Continuing this blog’s annual tradition (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012), 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. Hopefully you’ll find something here that catches your eye; do feel free to share back in the comments or via email.
John Allison – The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure
The first two thirds or so are nuts-and-bolts policy analysis, argued clearly and directly. The final third is more philosophical. This book may not exude charisma, but what it lacks in flash it more than makes up for in substance and clarity. One of the best books about the financial crisis.
Dominick T. Armentano – Antitrust: The Case for Repeal (2nd edition)
Rather strident in tone for my taste. Even so, this is a concise, clear, and valuable summary of how antitrust laws undermine the competitive process, rather than enhance it; intentions are not results. The link goes to a free PDF version.
Bernard Bailyn – The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675
This appropriately titled book gives a painstakingly thorough treatment of the first permanent European settlements by region from the Carolinas to the Chesapeake, to New Amsterdam/New York, and on up to New England. It also gives a thorough treatment of the Native Americans they displaced. Almost without exception, people back then lived hard, short, and shockingly violent lives.
Radley Balko – Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces
An important book by one of my favorite journalists. A long process has given America’s police forces a SWAT team-mentality towards even non-violent offenses. This change was mainly driven by the drug war, but also by seizing on catastrophic events such as the 1965 Watts riots, the 1999 Columbine massacre, and of course, 9/11. The consequences are, on a daily basis, quite literally life and death.
Yoram Bauman and Grady Klein – The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume Two: Macroeconomics
This is a wonderful approach to popularizing economics, and Bauman and Klein have mastered it. Volume 1 neglected trade in favor of game theory; trade gets its due here. The authors give both spontaneous order and constructivist perspectives a fair say on a range of issues, but they neglect to apply public choice and knowledge problem concerns in their carbon tax cheerleading towards the end. Even so, highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about economics.
“Joe Biden” – The President of Vice The Onion’s 2012 election coverage portrayed Biden as a hard-living, cash-strapped, Trans Am-driving burnout who happened to be vice president. This short e-book is that fictionalized Biden’s autobiography. It’s a one-note symphony, but taken in small doses, it is quite funny.
Daniel Boorstin – The Discoverers
An erudite history of innovation, discovery, openness, progress, and science that, as one reviewer put it, reads a bit like an adventure story. The section on sea exploration, discovering the New World, and establishing trade routes to the East is especially vivid.
Geoffrey Brennan and James Buchanan – The Reason of Rules
After explaining the important difference between acting within rules and acting to change the rules, they show that rule changes are necessary for reforming everything from deficit spending to the tax code. As a bonus, they build a model in which a flat income tax gives a more equal income distribution than a progressive income tax. The book relies too heavily on homo economicus for my taste, but contains many valuable insights. Both authors are deep and careful thinkers.
Jason Brennan – Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know
In this quick-reading book, Brennan asks and briefly answers 105 questions about libertarianism, covering everything from the war on drugs to the positive-negative rights distinction to the many different flavors of libertarianism.
Rex Brown with Mark Eglinton – Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera
Some parts could have come straight from the “Joe Biden” memoir above. Rex is also much more venal than his laid-back image would suggest. Even so, this was a heartfelt, honest read about one of my favorite bands from back in the day.
James Buchanan – Better Than Plowing and Other Personal Essays
Buchanan, who died earlier this year, published this collection a few years after he won the economics Nobel. It was partially intended as a way to shrug off reporters. Besides the expected autobiographical details–the title alludes to his rural upbringing–it contains many nuggets of economic, professional, and personal wisdom. An example of a life well lived.
James Buchanan – The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan
Buchanan described this book as his most successful attempt at a one-volume summation of his research program. He distinguishes between constitutional and post-constitutional analysis. The first studies the rules of the game and how they are decided upon, and the second studies how people behave once those rules are in place. Political reforms that fail to account for both phases will turn out rather differently than intended.
James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock – The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy
One of the founding documents of public choice theory, which applies economic methodology to politics. Buchanan and Tullock emphasize methodological individualism, and reject treating groups as the relevant unit of analysis. They also set unanimity as an ideal decision-making benchmark, as opposed to simple majority rule. Their insight that logrolling (vote-trading) is a market behavior was revolutionary.
