Saturday, February 6, 2016

A reading list for those interested in the urgent issues of today

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!

Inequality - economic and political failure

Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class - Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (2010) (Amazon link) (Foreign Affairs Review)

  • 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 middle class were watered down or failed - a concept known as policy drift.

Republic, Lost: Version 2.0 - Lawrence Lessig (2015) (Amazon link) (Daily Show interview with Lessig) (TED Talk) (The Grant and Franklin Project - key solution)
  • 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.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century - Thomas Piketty (2014) (Amazon link) (Book club series on The EconomistHave not read
  • 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.

The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy - Suzanne Mettler (2011) (Amazon link) (Foreign Affairs Review) Have not read
  • 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

The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong—and How to Fix It - Dieter Helm (2012) (Amazon link) (Economist review)
  • 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.

K-12 Education

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.

Higher Education

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life - William Deresiewicz (2015) (Amazon link) (Foreign Affairs review)
  • 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) currently reading
  • 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.


Salt, Sugar, and Fat - How the Food Giants Hooked Us - Michael Moss (2013) (Amazon link) (NY Times review) (Daily Show interview)
  • 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.

Pharmaceutical Drugs

Bad Pharma - How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients - Ben Goldacre (2012) (Amazon link) (brief Foreign Affairs synopsis) currently reading
  • 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."

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