The best economics books of 2016


December 19, 2016

The best economics books of 2016

by Robert Samuelson@www.washingtonpost.com

Okay, I should have headlined it “My favorite economics books of 2016.” There surely are many good books that I missed. Still, the four below share certain appealing characteristics. They tell us stuff we don’t know, which alters our view of the world. They are all deeply researched and reported. They’re clearly written. For your dedicated economics wonk or history buff, any of them would make a fine holiday gift. (With the exception of the Herbert Hoover book, I have written about all of them previously.)

Here they are:

●“The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War,” by Robert J. Gordon, Princeton University Press, 762 pages.

Gordon, a highly respected economist at Northwestern University, has produced what will endure as a masterpiece. It traces how new technologies have transformed everyday living. Think indoor plumbing, electricity, cars, air travel, computers and pharmaceuticals. An example: air conditioning. Without it, “we wouldn’t have Las Vegas, or Miami, Houston or Los Angeles,” gushed Consumer Reports in 1986. But Gordon’s technological journey makes him pessimistic about the future. He thinks the easy gains have occurred and won’t soon be repeated. He is skeptical about the value of the Internet.

●“An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy,” by Marc Levinson, Basic Books, 336 pages.

Levinson, an economist and ex-journalist (Newsweek, the Economist), has the virtues of both — an eye for detail and an understanding of the broader picture. He reaches a conclusion similar to Gordon’s but by a different route. His hypothesis is simple: The first 25 years after World War II, characterized by rapid economic growth around the world, was a unique event, driven by reconstruction from the war and pent-up demand. Economists felt they could control growth, raising living standards and avoiding severe business cycles. Their frantic efforts to fulfill this promise destabilized economies around the world.
 ●“The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan,” by Sebastian Mallaby, Penguin Press, 800 pages.Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006, was a consequential public figure who merits a comprehensive biography. Mallaby, a skilled financial writer and journalist (the Economist, The Washington Post), provides just that. Mallaby punctures many Greenspan cliches. Greenspan was more pragmatist than ideologue, says Mallaby; otherwise, he could not have survived so long in Washington. He also understood financial markets better than most other economists and Fed officials. Still, Mallaby faults Greenspan for not raising interest rates sooner early in the new century — a step, Mallaby argues, that could have softened or averted the 2008-09 financial crisis.

● “Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency,” by Charles Rappleye, Simon & Schuster, 576 pages.

We all “know” that Hoover’s ineptness and indifference deepened the Great Depression. But what if what we know isn’t true? It isn’t, argues Rappleye, a popular historian who understands (and demystifies) economics and also writes well. This is no whitewash. Rappleye says that, in public, Hoover was dour and distant. With poor political skills, he alienated many in Congress. He was often falsely optimistic. But there was another Hoover who fought the Depression by shoring up wages, sponsoring public works and supporting a collapsing banking system. That these measures failed was not for lack of trying. It was a true tragedy.

These books are worth the time — even if you’re not an economics wonk.

3 thoughts on “The best economics books of 2016

  1. Thanks Din for these recommendations.

    It’s scary because it seems that growth is so tied to reconstructions after wars. Whoever are the victors lavish themselves with the spoils of war, while the vanquished condemned to decades if not centuries of stagnations. That too if they manage to recover at all. Many societies defeated by wars simply ceased to exist.

    It’s just so frightening looking at the magnitude of the whole war industrial complex of America.

    What will the 21st century brings?

  2. //What will the 21st century brings?
    @shonen,

    breakthrough in medical science where people with power and money could live 800 years using medieval fantasy about young blood in old bones.

    http://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-have-rejuvenated-old-mice-with-the-blood-of-human-teenagers

    Warren Buffett might be able to be eating steak longer than our great grandchildren. I am not sure what does Tun M like to eat. But, I have a feeling that Tun M might get to see our grandchildren seeing their grandchildren graduating from college.

    All these might happen while we wait for the fruition of research from Singularity U.

    Economists have always been bad in predicting the future.

  3. On Hoover, I actually kind of like Chop Suey (Chinese food created by the President’s office during the depression era) 😛 I am looking forward to the day when Americans would have to thank some Chinese cook in Canton/South East Asia to come up with ketchup (which is a meaningful vocalization of the word ‘tomato sauce’ in Cantonese). I do look forward to a Bernie Sanders after eight miserable years of Trump. In any case, pandan is finally gaining traction in the culinary art of America.

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