Over the past five years, I’ve read a number of books that have been instrumental in informing my views. I’d like to give a list of some of the books I found most useful, separated by category.
I have not read all of them; I will specifically notate which books I have not yet read but am interesting in reading.
In case you didn’t notice, I found out about a lot of books on this list via a combination of Foreign Affairs reviews, The Economist reviews, and Daily Show interviews. I recommend all three for finding new books!
Free Flow of Information
The Politics of Information — Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones (2015) (Amazon link)
Find brief book summary here.
Conversational Capacity — Craig Weber (2013) (Amazon link)
Find brief book summary here.
- Deconstructs the so-called extrovert ideal. Talks about ways introverts can be valuable in the workplace, as well as ways the extrovert ideal gets in the way of leveraging those advantages. Discusses different ways introverts can overcome this extrovert ideal and voice their ideas and values.
- Discusses ways in which Motivation 2.0 (carrots and sticks) result in unintended consequences, including crowding out intrinsic motivation. Highlights three factors for intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Proposes a personality extension of Type I and Type II with Type I and Type X, where Type I is intrinsically driven and Type X is extrinsically driven.
Public Shaming, Addiction, and Suffering
- This book follows several high-profile insensitive remarks that result in intense public shaming with tangible physical results: recipients lose their jobs, become emotionally tattered, and even experience suicidal ideation. It also talks about how Internet and social media has unhelpfully amplified what has happened.
- This was a major theme this election thanks to all manner of behaviors such as “purity tests,” alt-right, shaming anyone refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton, etc. It is a major recurring theme in the show Black Mirror. (Where’s Waldo!)
- Arguably, Monica Lewinsky is patient zero of this trend (notice the like to disslike ratio compared to most TED talks). And it can only get worse, up to Nosedive in Black Mirror, where all social media data is public and it becomes a credit score. Or the sesame seed program in China.
- So yeah. Book of the year in 2015 / 2016, according to CGP Grey? Yarp.
- Covers all manner of trauma associated with the war on drugs. Notes that only 5 percent of heroin addicts in the Vietnam war came back home addicted (i.e. rat isolation to rat park). Explores innovative solutions such as Switzerland’s free provision of safe opiates and Portugal’s entire experiment with decriminalization after decades of escalating drug wars on the sharp drop in overdoses and HIV infection rates and the monumental improvements in addicts’ quality of lives.
- Explores what causes people to be addicted to drugs. Follows one man’s crusade to declare an international war on drugs via the UN. Covers the difference between classic rat studies and a rat park where even previous addicts did not touch the heroin-laced water.
- First step to fixing drug addiction: treat the addict as a human. Accept that they will fall off the wagon without shaming them.
- Especially relevant today because emotional trauma associated with loneliness, expectations gap, and Facebook are very real. Oh, and there’s sort of an opiate epidemic going on in the US right now tied to the liberal distribution of painkillers, followed by the lack of legal mechanisms to continue getting non-contaminated, relatively affordable painkillers.
- A fantastic companion read with Jon Ronson’s book by the way! I read both of them in short succession.
Understanding Bernie or Bust and disenchantment with the Democratic establishment
- Right now, the Democratic party is great for two types of people: the top 10 percent, professional or professionally aspiring class (most of my friends group fall under this category, including myself), and ethnic / LGBTQ / females within that professional group who feel deeply unwelcome in the Republican party.
- A recent political history (1968–2016) of the Democratic party and how time and time again they sided with business and professional interests against private unions and the working class, preferring a vision of a “meritocratic society” (with its implicit statement that you are lazy should you fail).
- However, it has been awful for the working class families. Neoliberal policy such as the assault on public schooling, silence as multinational corporations tore communities apart, “welfare reform” that increased the poverty rate, particularly those under extreme poverty, adversely affected the poor and undermined their loyalty to the Democrats. Moreover, Democrats have become socially liberal to the point of intolerance of more socially conservative views, which also drives some to the hands of the GOP.
- The modern-day Democratic party is not too different from a moderate, socially liberal Republican. And the likes of David Brock, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Hillary Clinton, even President Obama are perpetuating that.
- In the meantime, a lot of people are falling underneath the cracks and cannot get up without substantial help. It is these people who are disenchanted with the party enough to defect in double digits for the anti-establishment flavor of the day, whether that be Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump.
American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper — Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (2016) — on reading list (Amazon link)
(From Amazon): In American Amnesia, bestselling political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson trace the economic and political history of the United States over the last century and show how a viable mixed economy has long been the dominant engine of America’s prosperity. We have largely forgotten this reliance, as many political circles and corporate actors have come to mistakenly see government as a hindrance rather than the propeller it once was. “American Amnesia” is more than a rhetorical phrase; elites have literally forgotten, or at least forgotten to talk about, the essential role of public authority in achieving big positive-sum bargains in advanced societies.