James Buchanan and Richard Wagner – Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes
When Keynes and his followers ended the old time fiscal religion’s taboo on deficits and inflation, politicians celebrated. Voters like getting stuff from the government, but dislike paying the requisite taxes. Successful politicians could now cater to both of these contradictory preferences through deficit spending and inflation. They won’t stop until the prevailing fiscal ideology changes back, but Buchanan and Wagner also propose institution-level fixes such as a balanced budget amendment.
Christopher Buckley – Boomsday
A fiscal satire, of all things. The young protagonist jokingly proposes fixing the entitlement crisis by giving tax incentives to baby boomers for voluntarily killing themselves (“transitioning”) by age 70, thus saving younger taxpayers from having to support them. The fun begins when people start taking her idea seriously.
Robert Burton – On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not
Certainty is a long-time interest of mine. Burton, a medical doctor, goes into the physiological, neurological, and psychological reasons why people are irrationally sure of themselves. The section on the evolutionary benefits of capital-C Certainty is particularly enlightening, but the later discussion of faith-vs.-science is tiresome. The book could have used a treatment of more earthly ideological certainty instead.
Robert A. Caro – Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson III
Caro takes more than 1,000 pages to cover Johnson’s 12 years in the Senate. And yet this book is an exciting, dramatic read. Its heart is the fight for the 1957 civil rights act — the first such bill the Senate had passed in 82 years, during Reconstruction.
Robert A. Caro – The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson IV
Covers Johnson’s vice presidency, the Kennedy assassination, and the first seven weeks of his presidency. Johnson used the assassination crisis to quickly pass almost the entirety of Kennedy’s remaining legislative agenda, and much else besides. An effective, if wholly unintentional rebuttal to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine.
Rory Carroll – Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela
Neither a left-wing hagiography nor a right-wing hatchet job. This book is more about painting a vivid picture of Chávez, Venezuela, and its people than constructing a narrative history. While the reader’s sense of chronology suffers, Carroll’s approach also makes the book nearly impossible to put down. Coincidentally, it was released just two days after Chávez’s death was announced.
Ronald H. Coase – Essays on Economics and Economists
Coase died this year at age 102. This collection opens with Coase’s Nobel lecture and continues with essays on methodology, mathematicization, and the role economics can play in enhancing human understanding. The second half consists of biographical sketches of Adam Smith, Alfred Marshall, Arnold Plant, George Stigler, and other economic luminaries. Coase knew many of them personally.
Ronald H. Coase – The Firm, the Market, and the Law
This collection includes Coase’s most influential essays, including “The Nature of the Firm,” “The Problem of Social Cost,” and “The Lighthouse in Economics.” The other material is certainly worthy of inclusion, but I wish it had also included “The Federal Communications Commission,” which introduced the idea of wireless spectrum auctions that the FCC currently (sort of) uses. So far as I know, that widely cited article remains relegated to JSTOR.
Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending – The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution
Evolution did not stop when civilization began. Instead, the authors argue that human evolution has actually accelerated 100-fold since the Agricultural Revolution, and they back it up impressively. They even theorize that natural selection may have played a part in why the Industrial Revolution happened when it did, which is of particular interest to this reader.
Rich Cohen – Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football
My grandfather lent this to me. Even as a Packer fan, I greatly enjoyed it. The focus is on the 1985 championship team, but it also contains a quality history of the franchise going all the way back to team founder George Halas’ childhood. A good rivalry has two worthy opponents, and this book made me see the Bears in a new light. As Sun Tzu said, know your enemy.
Susan Crawford – Captive Audience
Not recommended. The author argues that the Internet has become a near-monopoly, and government should regulate it as a public utility, like a power plant or a waterworks. The harried tone borders on conspiracy theorizing, at times almost comically so. In particular, Crawford’s prediction of Netflix’s imminent doom at Comcast’s hands is so far turning out to be rather inaccurate.
Dan Daly – The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football’s First Fifty Years
An offbeat history of pro football from its small-town 1920s beginnings through the 1960s, when the AFL and NFL both commanded national attention. The main attraction is its collection of humorous stories and anecdotes, and quotes from the game’s most colorful early personalities. But there is also a strong narrative component about the game’s evolution from primitive, run-oriented single-wing offenses run in front of small crowds to the T-formation variations that still dominate today’s pass-happy game in packed stadiums and on national tv.
