But it’s more than that. History remembers Smith as a cold, calculating, selfish man. When I actually sat down and read Smith’s books a few years ago, I was shocked to discover a warm, friendly person with an uncanny insight into human nature, and who cared deeply about others. This book is about the real Adam Smith. Along the way Russ offers some excellent Smithian life advice, all along Smith’s eternal theme: be kind to others.
- Carl Sagan – Contact
Sagan’s novel about the discovery of extraterrestrial life, which inspired the movie of the same name in the 1990s.
- Carl Sagan – Cosmos
Science popularization at its best. Highly recommended, regardless of your native discipline, for the delivery as much as the content. The companion volume to Sagan’s PBS series of the same name, which was successfully revived this year by Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan and host Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Some of the science is dated now, but the sense of wonder he conveys is timeless.
- Carl Sagan – Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Opens with a beautifully written account of the Voyager satellites’ journeys, then goes into the science and philosophy of spreading out to other worlds.
- Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
Deductive reasoning taken to its extreme, in a good way. It starts on the biggest possible scale with the birth of the Cosmos itself. The focus then continually narrows until it reaches little old us. The book ends with the birth of our species, and why we differ from other animals in degree, but not in kind. As an economist, I especially enjoyed the middle third on how the natural selection process works. The parallels to spontaneously ordered social processes are legion. The final third on primates and anthropology is similarly excellent.
- Peter Schweizer – Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets
When it comes to politics, almost nobody is cynical enough. Schweizer is here to help. He outlines the strategies many politicians use to make themselves rich in office, and gives real world examples. He also names names. Leadership from both parties come off as especially venal. As he points out, that venality may explain how the worst got on top in the first place.
- Peter Schuck – Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better
A self-described “militant moderate,” Yale law professor Schuck’s book goes into the institutional and structural reasons why so many well-intentioned government efforts fail. The Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank come off especially poorly. He is well-versed in public choice theory, and as such his reform ideas are much better than typical political science pap. A note on style: Schuck writes clearly, but the amount of signposting he does borders on the ridiculous (p. 51: “Here are fourteen such principles…”). This made me chuckle out loud more than once while reading on the subway, drawing looks (and a few smiles) from fellow passengers.
- Lenore Skenazy – Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)
An excellent antidote to fear-based helicopter parenting, as well as the ultra-competitive attitude many parents have (I put more restrictions on my kids than you do on yours, and am therefore a better and more attentive parent than you are!). Many of you know my wife and I are expecting a daughter in the spring. This book isn’t for newborns, so it doesn’t apply to our family just yet, and it won’t for a few years. But its basic philosophy (and a re-read) should come in handy once she’s old enough for playdates, running around outside, biking to friends’ houses, and walking to school. All of us adults did such crazy things when we were kids, and we turned out just fine. Our own children deserve that same basic respect.
- Adam C. Smith and Bruce Yandle – Bootleggers and Baptists: How Economic Forces and Moral Persuasion Interact to Shape Regulatory Politics
Thirty-plus years after the original Regulation magazine article, we finally have a book-length treatment of Yandle’s Baptists and Bootleggers model. Moralizing Baptists and conniving Bootleggers both favor shuttering liquor stores on Sundays, but for very different reasons. These strange bedfellows are everywhere in politics and regulation. Yandle’s co-author, Smith, is both his grandson and an old friend of mine from grad school, as well as a fine economist. A question I pose to them both: is it possible to use Bootlegger-Baptist coalitions for good, and not just evil?
- Francis Spufford – Red Plenty
A beautifully written kind-of-novel about both real and fictional characters gradually moving from idealism to disillusionment. Their journeys are microcosms of the Soviet Union’s own progression from early revolutionary spirit to cynicism and sclerosis. Highly recommended, and difficult to put down.
- Bram Stoker – Dracula
Bedtime reading during October. It was fun.
- Kathryn Tempest – Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome
While Anthony Everitt’s superb Cicero biography emphasized the greater historical context of Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire, Tempest focuses inward. Cicero’s political career, oratory, and family life take center stage. She makes Cicero come alive as a real person with a distinct personality. He was more than a little arrogant, and had a tendency to vacillate during critical moments. But on balance he seems to have been a caring and decent person.
- Gordon Tullock – The Politics of Bureaucracy
Tullock applies the economic way of thinking–incentives, tradeoffs, scarcity, etc.–to the study of bureaucracy. His generalized model applies to government departments, committees, presidents, large corporations, local governments, national governments, and more.
- Gordon Tullock – Economic Hierarchies, Organization, and the Structure of Production
Mostly a refinement of The Politics of Bureaucracy, written with an additional 27 years of research and thought. But it also contains a devastating (and under-appreciated) argument against central economic planning every bit as powerful as Mises’ calculation problem, Hayek’s knowledge problem, or the public choice incentive problem. Suppose a head of state or a corporate CEO has three people reporting to him. Each of them has three people reporting to them, and so on. Even with such small supervisory responsibilities, it is literally impossible to directly oversee any more than a few levels of hierarchy. There just isn’t enough time. There simply has to be some independence at the bottom which economic planners can’t plan for, or control. This simple fact of organization can thwart even the best-laid plans.
- Gordon Tullock – The Organization of Inquiry
A public choice approach to the process of scientific advancement. A basic tenet of economics is that people respond to incentives; Tullock applies this insight to scientists and their professional behavior. Along the way, Tullock anticipates Google (in 1966!) and is skeptical of tenure for college professors. The link goes to a free PDF version.
- Neil DeGrasse Tyson – Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries
A collection of Tyson’s monthly essays for Natural History magazine. It’s a little scattershot, as many essay collections are. But this is an entertaining read, with plenty of quality science to go along with Tyson’s occasionally curmudgeonly sense of humor.
- Kevin Underhill – The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance: And Other Real Laws that Human Beings Actually Dreamed Up, Enacted, and Sometimes Even Enforced
A hilarious collection of weird statutes covering ancient times, modern times, and federal, state, local, and international statutes. There is at least a laugh per page. A useful example for illustrating the difference between legislation and law.
- Kathleen Walker-Meikle – Medieval Cats
A fun little book I picked up in the Musée de Cluny‘s gift shop in Paris. There are beautiful illustrations of illuminated manuscripts on nearly every page, and there are some insights on how man’s relationship with animals has evolved over the years. We’re much kinder now.
- Luigi Zingales – A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity
An attempt at libertarian populism. I am wary of populism in all its forms, from Ancient Roman populares to William Jennings Bryan, right on up through John Edwards and John McCain. But if Zingales’ approach succeeds at making thorough illiberals a little more liberal at the margin, he will have done a valuable public service.
Honorable-ish Mentions: Parenting Books
I haven’t read these two cover-to-cover, but am following along as my wife’s pregnancy unfolds.
- Armin A. Brott and Jennifer Ash – The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be
A guide to pregnancy aimed at men. Offers advice on how to provide emotional support, be engaged in the process, and more. There is an overcautious, scaredy-cat vibe in places that I don’t care for, and at times I feel the authors think men are oafs (in their defense, this is often true). It still has plenty of useful information.
- Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel – What to Expect When You’re Expecting: 4th Edition
Again, quite useful, but flawed. At times the reader feels like the authors are judging him/her. If you don’t do everything just so, you are a failure as a parent. This is a common theme in the parenting literature. Giving confidence to people who need it seems to me a healthier approach than shaming and fearing, but that’s just me.