Summer 2018 Reading List

Our book reviewer gives his summer recommendations.


This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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Now that summer is upon us, it is time to catch up on some reading that it was impossible to do in more hectic times. Here are my ten recommendations for things to read at the beach or in your backyard on nice summer days, or in the morning with your first cup of coffee before you have to face the day. The recommendations are listed alphabetically by author, and reflect my interests as well as what is going on in the United States and the world at present, and so they might be of interest to others as well.

Student Debt by Sandra Baum. Student debt has exploded during the past decade or so. Yet it is an issue that has either been ignored or dealt with by unsubstantiated claims of upcoming disaster and demands to wipe out all college debt. Baum’s book, which I reviewed for Choice earlier this year, is an intelligent analysis of the student debt problem. It makes clear that the big problem is somewhat narrow: people who go to college but don’t graduate. The book also contains a number of good policy suggestions.

Grant: A Biography by Ron Chernow. I put this book on my list in part because Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton inspired the wonderful Broadway hit Hamilton. I also include it on my list because I just finished reading it the book. It is excellent—the best political biography I have read in many, many years. I learned a great deal about Grant, who went up in my esteem considerably. The sections on Reconstruction and its failures have lessons that resonate today. This book also deserves to be made into a musical.

Rendezvous with Oblivion by Thomas Frank. Frank is a brilliant political theorist and commentator. He is best known for his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? I reviewed his previous book, Listen Liberal, in the July/August 2016 issue of Dollars & Sense. Although I thought it had some flaws, these were all minor compared to how much he got right about the 2016 election. This is even clearer now than it was two summers ago. Given the current political situation in the United States, it is hard to pass up reading his latest work.

Rescuing Retirement: A Plan to Guarantee Retirement Security for All Americans by Teresa Ghilarducci and Tony James. Anyone concerned about retirement—pensions, Social Security, their accumulated savings, and so on—can do no better than reading Ghilarducci and James on these topics. And we should all be concerned about retirement, since we do hope to live long enough and do well enough to be able to retire. Nonetheless, lots of people are retiring or are near retirement with inadequate savings, while Social Security remains under attack by the right. This book seeks to put us on a better course—both individually and collectively.

A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx by Sven-Eric Liedman. This year is the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth. So what better time to learn more about the economist who understood the problems that stem from capitalism better than anyone else? Look out for an upcoming review of this book in Dollars & Sense. I have read a handful of other Marx biographies; all had strengths but also lots of weaknesses. This intellectual biography does much better than other attempts to tackle such a brilliant and complicated individual.

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy by Marianna Mazzucato. This book is on my summer reading list largely because I have only heard great things about it from many people whom I trust, and because I have been greatly impressed with Mazzucato’s work on innovation. The book seeks to distinguish value creation from value extraction, or value destruction, in a global economy. Not only are these important issues as we debate globalization and trade policy, they also dig deep and address critical questions concerning what capitalism is all about, what it does well, and when and why it fails to do well.

The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live and Die by Keith Payne. I reviewed this book in the January/February 2018 issue of Dollars & Sense. It is a lucid summary of the impact of inequality on people. It does a great job of summarizing and explaining the literature on inequality and why we seem to hate it. It is best book on inequality to be published in the past year or two.

Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World by Naomi Prins. I reviewed It Takes a Pillage by Prins in the January/February 2010 issue of Dollars & Sense (here) and thought highly of it, despite some flaws. It was a solid analysis of the causes of the financial crisis and contained many good policy proposals to prevent another one. This book looks more closely at central banks and how they are responsible for our many of our economic and financial problems. It is my financial crisis read for the summer. If it is as good as her earlier book, it will be well worth the time.

Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World by Dani Rodrik. Rodrik is one of the more interesting and eclectic economists around. He is an intelligent critic of globalization who has continuously sought out a middle path between no trade and completely free trade. His new book could not have been better timed given the trade war that President Trump started this year. I’ll be reading Rodrik while I watch this war unfold and consider about its consequences. Rodrik can help us think about how to devise a reasonable trade policy for the United States that does not involve hurting the very workers that Trump promised to help.

The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Shaping America’s Politics by Salena Zito and Brad Todd. My sleeper choice. Although I read widely, I usually don’t read books that receive high praise from people like Rush Limbaugh, but this book is on my reading list because I have not been happy with most analyses of the “populist revolt” that try to explain while people like Trump have gained such strong support. This one may be different—in part because Zito is a reporter who has traveled the country interviewing Trump supporters in an attempt to understand them.

teaches economics at Colorado State University and is the author of 50 Major Economists(Routledge, 2013).

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