Frank Dikötter – The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
I could only read this book in small chunks; it was too much to bear. Dikötter has done more than construct a standard historical narrative. In addition to archival work, he interviewed survivors, giving their names and telling their stories in their own words. The old saying about one death being a tragedy and a million deaths being a statistic is uncomfortably true. This book, in a way that the Black Book of Communism does not, humanizes one of the world’s saddest statistics.
Rolf Dobelli – The Art of Thinking Clearly
Dobelli, a Swiss novelist and entrepreneur, gives a light-hearted yet thoughtful treatment of common fallacies and mental mistakes. The book has 99 chapters covering 99 fallacies, though each is only a few pages long. Reads quickly, but its lessons are worth thinking over carefully; this book is best taken in small doses.
Donald Driver – Driven: From Homeless to Hero, My Journeys On and Off Lambeau Field
Something of a victory lap for Driver, a Packer great who retired after the 2012 season. He overcame a rough upbringing to become Green Bay’s all-time leading wide receiver, a Super Bowl champion, and a family man. He also won the popular Dancing with the Stars television show, an accomplishment in which he takes great pride.
Brian Fagan – Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans
Fagan is a wonderful popularizer, as capable of painting pictures with words as he is at explaining the latest scientific advances in archaeology. An excellent read about a subject that I very much enjoy, but rarely delve into. Highly recommended.
D.X. Ferris – Slayer’s Reign in Blood
An in-depth look at the personalities, creative process, context, and larger cultural importance of my favorite album by one of my favorite bands–and one of the few that has stood the test of time from adolescence to adulthood.
Don Gulbrandsen – Green Bay Packers: The Complete Illustrated History – Third Edition
This book gives in-depth coverage to Green Bay’s three eras of greatness — Curly Lambeau’s six championships in the team’s early years, Lombardi’s five championships in the 1960s, and the current 20-plus-year run that began with team president Bob Harlan, GM Ron Wolf, coach Mike Holmgren, and QB Brett Favre. This edition concludes with the Packers’ record-setting 13th championship under the current Ted Thompson-Mike McCarthy-Aaron Rodgers triumvirate. Just as important, the book also gives plenty of attention to the fallow years in between.
F.A. Hayek (W.W. Bartley III and Stephen Kresge, eds.) – The Trend of Economic Thinking: Essays on Political Economists and Economic History
The third volume of Hayek’s collected works. This volume is a collection of historical essays and lectures with a focus on monetary theory, many of which date back to Hayek’s early years at the London School of Economics in the 1920s and 1930s. Also contains biographical sketches of Richard Cantillon, Henry Thornton, Hermann Heinrich Gossen, Hume, Bacon, Adam Smith, and Bernard Mandeville. The link goes to a free PDF version.
Peter Hook – Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division
Caustic, yet poignant. Joy Division’s bassist, not always the most sympathetic character, chronicles the band’s unfinished rise. Fortunately, their music lives on.
Arnold Kling – The Three Languages of Politics
In this short ebook, Kling outlines his three-axis model, which explains why people of different ideologies talk past each other, and rarely to each other. Progressives largely see the world through an oppressor-oppressed axis, conservatives through a civilization-barbarism axis, and libertarians through a freedom-coercion axis. The three types can look at the same data and draw three completely different conclusions. This deserves a fuller treatment, which I hope Kling will give in the near future.
Lawrence Krauss – The Physics of Star Trek
A bit of good fun to accompany the release of the new Star Trek movie in May. I unfortunately read the older edition from 1995, which is quite dated in places; physics advances quickly. The link goes to the newer 2007 edition.
John Locke – Second Treatise of Government
It’s good to revisit the classics. The tone of this particular classic is much more revolutionary than I remembered. I no longer wonder why Locke had his troubles with the authorities.
Edward Lopez and Wayne Leighton – Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change
The first two thirds of the book are a layman-friendly (and highly recommended) tour of political philosophy from Plato to the Enlightenment, and of economics from Adam Smith to James Buchanan. The remainder shows that political change happens much the same way economic change does: a mix of fortuitous circumstances and active, opportunistic entrepreneurship. The authors coin the term “political entrepreneur” to describe effective change agents.
Ludwig von Mises – Interventionism: An Economic Analysis
Written in 1940, after World War II began, but before the U.S. entered the fray. Mises, an Austrian Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazis, argues that Britain, France, and the other Allies would have been in a better position to defeat Germany–or prevent war altogether–if they had not economically weakened themselves in the interwar years with interventionist policies. Some arguments prefigure Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, which came out four years later.
