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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Brink Lindsey, Steven M. Teles

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

Why 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?”.


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The New Geography of Jobs

By Enrico Moretti

The New Geography of Jobs

Why 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).


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

By Mariana Mazzucato

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

Why 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.


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

By Karl Polanyi

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

Why 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.


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

By Mike Duncan

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

Why 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.


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