The best books to read if you want to understand how government works in practice – and when it doesn’t

Why am I passionate about this?

My father advised me that to be a good writer, I should first learn a trade and particular subject matter from the inside out. As a working criminal justice practitioner for the last two decades, I’ve been lucky to work with some of the smartest people and best run organizations in the country. I’ve always been a big reader and someone who likes to link the sometimes brutally practical, day-to-day work of running an organization (I lead New York City’s main pretrial services agency) to larger philosophical issues. My life’s goal is to show how big ideas play themselves out in the day-to-day practice of public policy. 

I wrote...

Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age

By Greg Berman, Aubrey Fox,

Book cover of Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age

What is my book about?

Is radical change the best way to make the world a better place? Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age argues that, contrary to the claims of activists on both the right and the left, incremental reform is the best path forward. Gradual is a call to arms for anyone who is turned off by the overheated rhetoric, gloomy outlook, and unrealistic expectations that characterize so much of political discourse in the social media era. Instead of radical change, Gradual argues for a brand of “radical realism” that prioritizes honesty, humility, nuance, and respect for one’s adversaries in an effort to transcend political polarization. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

Aubrey Fox Why did I love this book?

I am a huge fan of mystery novels written by Michael Connelly featuring the detective Harry Bosch, so I was delighted to read Jill Leovy’s account of real-life homicide detectives in Los Angeles working under very difficult circumstances to provide a measure of justice to otherwise ignored crime victims and their families.

The book does a wonderful job of documenting the craft of good police work and shows how poorly functioning formal legal systems – a legacy of Jim Crow – negatively impacts Black communities.

As the fictional detective Harry Bosch likes to say, “everyone counts or no one counts.”

Leovy’s book shows what it takes for that vision of everyone counting to become a reality. 

By Jill Leovy,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Ghettoside as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, USA TODAY, AND CHICAGO TRIBUNE • A masterly work of literary journalism about a senseless murder, a relentless detective, and the great plague of homicide in America

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • The Washington Post • The Boston Globe • The Economist • The Globe and Mail • BookPage • Kirkus Reviews

On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a…

Book cover of Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools

Aubrey Fox Why did I love this book?

We don’t have enough books that celebrate how thoughtful and patient reform strategies can pay big dividends over time.

Journalist and Public Policy Professor David Kirp embedded himself in the community of Union City, New Jersey and documented how the school district has worked to improve educational outcomes in decidedly non-flashy ways.

As Kirp writes, all too often education reform has a “flavor of the month” and faddish quality to it, trapped in seemingly endless cycles of unrealistic big bang-style reforms and inevitable disappointments.

Improbable Scholars provides a hopeful counternarrative, showing that large-scale change is possible beyond a single stand-out school or teacher.

By David L. Kirp,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Improbable Scholars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The conventional wisdom, voiced by everyone from Bill Gates to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is that public schools are so terrible that simply reforming them won't do the trick. Instead, they must be "transformed," blown up and then rebuilt, if they're going to offer students a good education. We relish stories about electrifying teachers like Jaime Escalante, who made math whizzes out of no-hoper teenagers in East LA, or inner city charter schools like the KIPP
academies. But success in the public schools of an entire city-a poor, crowded city, with more than its share of immigrant Latino youngsters, the…

Book cover of A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles

Aubrey Fox Why did I love this book?

I have learned as much from conservative authors as I have from writers who share my ideological predispositions.

In his classic book, economist Thomas Sowell seeks to answer the question of why we are so divided on a number of political issues.

Sowell outlines two competing visions that underlie most controversial areas of public policy – one that is “constrained” by history, tradition, and a skeptical view of human nature and another “unconstrained” by limits and thus malleable and perfectible.

In addition to being fascinating philosophically, the book is very useful challenge for those who are most confident in the ability to change society through public policy and new government programs.

By Thomas Sowell,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Conflict of Visions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic work, Thomas Sowell analyzes the two competing visions that shape our debates about the nature of reason, justice, equality, and power: the constrained" vision, which sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the unconstrained" vision, in which human nature is malleable and perfectible. He describes how these two radically opposed views have manifested themselves in the political controversies of the past two centuries, including such contemporary issues as welfare reform, social justice, and crime. Updated to include sweeping political changes since its first publication in 1987, this revised edition of A Conflict of Visions offers a…

Book cover of Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities

Aubrey Fox Why did I love this book?

This is one of the most handsomely illustrated books I’ve ever purchased – and one of the most eye-opening.

Bertaud sums up a lifetime of work in over 40 cities, showing that the preoccupation of many urban planners and architects with aesthetically pleasing design ignores the reality that cities work best when they give residents the ability to make their own decisions about where they want to live and help them access good economic opportunities.

Bertaud also chronicles how well-meaning but paternalistic land use rules (minimum lot sizes, height restrictions, excessive historic preservation regimes) have harmed cities by making them inaccessible to diverse newcomers. 

By Alain Bertaud,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Order without Design as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An argument that operational urban planning can be improved by the application of the tools of urban economics to the design of regulations and infrastructure.

Urban planning is a craft learned through practice. Planners make rapid decisions that have an immediate impact on the ground—the width of streets, the minimum size of land parcels, the heights of buildings. The language they use to describe their objectives is qualitative—“sustainable,” “livable,” “resilient”—often with no link to measurable outcomes. Urban economics, on the other hand, is a quantitative science, based on theories, models, and empirical evidence largely developed in academic settings. In this…

Book cover of Policymaking for Social Security

Aubrey Fox Why did I love this book?

In writing our book, my co-author Greg Berman and I relied heavily on Derthick’s classic 1979 account of the development of Social Security in its first 15 years.

Derthick shows that its intentionally incremental development became the key to its later success as the largest and most successful anti-poverty program ever developed.

Derthick shows how two unheralded government bureaucrats nurtured and protected the program in its early years, including against a very popular and more immediately radical alternative.

The book does a good job of showing that choices made by the architects of government programs in their early days help set their long-term trajectories – an understudied topic.

By Martha A. Derthick,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Policymaking for Social Security as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Comprehensively analyzes the American social security program, considering its history, politics, policies, and troubled future and advocating a realistic and less reverent approach to its modification.

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Thorn City

By Pamela Statz,

Book cover of Thorn City

Pamela Statz

New book alert!

What is my book about?

Dressed to kill and ready to make rent, best friends Lisa and Jamie work as “paid to party” girls at the Rose City Ripe for Disruption gala, a gathering of Portland's elite.

Their evening is derailed when Lisa stumbles across Ellen, a ruthless politician and Lisa’s estranged mother. And to make matters worse, Lisa’s boyfriend, Patrick, crashes the party to meet his new boss, Portland's food cart drug kingpin. Lisa makes a fateful choice that traps her, Jamie, and Patrick in Ellen’s web. In this gripping thriller, Lisa must reconcile a painful past and perilous present.

Thorn City

By Pamela Statz,

What is this book about?

Suspected murder, eclectic food trucks, and artisanal cocaine: just another day in Thorn City.

It’s the night of the Rose City Ripe for Disruption gala—a gathering of Portland’s elite. Dressed to kill in sparkling minidresses, best friends Lisa and Jamie attend as “paid to party” girls. They plan an evening of fake flirtations, karaoke playlists, and of course, grazing the catering.

Past and present collide when Lisa stumbles across Ellen, a ruthless politician who also happens to be Lisa’s estranged mother. Awkward . . . When Lisa was sixteen, Ellen had her kidnapped and taken to the Lost Lake Academy—a…

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