Albert Mudrian – Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore
A quality oral history of extreme metal. The author interviewed more than 100 people for this book, and it is mostly their words. The book is especially strong on the early days, but loses its way by 2000 or so. It contains no mention of several major bands, including Meshuggah and Lamb of God. Other major bands, such as Fear Factory, have cameos at best. This is a good book for fans of the genre, but it may be time for an updated edition.
Tom G. Palmer (ed.) – Why Liberty?
Tom accurately describes this book as a “snack tray for the mind.” This quick-reading collection of short essays by a variety of mostly young scholars is the fourth in Students for Liberty‘s annual series. It looks at the idea of liberty from the perspectives of history, philosophy, policy, the arts, economics, and more. The link goes to a free PDF version.
Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Probably the most thought-provoking book in this list not authored by Jim Buchanan. Pinker shows with abundant data that for several millennia now, humanity has become progressively less violent over time, both in degree and in kind. Despite a 1960s-70s blip with echoes lasting into the 1990s, the trend continues to this day. Pinker’s many theories as to how this came about range from genetic change to the rise of commerce and bourgeois values to an environmentally-caused improvement in abstract reasoning capabilities (and relatedly, empathy).
George H. Smith – The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism
Smith, a top-flight political philosopher and intellectual historian, surveys the major themes and debates in liberal thought. He also clears up common misconceptions and smears, such as the conflation of individualism with atomism, and Herbert Spencer’s use of the term “survival of the fittest.” Smith treats the usual big names like Locke, Hobbes, and Mill, but also introduces several lesser-known thinkers such as Thomas Hodgskin, William Graham Sumner, and Georg Simmel. This is the kind of book that rewards re-reading, which is a compliment I certainly intend to pay this excellent work.
John B. Taylor – Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged, and Worsened the Financial Crisis
When the financial crisis first hit, most people thought the cause was a liquidity crunch, because that is what caused the Great Depression. Taylor was one of the first to show that the crisis was instead caused by too much risk. Liquidity-oriented policies such as ad hoc bailouts and stimulus made the crisis worse by causing uncertainty while leaving the original risk problem untreated. One quibble: at one point he calls a counterfactual analysis “empirical,” which strikes this reviewer as literally impossible. Otherwise highly recommended.
John B. Taylor – First Principles: Five Keys to Restoring America’s Prosperity
Without rejecting Getting Off Track‘s data-driven approach, Taylor grounds this book more in philosophical principles. The five he emphasizes are limited government, rule of law, strong incentives, reliance on markets, and predictability. He applies them to a wide suite of issues, from monetary policy to cronyism to health care.
Gordon Tullock (Charles K. Rowley, ed.) – The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, Volume 1: Virginia Political Economy
An introduction to the sheer breadth of Tullock’s work. The 50 or so collected articles are a case study in economic imperialism. They cover the economics of voting, rent-seeking, politics, legal systems, judicial decisions, anarchy, pollution, crime, and even bioeconomics, which applies economic methodology to the study of nature and animal behavior.
Gordon Tullock (Charles K. Rowley, ed.) – The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, Volume 5: The Rent-Seeking Society
In economics, rents are outsized profits that go above and beyond a normal rate of return. Rent-seeking is using government to unfairly gain these rents, whether through subsidies, favorable regulations, or other special treatment. This book collects Tullock’s pioneering work on the subject. It is a travesty that he has not won the Nobel.
Kurt Vonnegut – Breakfast of Champions
Vonnegut had a remarkable way of being world-weary and childlike at the same time.
Lawrence Wright – Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
Wright goes well out of his way to be evenhanded, possibly in part because of Scientology’s litigious tendencies. His just-the-facts presentation actually makes the church come off worse. The parts about the Sea Org and the Rehabilitation Project Force are a uniquely American addition to prison literature.
As is now tradition on this blog (2009, 2010, 2011), here are capsule reviews of all the books I read this year. The usual rules apply: only books I actually finished made the list, and I recommend them unless stated otherwise in the review. My approach is less extreme than Tyler Cowen‘s, but I still tend not to finish a book unless I feel it’s worth the time and effort; hence the mostly favorable reviews. If you see any that interest you, I hope you’ll check them out. A good book is one of life’s genuine joys, and one well worth sharing.
