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2014: The Year in Books

Libraries-university-club-library-p-peter-bond-twisted-sifter
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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
  26. 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.
  27. 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.
  28. 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.
  29. 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.
  30. 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.
  31. 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.
  32. 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.
  33. 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.
  34. 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.
  35. Carl Sagan – Contact
    Sagan’s novel about the discovery of extraterrestrial life, which inspired the movie of the same name in the 1990s.
  36. 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.
  37. 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.
  38. 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.
  39. 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.
  40. 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.
  41. 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.
  42. 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?
  43. 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.
  44. Bram Stoker – Dracula
    Bedtime reading during October. It was fun.
  45. 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.
  46. 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.
  47. 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.
  48. 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.
  49. 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.
  50. 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.
  51. 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.
  52. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

2012: The Year in Books

library strahov theological hall

I wish.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Bill Clinton – Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy
    Quick-hit book of progressive policy ideas. Recommended for young economists learning about opportunity costs, comparative advantage, and other Econ 101 concepts. Lots of places to apply them here. I also reviewed it for RealClearBooks.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu – The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet
    This ad hominem-free deluge of data and arguments made me feel embarrassed for buy-local activists such as Michael Pollan. Like watching a cat play with a mouse.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. Brian Doherty – Ron Paul’s rEVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired
    This book is more about Ron Paul supporters, warts and all, than it is about Paul himself. A fun read, if not terribly edifying. Could stand to be a little more critical.
  18. 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.
  19. William Easterly – The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good
    The title, drawn from Kipling, refers to the West’s haughty condescension towards the Rest. Easterly draws a dichotomy between Planners — top-down, grandiose, and bureaucratic — and Searchers, who take a more bottom-up, humble, and effective approach to aid.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. Gene Healy – False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency
    An update to 2008’s superb Cult of the Presidency, this short e-book looks at the abuses and expansion of executive power over the last four years. Obama doesn’t deserve the blame, though. The public’s unrealistic expectations for the office are what drive its constant expansion. I wrote more about the book here.
  26. 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.
  27. Christopher Hitchens – Mortality
    Hitchens’ account of dying of esophageal cancer. Difficult to read.
  28. Mike Kim – Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country
    Kim, a Korean-American, gave up a career in finance to move to the Chinese-North Korean border and help refugees. The stories he tells about the people he met and helped are harrowing, yet ennobling.
  29. 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.
  30. 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.
  31. 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.
  32. 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.
  33. Michael L. Marlow – The Myth of Fair and Efficient Government: Why the Government You Want Is Not the One You Get
    Hayek wrote that “Nobody can be a great economist who is only an economist.” Marlow, at least in this book, is only an economist. Still, this would make a decent free-market policy primer for an undergraduate. The trouble is that Marlow’s monomaniacal focus on efficiency leaves out all the other reasons markets are preferable to their alternatives.
  34. 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.
  35. 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.
  36. 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.
  37. David Nasaw – The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy
    The Kennedy patriarch was a remarkable man, if not always a pleasant one. Nasaw’s biography is Caro-esque in its level of detail. This is mostly for the good, though it spends entirely too much time on his ambassadorship in London and his alliance with Neville Chamberlain.
  38. 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.
  39. 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.
  40. Roger Pearson – Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom
    The author needs a remedial lesson in comma usage, but this is still a wonderful book. One can’t help laughing along with Voltaire as he crushes l’infame.
  41. 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.
  42. 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.
  43. 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.
  44. 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.
  45. 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.
  46. 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.
  47. George J. Stigler – The Intellectual and the Marketplace: Enlarged Edition
    Stigler, a Nobel-winning economist, was as well known for his wit and his sharp sense of humor as he was for his technical excellence. This surprisingly funny book shows that wit in full flower.
  48. 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.
  49. Sean Trende – The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs – and Who Will Take It
    I’m not much on the political horse race, but this was a good read. Trende persuasively argues that there are no permanent majorities, and that most pundits are pattern-seeking, hyperbolic windbags. I’ve long thought the same thing myself.
  50. Bob Uecker – Catcher in the Wry: Outrageous but True Stories of Baseball
    In true Uecker fashion, I bought this book for one cent. Better, I paid nearly 400 times that — $3.99 — for shipping. It was well worth it. Uecker’s self-deprecating brand of humor is always good for a smile.
  51. 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.
  52. 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.
  53. Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, Jurst Laviana, and L. Kelly – Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door
    Not a biography. This is the story of how Wichita detectives caught Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. It took them 31 years. Kudos to them for their patience and persistence in tracking down a particularly elusive monster.
  54. 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.
  55. 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.