- Own guess: The problem is that the Republican party’s ideological andprocedural extremism has seriously damaged institutional trust in basic “democratic” structures such as Congress. They have considered Democrats’ electoral routs as a serious disappointment, because their political shyness has been terrible to their political fortunes.
The Eurozone and the Euro’s Death Spiral (NEW!)
Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt — Martin Sandbu (2015) (Amazon link)
- Argues that the best solution for the Euro from the very beginning was an aggressive restructuring of debt to clean out the balance sheets of countries and European banks alike. Also advocates a new type of bond tied to equity, which would repay less during economic crises like the current one.
- When the IMF suggested doing so in 2009 to rescue Greece, it was immediately rebuffed by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Instead, Germany has insisted on austerity for Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy, even though the problem with Ireland and Spain were massive real estate bubbles and Italy’s issue was historical debt overhang despite recent primary surpluses (surplus before interest on bond payments).
- All this austerity and “structural reforms” have caused a lot of economic pain, raising the unemployment rate and inciting unrest, at a time when the governmental multiplier is much higher than usual thanks to weak private demand.
- Now, in Greece, we have Alexis Tspiras and Syriza, which is trying to undo all of this neoliberal policy. Their wishes have been routinely bludgeoned into silence. At this rate, it is only a matter of time before something like neo-Nazi parties eventually make their way into power.
Inequality — economic and political failure
- Thirty-year political history spanning the start of the Carter administration to the first two years of the Obama administration showing how government has time and time again tilted policy in favor of the rich, how special interest groups have had a meteoric rise in power, and how policy proposed to help the poor or middle class were watered down or failed — a concept known as policy drift.
- Carefully documents how money in politics has a serious corrupting influence on members of Congress. Also shows how it makes it politically impossible for both the left and the right to pass the policies they care about. Key solution is a publicly funded election: it involves a voluntary program where politicians can solicit donations from a $50 voucher given to all voting age Americans, which can be complemented by up to $100 in individual donations. To participate, they must reject large donations and PAC money.
Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America — Robert McChesney and John Nichols (2013) (Amazon link)
- Like Republic, Lost, it shows how money in politics is destroying political efficacy. It also conducts a thorough analysis of how media has consolidated over time and been increasingly dependent on commercial interests and on coverage cues from those in power. One section even talks about data mining, and how that exacerbates the effects of echo chambers and polarization. A fantastic read.
The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America — and What We Can Do to Stop It — Thom Hartmann (Amazon link)
- Talks about the tendency for there to be a serious crisis in our country every 80 years. The first crisis was the Civil War. The next, the Depression. Every 80 years, incoming generations forget about the lessons of previous generations and repeat mistakes; the balance of power of so-called royalists (originating from people who supported the British during the American Revolution) consequently increases. One thing I loved about this book was its thorough coverage of a shadowy organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative coalition of powerful special interest groups that writes so-called “model” legislation to be introduced in state legislatures, such as extremely strict “right-to-work” legislation. Here’s John Oliver’s coverage of that.
Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few — Robert Reich (2015) (Amazon link) Have not read
- By former secretary of labor under Clinton administration; now one of the most important and articulate supporters of Bernie Sanders.
- Central premise: as long as the return on capital is greater than economic growth (r > g), then the distribution of wealth will increasingly trend towards the owners of capital rather than working people. This has troubling implications for income inequality.
- Central premise: a lot of governmental policies designed to help the people are effectively invisible: the primary example of this are tax expenditures. This causes Americans to routinely underestimate the actual role government plays in shaping distribution and inequality, and consequently to demand a smaller government than would be effective.
Media and the Newsroom
The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again — Robert McChesney and John Nichols (2010) (Amazon link)
- An in-depth account about the decline of media since the 1970s. Amazingly, even before the Internet and the financial crisis accelerated the financial troubles of news publications, they were already aggressively slashing the size of the newsrooms on Wall Street’s demand. Moreover, there are two trends that undermine the ability for media to be a watchdog: first, they tend to take cues for coverage from the official sources in power, which distorts their agenda. Second, the need for ratings drives sensationalist garbage (Exhibit A: Buzzfeed, tabloids, celebrity news). McChesney and Nichols outline three main solutions: first, generous tax credits for news publications; second, a voucher for the American people to publicly fund our news; and third, a dramatic increase in funding for existing public news outlets like PBS and NPR.
