The best books on the economic challenges of the 2020s

Dietrich Vollrath Author Of Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success
By Dietrich Vollrath

Who am I?

I’m a professor of economics at the University of Houston, with a focus on long-run growth and development rather than things like quarterly stock returns. I write a blog on growth economics where I try hard to boil down technical topics to their core intuition, and I’m the co-author of a popular textbook on economic growth.

I wrote...

Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success

By Dietrich Vollrath,

Book cover of Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success

What is my book about?

Most economists would agree that a thriving economy is synonymous with GDP growth. The more we produce and consume, the higher our living standard and the more resources available to the public. This means that our current era, in which growth has slowed substantially from its postwar highs, has raised alarm bells. But should it? Is growth actually the best way to measure economic success--and does our slowdown indicate economic problems?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality

Why did I love this book?

This is a good book to understand the pervasive existence of “rents” in the economy. From the literal rents that homeowners in popular areas can charge, to the rents that accrue to copyright or patent holders, to the rents earned by firms using regulation to block competition, the authors document all the places in our economy where this restricts innovation. It is ultimately a book asking “what is fair?”.

By Brink Lindsey, Steven M. Teles,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Captured Economy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For years, America has been plagued by slow economic growth and increasing inequality. In The Captured Economy, Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles identify a common factor behind these twin ills: breakdowns in democratic governance that allow wealthy special interests to capture the policymaking process for their own benefit. They document the proliferation of regressive regulations that redistribute wealth and income up the economic scale while stifling
entrepreneurship and innovation. They also detail the most important cases of regulatory barriers that have worked to shield the powerful from the rigors of competition, thereby inflating their incomes: subsidies for the financial…

The New Geography of Jobs

By Enrico Moretti,

Book cover of The New Geography of Jobs

Why did I love this book?

Moretti’s book is, I think, woefully underappreciated. He gives a clear portrait of different regions of the United States, classifying them on the basis of their current economic structure and not on a predetermined political split or on industrial classifications from fifty years ago. It shows that we are in the midst of a substantial economic transformation that likely rivals the shifts seen during the early industrial revolution. This book gives you a real sense of what a “knowledge economy” will look like. More than that, though, he shows how that transformation could be beneficial to everyone (but might not).

By Enrico Moretti,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The New Geography of Jobs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The New Geography of Jobs, award-winning Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti looks at the major shifts taking place in the US economy and reveals the surprising winners and losers ​— ​specifically, which kinds of jobs will drive economic growth and where they’ll be located ​— ​while exploring how communities can transform themselves into dynamic innovation hubs.

“A timely and smart discussion of how different cities and regions have made a changing economy work for them ​— ​and how policymakers can learn from that to lift the circumstances of working Americans everywhere.” ​— ​Barack Obama

We’re used to thinking of the…

Book cover of The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy

Why did I love this book?

I like this book because it takes a giant step back and asks what “the economy” means. What we measure, and what we choose to classify as “economic activity”, is a choice, not a given. By opting to classify some things as true economic activity (e.g. finance) but others as not (e.g. raising kids) we implicitly make choices about economic policy, as it can only deal with what it can count. It opens up the idea that we could stop and think about what should matter to the economy, and what may not.

By Mariana Mazzucato,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Value of Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Modern economies reward activities that extract value rather than create it. This must change to ensure a capitalism that works for us all.

Shortlisted for the FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award

A scathing indictment of our current global financial system, The Value of Everything rigorously scrutinizes the way in which economic value has been accounted and reveals how economic theory has failed to clearly delineate the difference between value creation and value extraction. Mariana Mazzucato argues that the increasingly blurry distinction between the two categories has allowed certain actors in the economy to portray themselves as…

Book cover of The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Why did I love this book?

This one doesn’t feel like it should belong in this list, because Polanyi was writing about the economic and social transformation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how they conspired to lead to the crisis of the Great Depression and rise of fascism. And there is a lot of tedious detail on English poor laws (much of which has been debunked). BUT, Polanyi remains relevant because he more clearly than anyone saw that treating both people and nature as interchangeable units of production in a market economy would necessarily lead to a reaction, and that reaction – essentially a demand to be recognized as an individual – may not be pretty.

By Karl Polanyi,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The Great Transformation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic work of economic history and social theory, Karl Polanyi analyzes the economic and social changes brought about by the "great transformation" of the Industrial Revolution. His analysis explains not only the deficiencies of the self-regulating market, but the potentially dire social consequences of untempered market capitalism. New introductory material reveals the renewed importance of Polanyi's seminal analysis in an era of globalization and free trade.

Book cover of The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic

Why did I love this book?

Okay, bear with me on this one. This is a history of the Roman Republic from 146-78BC, the period just prior to the ascendancy of Julius Caesar and the foundation of the Roman Empire. But if you pay attention to the conditions and conflicts facing Rome in this period, you’ll see a lot of parallels with our economy and society today. Rome was attempting to digest the vast new land and riches it had acquired, the question of citizenship and voting rights for non-Romans was pervasive, the labor market was thrown into chaos by the arrival of massive numbers of slaves, there was increasing concentration of land in a few hands, corruption and vote-buying was endemic, and the fortunes available to those with political power were massive. There are lessons and warnings here for the developed world of today.

By Mike Duncan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Storm Before the Storm as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Roman Republic was one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of civilization. Beginning as a small city-state in central Italy, Rome gradually expanded into a wider world filled with petty tyrants, barbarian chieftains, and despotic kings. Through the centuries, Rome's model of cooperative and participatory government remained remarkably durable and unmatched in the history of the ancient world.

In 146 BC, Rome finally emerged as the strongest power in the Mediterranean. But the very success of the Republic proved to be its undoing. The republican system was unable to cope with the vast empire Rome now ruled:…

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