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
Why are some countries rich while others are poor? According to this book, institutions are the answer. Countries with extractive political and economic institutions are poor and despotic. Countries with more inclusive institutions prosper.
Tom Bethell – Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher
Hoffer was a dockworker and philosopher who wrote the massively influential The True Believer. This biography does a good job of blending Hoffer’s personal and intellectual lives, and reveals that he may have been an illegal immigrant from Germany. Which, of course, only reinforces my pro-immigration views.
Peter Boettke – Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
An insightful collection of 22 articles about teaching economics, and what economics can teach us — and what it can’t. The economist should see himself as a student of society, not its savior. Humility, not certainty.
Daniel J. Boorstin – The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination
A lengthy history of the arts spanning 3,000 years, told mainly through biography. Almost all of its 70 chapters tell the life story of one or more great artist, and describes their works. Poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, photography, and more all get their moments.
Donald J. Boudreaux – Hypocrites & Half-Wits: A Daily Dose of Sanity from Cafe Hayek
I sometimes give a lunch seminar to CEI’s interns about writing, and assign them to write letters to the editor. Don taught me much of what I know in that department. This excellent book, which collects 100 or so of his best letters, shows why I learned from the best. My personal favorite is the final one.
Jim Bouton – Ball Four
A baseball classic. A tell-all diary/memoir/autobiography of Bouton’s 1969 season pitching for the Seattle Pilots. It’s as funny as it is cynical.
Michael Breen – Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader, Revised and Updated Edition
Unimpressive, but still valuable. Breen’s use of bad pop psychology to analyze Kim Jong-il’s character wastes valuable pages, and he is an awkward prose stylist. But he has gathered a lot of valuable inside information from his years as a journalist covering North Korea, and shares it eagerly.
Robert Caro – The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1
The first of four lengthy volumes published so far. The series is a study of power as much as it is of LBJ himself. Caro, while ideologically sympathetic to Johnson’s Great Society, is unafraid to paint him — accurately — as power-obsessed, manipulative, and often just plain mean.
Robert Caro – Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 2
Glad I read this during an election year. The heart of the book is the story of Johnson’s 1948 Senate race against Coke Stevenson. The two men could not be more different, which alone makes it interesting. But the lengths to which Johnson went during the campaign reveal much about the politician’s mindset. Johnson stole the election all but openly; the rest is history.
Kenneth Clark – Civilisation: A Personal View
The companion book to Clark’s masterful BBC art history documentary, which I also recommend. Clark never does define “civilization,” but he shows 280 examples of it in this lavishly illustrated book.
Benjamin Constant – Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
Published in 1815, the same year as Waterloo. Constant was a French political philosopher heavily influenced by Enlightenment ideals. But this is a world-weary work; Constant lived through the French Revolution, the Terror, and Napoleon’s wars. Above all else except for human freedom, he yearned for peace and quiet. I can get behind that.
Martha Derthick and Paul J. Quick – The Politics of Deregulation
Dry as dust, but informative. Tells the story of how a perfect storm led to airline, trucking, and telecom deregulation under Ford, Carter, and Reagan. In a bit of disciplinary squabbling, The political scientist authors repeatedly go out of their way to disparage by name economists such as Anthony Downs, Bill Niskanen, and Mancur Olson. But their Homo economicus-based criticisms reveal that they probably haven’t read them, and certainly don’t understand them.
Peter K. Diamandis and Steven Kotler – Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation. He has excellent insights into our biological predilection towards pessimism, and gives a tour of innovations that could change the world and end poverty over the next few decades.
Paul Dickson: Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick
Veeck was a baseball innovator and showman who also had a healthy sense of humor. He put the ivy in Wrigley Field, last names on players’ jerseys, set off fireworks after home runs, and once sent 3′ 7″ Eddie Gaedel to bat during a regular season game. He also played a major role in baseball’s racial integration.
Susan Dudley and Jerry Brito – Regulation: A Primer, Second Edition
Highly recommended. Excellent overview of the different types of regulation, their rationales, and the regulatory process. The link goes to a free PDF version.
Robert Heinlein – The Man Who Sold the Moon
A collection of sci-fi stories and a novella. As dated as some Heinlein stories are, the better ones have a simple joie de vivre that both leavens and complements his usual anti-authoritarianism.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe – The Sufferings of Young Werther
A work of much passion and emotion, and little sense. Reminds me of what it was like to be 19 years old. From an aesthetic standpoint, though, it is simply beautiful.
Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni – Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar
This book weaves together three themes. The first two, tightly intertwined, are Cato’s life story and the end of the Roman Republic, in which he believed strongly enough to die for. The third is his legacy, which endured all the way from St. Augustine to Dante to Addison to Trenchard and Gordon to today’s Cato Institute.
Blaine Harden – Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
The story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who is believed to be the only person born in a North Korean prison camp to ever escape alive. Besides describing the unimaginable hardships he endured, it tells of his new life as a human rights activist, and the difficulties he has faced adjusting to life on the outside. Shin also receives 50 percent of this book’s royalties, if you need further incentive to buy it.
F.A. Hayek (Stephen Kresge and Leif Wenar, eds.) – Hayek on Hayek: An Autobiographical Dialogue
Hayek’s easiest read. He spoke much more clearly than he wrote. Still, it’s not a good introduction. A basic prior knowledge of his major works is essential to get much out of it. A valuable read, but Hayek neophytes are better served by the relevant parts of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism.
Christopher Hitchens – Why Orwell Matters
Hitchens waxes eloquent on why Orwell was a principled opponent of all kinds of totalitarianism, whether from the right or the left. He is not afraid to criticize Orwell’s regrettable prejudices (women, gays, Jews), but he paints an overall picture of a an archenemy of arbitrary power, and a master of language.
Christopher Hitchens – Mortality
Hitchens’ account of dying of esophageal cancer. Difficult to read.
Mark Kurlansky – Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man
Clarence Birdseye was the fellow who invented frozen food. He was also a colorful character. An enjoyable look at how innovation happens, and filled with random facts about food, Labrador, the physics and chemistry of freezing, and much else.
Robert E. Litan and William D. Nordhaus – Reforming Federal Regulation
Published in 1983, so some parts are dated. But it contains useful discussions of numerous reform ideas, including an entire chapter on the regulatory budget, a personal favorite. If there’s a budget for how much government can spend, there should be one for how much it can regulate, too.
Steven Malanga – Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer
A public choice-influenced book that examines rent-seeking from public sector unions, community organizers, and allied politicians at the state and local levels. The picture Malanga paints is not a pretty one for taxpayers, especially in California and New Jersey.
David Maraniss – When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi
Lombardi is something of a god in the football world. Maraniss brings him down to earth while confirming his legendary stature. Lombardi’s drive and personality never allowed him to achieve Machiavelli’s preferred balance of fear and love, though he did try.
Allan Massie – The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain
Follows Scotland’s royal family from its murky origins as stewards (hence Stewart, or Stuart) to earlier Scottish monarchs, to the family capturing the crown for itself, on through James VI and I’s unifying the Scottish and English crowns, Charles I’s 1649 “shortening,” the Glorious Revolution that made Parliament supreme, to the line’s extinction after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s failed plot to reclaim the crown. Good stuff.
Dierdre McCloskey – Crossing: A Memoir
Deirdre, one of my favorite economists, was once Donald. This is the story of her transition. It makes one appreciate just how hard it can be to feel comfortable in one’s own skin. As with all of her books, it is superbly written.
Ludwig von Mises – Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
Originally published in 1922, and very prescient. The prevailing thought at the time was that a planned economy would be wealthier than an unplanned market economy; Mises showed this not to be true. People thought socialism would free people; Mises showed why the total state would enslave them.
Bruce Nash and Alan Zullo – The Football Hall of Shame
Not the most intellectually stimulating book, but it is laugh-out-loud funny. The literary equivalent of a blooper film.
Tom Palmer (ed.) – After the Welfare State
A collection of essays about the welfare state and its alternatives. The historical essays about mutual aid by David Green and David Beito are especially valuable. You can download a free copy at the link.
Martin Redfern – The Earth: A Very Short Introduction
Part of Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series. A densely packed geology primer written in an engaging and occasionally humorous style. Good for anyone from a high school student to an interested layman like this writer.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men
Nature is good and civilization is bad, according to this early work of Rousseau’s. His later works reached the same conclusion, but fortunately with more nuance. Voltaire wrote to Rousseau about this book, “Reading your book fills one with the desire to walk on all fours.” Like Voltaire and unlike Rousseau, I would rather be man than animal.