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media — Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (2002) (Amazon link) Have not read
- Not familiar with what specifically the book covers, but I think it’s probably very similar issues to the book above (i.e. the unholy marriage between media and commercial interests).
Banking and Wall Street
13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown — Simon Johnson and James Kwak (2010) (Amazon link)
- A fantastic background on what happened in the run-up to the financial crisis, and how early attempts of relief and reform were badly undermined by their continuing influence (for news coverage, see The Economist’s excellent posts). Also has a great proposal to break up big banks: capping commercial banks’ assets to 4 percent of GDP, and investment banks’ assets to 2 percent of GDP (at least 5–7 banks are currently too big for these definitions).
Energy and Climate Change
(Article) We Fact-Checked A High-Profile Article On Climate And Energy. It Wasn’t Pretty. (May 2016) (NEW)
A response to a different article on Foreign Affairs on energy policy, which looked at the declining amount of venture funding and R&D with great alarm and advocated for an overhaul on such spending.
This article took a different tack: it argued that the cost economics of existing renewable energy technologies are already there once they reach sufficient scale. Moreover, the development cycle of new renewable technologies is far too long to be feasible towards immediately combating climate change.
It advocates for aggressive commitments in implementing existing renewable energy technologies. It also successfully changed my mind on this issue!
- Has some interesting views about renewable energy. Right now, because of their cost structure and intermittent nature of sun and wind, they are ironically encouraging coal power plants as an alternate source in Europe. Renewable energy subsidies also represent a substantial market distortion that ignores that other approaches towards reducing emissions may be most cost effective (i.e. energy efficiency). I think it is too sanguine on its views on the ecological damage of fracking or the impact of methane, but it raises a good point that natural gas can represent a good transition energy source. In the meantime, Helm believes the best approach is a carbon tax (to correct the externality) and aggressive R&D towards the next generation of renewable energy sources (particularly energy storage).
The Last Hours of Humanity: Warming the World to Extinction — Thom Hartmann (2013) (Amazon link)
- A succinct account on what climate change looks like, and why the problem is so urgent. This really is an existential crisis.
The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education — Diane Ravitch (2010) (Amazon link)
- One of the first and most authoritative pushbacks against the neoliberal trend towards Accountability, Standardized tests, Choice (charter schools and school vouchers), Merit Pay, and hostility towards teacher unions. Shows how standardized testing and excessive reliance on data-driven strategy only promotes teaching towards the test and values the ability to test-take over actual mastery of course material. Criticizes charter schools and vouchers for private schools as crowding out resources towards public schooling. Shows how merit pay doesn’t have a material impact in performance, and could actually undermine it by decreasing cooperation.
- Another pushback towards neoliberal trends, this time in higher education. Laments the increasing concentration of Economics and Business majors, and the increasing share of students going into investment banking or consulting. Meanwhile, support staff has shrunk, administrative roles have proliferated, and universities tend to treat students as customers, investing in endowments and flashy buildings like student centers and stadiums and becoming like a corporation in every sense of the word. Argues that in some ways, top universities have been getting less diverse over time, particularly with the drive towards income and prestige. Also critiques the test preparation industry for affluent students, and their drive towards a million extracurricular activities.
Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream (2014) — Suzanne Mettler (2014) (Amazon link)
- Shows a clear gap between prestigious private universities, 4-year public universities, community colleges, and for-profit colleges. For the latter, for-profit colleges have consumed the lion’s share of federal aid for student loans, and yet have the highest drop-out rates and fewest employable graduates, leaving students with huge debts. Shows how where you go to college, in addition to the background influencing where you end up, has a very material impact on outcomes.
- Shows how different food companies chemically engineered food-like products to maximize different “bliss points” and then successfully marketed them to the detriment of public health. They are strongly incentivized to stay the course or face Wall Street’s wrath. One of the most striking examples was when Campbell’s soup tried to reduce its sodium content: it became bitter and metallic in taste. In conjunction with this, government policy encouraged large increases in the consumption of cheese, red meat, and processed food ingredients such as corn (corn syrup and corn-based chips). This trend continues worldwide, where international expansion of these companies almost always coincides with increases in obesity rates, along with diabetes and heart disease. This places a lot of stress on our health care system.
- From Foreign Affairs: “According to Goldacre, major drug companies have financed the ghostwriting of papers supposedly penned by reputable scholars in respectable scientific journals, systematically withheld experimental drug-testing data from public and professional scrutiny, and failed to run promised trials to detect side effects after drugs have been approved for sale. In the face of this unethical behavior, regulators on both sides of the Atlantic [UK] have been complacent and negligent.”