Economics Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

Economics is a genuinely exciting subject to study. But introductory economics classes are genuinely boring.

Maybe they’re designed that way to weed out the weak. But that means fewer people are learning the economic way of thinking. This is a mistake. Everyone should know at least the basics.

I’m not talking comparative statics or Edgeworth boxes, or any of that nonsense that scares off lay people. Leave that to the academics. I’m talking fundamentals. The stuff that everyday people can understand and use. Such as the fact that people respond to incentives, and by being aware of that, you can read a lot into why people behave the way they do.

Or the role that the price system plays in conveying information and affecting behavior. Or the fact that millions of Parisians and New Yorkers are fed each and every day, even though nobody is coordinating the process. Which really is a miracle if you think about it.

That’s why Bill Easterly is one of my favorite economists. Tasked with teaching Econ 1 this semester, he’s decided not to follow the usual (boring) pedagogy:

Sorry, I’m not all that concerned with “how individuals, blah, blah, optimal choices, blah, blah, scarcity, blah, blah…” I’m concerned why some people are so rich and other people are so poor. I want to understand why some economies work and others don’t, and why even the ones that work still don’t work for everyone. I want to understand how other Americans and I got 64 times richer than our ancestors.

I want to know why Robert Iger, the CEO of Disney, makes $140,000 a day, and why some rock-breakers I met in Ghana make $1 a day. I think a differential of 140,000 times is pretty important to understand…

Economics principles are a set of tools that have evolved to transcend scarcity into abundance. When students use these principles to solve problems in an Econ class, they are recreating the process of historical problem solving in which poor people discovered the principles to become rich people.

If there were more professors like Easterly, maybe economics would have a livelier reputation, not to mention more students. The subject matter is the very stuff of life. But the average lecturer’s performance is the very stuff of death. Or at least of sleep.

Hayek’s Uneasy Relationship with Conservatives

Bill Easterly does a good job of sticking up for Hayek.

Hayek could be quite different than Hayekians. That distinction needs to be made in this era of tea parties and the dominant liberal-vs.-conservative false dichotomy.

I think it’s great that some conservatives are boosting Hayek (I wish progressives would, too; they’d find a lot to like). It just appears they aren’t reading him very closely. Do bear that in mind before associating Hayek with conservatism.

Worth reading: Hayek’s essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Print it out. Read it closely. Mark up the margins with your notes and reactions. Agree or disagree, this essay rewards deep and careful thought. I’ve read it several times over the years, and every time I pick it up again I learn something new.

Time to Leave Afghanistan

Bill Easterly’s surprisingly Hayekian take on Afghanistan is worth a read:

News sources say that President Obama will choose “escalate” with additional troops for Afghanistan in his speech at West Point tonight. I and many like-minded individuals find this disastrous.

“Like-minded” means that critics of top-down state plans for economic development are also not fans of top-down state plans for military development. If the Left likes the first, and the Right likes the second, that just shows you how incoherent Left and Right are.

Seems Obvious, Doesn’t It?

Bill Easterly on Afghanistan:

Transitionland had a thoughtful response to my cri de coeur on Afghanistan yesterday. Among her recommendations for improving things:(1) Stop the air strikes that are killing civilians,
(2) Crack down on corrupt contractors to USAID,
(3) Stop supporting Afghan warlords who are homicidal and/or corrupt.

So, after years of experimentation, we can now start applying these subtle, complex lessons:

(1) Don’t kill,
(2) Don’t steal,
(3) Don’t give aid to those who do.