Steven Saylor – Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome
Historical fiction that does justice to both words. Follows the ebbs and flows of a single line of descendants over 1,000 years. Different personalities and common themes both shine through. Pre-Romulus and Remus mythical times, the Age of Kings, the entire life of the Republic, and the rise of Caesar and Augustus are all covered in vivid detail.
Peter Schweizer: Throw Them All Out
No one will be surprised by this book’s thesis: most politicians are corrupt, and it is a thoroughly bipartisan problem. Most people would be surprised by the many details that Schweizer reveals.
William L. Shirer – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
Long, but very good. The hardback edition I have is a two-volume set. The definitive history of Nazi Germany. A weakness is that it focuses on diplomacy, political maneuvering, and military strategy at the near-total expense of social history.
Thomas Sowell – A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
Very insightful. Sowell compares the constrained and unconstrained visions of the world, and shows why they tend to talk past, instead of to each other. The unconstrained vision believes in the unconstrained power of intellectuals to achieve desired social results. The constrained vision believes the world is too complicated for such plans to work, and prefers ever-evolving, bottom-up processes.
John Stossel – No They Can’t: Why Government Fails – But Individuals Succeed
I don’t care for the unsubtle title, but Stossel is one of today’s better popularizers of libertarian ideas. Not much original material here, but well-suited for people interested in classical liberal ideas but unwilling to slog through the primary sources.
Bryan Ward-Perkins – The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization
A darker counterpoint to Peter Wells’ sunnier take on post-classical Europe. Not as pessimistic as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, but he emphasizes across-the-board declines in living standards, population, trade, literacy, architecture, and the quantity and quality of consumer goods.
Peter S. Wells – Barbarians to Angels: Reconsidering the Dark Ages
A mostly successful attempt to improve the Dark Ages’ dismal rehabilitation. Surviving texts are mostly from the declining Romans’ pessimistic perspective; hence the dominant view. Wells prefers a different historiographical perspective: archaeology. In his enthusiasm he oversells his case, but he makes an excellent point. I blogged about the book here.
David Wessel – Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget
Very little here in the way of original thought. But it’s a good primer for the layman on the ticking fiscal time bomb. Wessel is studiously non-partisan, a huge plus in my book. Though he does favor fiscal stimulus, which makes me question his economic acumen; broken window fallacy and all that.
Richard Wrangham – Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
Absolutely fascinating, and highly recommended. Cooking food makes it easier to digest, and allows otherwise indigestible nutrients to be absorbed. This is what made the large, energy-intensive human brain possible. We are literally evolved to cook.
This video is well worth the few minutes it takes to watch. Click here if the embedded video below doesn’t work.
Tom also plugs a new book he edited, The Morality of Capitalism. I’m a little over half way through it right now, and it is excellent. You can buy a hard copy here, and download a free electronic version (PDF format) here.
Posted onJune 8, 2010|Comments Off on Explaining Free Trade in Under Three Minutes
Sometimes, the fastest, most effective way to explain economics is to tell a story. One of the best-done examples is in Steven Landsburg’s book The Armchair Economist, where he tells David Friedman’s “Iowa Car Crop” story to get readers to think about trade (see pp. 197-99).
[T]here are two technologies for producing automobiles in America. One is to manufacture them in Detroit, and the other is to grow them in Iowa.
Okay… how does that work?
First you plant seeds, which are the raw material from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships eastward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.
Sounds almost magical. But it happens millions of times every day. The lesson is that trade is about specialization. A farmer doesn’t know how to build a car. But he can still have one by sticking to his specialty – growing wheat. He can trade his surplus to other people who do nothing but specialize in building cars.
This cuts both ways. Most factory workers don’t know a thing about farming. But by concentrating on building cars, they eat far better than if they grew their own wheat. The nature of trade is that everyone wins when they specialize. The only limit on specialization is the size of the market.
Restrictions on trade – tariffs, quotas, antidumping duties — shrink that market. And by shrinking the market, they limit specialization, which is the source of all prosperity. It’s good to grow cars in Iowa.
Posted onMarch 31, 2010|Comments Off on Broken Windows, 9/11, and World War II
Ever hear the old canard that war is good for the economy? Or that natural disasters create jobs? Those arguments illustrate one of the oldest fallacies in economics: Bastiat’s broken window fallacy. The video below, by Tom Palmer and his colleagues at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, explains why in two minutes and change. Worth watching.
Comments Off on Broken Windows, 9/11, and World War II