This column is becoming something of a tradition, and traditions must be maintained.
On my desk, and thereabouts, these days:
- Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, Niall Ferguson
- Why bureaucratic and complex systems, which seem to promise reliability and predictability, scarcely ever deliver it. What might a 21st-Century alternative look like? The verdict of critical history will surely be that this was not Ferguson’s best, but it couldn’t be much more topical and has the power of a contrarian genius at times.
- The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis, Sheilagh Ogilvie
- From ca. 1000 CE to 1880, guilds ruled many crafts and trades across European economies. What was their cumulative impact on standards of living; how did they behave and what mechanisms and levers of power did they engage to remain ubiquitous for centuries in many developed countries; and what lessons might we take away for present-day industrial structure? Nerdy perhaps but I’ve recently developed a focused interest in the durability, power, and impact of guilds–they are anything but extinct.
- First Principles: What America’s founders learned from the Greeks and Romans and how that shaped our country, Thomas Ricks
- We think of America’s Founders, the authors of the enduring documents that formally defined our Nation at its birth, as largely drawing on the English and Scottish philosophers of their day, but Ricks exposes the perhaps stronger influence of thinkers such as Plutarch, Aristotle, Cato, Cicero, and even Epicurus. Who knew? Also an engaging survey of the role of American higher education (as we would call it today) at the time, especially the cosmopolitan NorthEast universities that are the core of today’s Ivy League.
- Middlemarch, George Eliot
- I know, I know; I should have read this by the time I was 25. But I didn’t. As I consider it a signal virtue to be able to confess error, I am going public with this act of belated contrition. There you have it.
- Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, Daniel Kahneman, Olivier SIbony, Cass Sunstein
- Shockingly disappointing. My reading pace quickly sped up from high-concentration and engaged/critical (some sort of default setting, I suppose) to rapid to skimming to chapter/heading/subtopic cruising. I have no idea where the fault lies, but I found it repetitive, overstuffed, needlessly recursive, and a large extended effort to explain the blisteringly obvious: “People are mercurial and less than rational.”
- A pity and (like the man said) a deep disappointment, since his Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013), is one of the rare books that I find room for on my shelves for years after I finish it. And–as those of you who do have lived in a Manhattan co-op apartment will appreciate first-hand–the scarcity of space enforces a certain survival-of-the-fittest imperative over time. Noise didn’t even have a chance to occupy a summer time-share on my shelves.
- Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Benjamin Friedman
- What if capitalist economic thinking had its origins not [just] in secular concerns about productivity, wealth generation, allocation and division of labor, free trade, and so on, but equally or more importantly in religious beliefs about humanity’s God-given character in the 18th C. English-speaking Protestant world? Never forget that before Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations (1776), he wrote Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), and Edinburgh was the epicenter of the Scottish (religious among other things) Enlightenment. Fascinating and wide-ranging; and to Friedman’s great credit as an intellectually rigorous and painstaking analyst, not just about what we could categorize as mainstream Protestant Christianity today; he brings in non-Christian and non-Western religions frequently.
- Friedman was, not incidentally, Chair of the Economics Department at Harvard.
- Value(s): Building a Better World for All, Mark Carney
- That we live in an era of rampant public distrust, crying out for drastic change, is the most depressing commonplace of our time. Carney lays much blame for this predicament at the feet of failures in our markets (financial, primarily, but also allied, supportive, and complementary markets) to serve the interests of humanity. A tall order. I’m not nearly far enough into the book to float any view on what theories of the case and prescriptions Carney plans to offer. (Financially conversant readers may recognize Carney as former head of the Bank of England.)
And Happy Reading to All!