The best books about how governments collect and spend your taxes

Who am I?

I trained as a chartered public finance accountant because I have a mathematics degree and I wanted to work in public service. After 20 years of that I became a freelance consultant and got into teaching public financial management after volunteering for a project in South Sudan. I have taught here in the UK and in other countries, including Kazakhstan, South Sudan, Uganda, and Sri Lanka. The lack of a good textbook about managing public money that was not aimed at accountants led me to write one in 2010. The third edition of it will be published in 2023. (I am still waiting for my novel to find a publisher.)


I wrote...

Financial Management and Accounting in the Public Sector

By Gary Bandy,

Book cover of Financial Management and Accounting in the Public Sector

What is my book about?

The importance of public financial management for the health and wellbeing of citizens was dramatically apparent as governments responded to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Having a government that is good at managing public money can be the difference between living and dying.

I wrote this book to explain how governments (local as well as national) manage public money. It is aimed primarily at the managers and civil servants who have to deliver public programmes, projects, and services but it also offers something to the general reader. It covers the core concepts of budgeting, taxation, value for money, accountability, and auditing. Ultimately, it explains that managing public money is an art, not a science.

The books I picked & why

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The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths

By Mariana Mazzucato,

Book cover of The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths

Why this book?

We hear so much about how government and public sector are inefficient and risk-averse. In this book Mariana Mazzucato demonstrates that, actually, governments are often the source of innovations that are then exploited by the private sector. She illustrates this by showing that all the important technologies in an iPhone were invented and developed by governments.

Developing vaccines for COVID-19 is another example where governments and public money were needed to finance the innovation.

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths

By Mariana Mazzucato,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Entrepreneurial State as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this sharp and controversial expose, Mariana Mazzucato debunks the pervasive myth that the state is a laggard, bureaucratic apparatus at odds with a dynamic private sector. She reveals in detailed case studies, including a riveting chapter on the iPhone, that the opposite is true: the state is, and has been, our boldest and most valuable innovator. Denying this history is leading us down the wrong path. A select few get credit for what is an intensely collective effort, and the US government has started disinvesting from innovation. The repercussions could stunt economic growth and increase inequality. Mazzucato teaches us…


The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People's Economy

By Stephanie Kelton,

Book cover of The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People's Economy

Why this book?

Another book debunking a popular myth. 

The classical explanation of government finance says that governments collect taxes and then spend that money on public services and if they do not collect enough in tax they have to borrow to cover the gap.

Stephanie Kelton explains that modern economies, where money is money only because government says it is, work the other way around. Governments create money (from nothing) and spend it into the economy and they collect taxes, not to finance spending, but to control inflation. Effectively, when they collect tax they are destroying the money they previously created.

I know this feels counter-intuitive but think back to the coronavirus pandemic. Governments were creating enormous amounts of money to pay for healthcare and vaccines and social welfare schemes. They were not imposing massive tax rises. This book explains why that works.

The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People's Economy

By Stephanie Kelton,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER

'Kelton has succeeded in instigating a round of heretical questioning, essential for a post-Covid-19 world, where the pantheon of economic gods will have to be reconfigured' Guardian

'Stephanie Kelton is an indispensable source of moral clarity ... the truths that she teaches about money, debt, and deficits give us the tools we desperately need to build a safe future for all' Naomi Klein

'Game-changing ... Read it!' Mariana Mazzucato

'A rock star in her field' The Times

'This book is going to be influential' Financial Times

'Convincingly overturns conventional wisdom' New York Times

Supporting the economy, paying…


Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government

By Mark H. Moore,

Book cover of Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government

Why this book?

Creating Public Value was published in the 1990s but it is, I think, still the best text for explaining what governments (should) do. 

The overarching goal of managers of businesses is to create shareholder value. This is more important even than making profits. As many tech firms have shown, it is possible businesses that have not made a profit for ten years or more to have enormous share valuations.

Moore’s theory is that public sector managers do something similar. They have to take the scarce resources available to them and create services that are valued by the public. The aim is for the value enjoyed by the public using a service to exceed the total cost of all the resources used to create it. If it does not, the public manager is destroying value rather than creating it.

Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government

By Mark H. Moore,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A seminal figure in the field of public management, Mark Moore presents his summation of fifteen years of research, observation, and teaching about what public sector executives should do to improve the performance of public enterprises. Useful for both practicing public executives and those who teach them, this book explicates some of the richest of several hundred cases used at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and illuminates their broader lessons for government managers. Moore addresses four questions that have long bedeviled public administration: What should citizens and their representatives expect and demand from public executives? What sources can public managers…


Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages

By Michael Keen, Joel Slemrod,

Book cover of Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages

Why this book?

This is a good-humoured look at the serious business of taxation. For thousands of years governments, whether democracies, monarchies, or empires, have imposed taxes on all kinds of things, including salt, windows, tea, and beards. 

In this book the authors share all kinds of stories about taxes, partly for entertainment and partly to illustrate the challenges inherent in collecting taxes that modern governments have to grapple with.

Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages

By Michael Keen, Joel Slemrod,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An engaging and enlightening account of taxation told through lively, dramatic, and sometimes ludicrous stories drawn from around the world and across the ages

Governments have always struggled to tax in ways that are effective and tolerably fair. Sometimes they fail grotesquely, as when, in 1898, the British ignited a rebellion in Sierra Leone by imposing a tax on huts-and, in repressing it, ended up burning the very huts they intended to tax. Sometimes they succeed astonishingly, as when, in eighteenth-century Britain, a cut in the tax on tea massively increased revenue. In this entertaining book, two leading authorities on…


The Three Dimensions of Freedom

By Billy Bragg,

Book cover of The Three Dimensions of Freedom

Why this book?

Billy Bragg has long been my favourite musician. I have all his albums including his 1986 offering, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry.

I included this book because it is about the importance of accountability. This is an important concept for managing public money. The wish for our governments to operate in an honest and fair way requires there being a way to judge their performance. This means that the politicians, civil servants, and everyone else who is involved in government must be willing to be accountable for what they do, and also for what they omit to do. When I teach public financial management I say to my students that if they do not want to be accountable for their actions they should not work in public service.

The Three Dimensions of Freedom

By Billy Bragg,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

At a time when opinion trumps facts and truth is treated as nothing more than another perspective, free speech has become a battleground. While authoritarians and algorithms threaten democracy, we argue over who has the right to speak.

To protect ourselves from encroaching tyranny, we must look beyond this one-dimensional notion of what it means to be free and, by reconnecting liberty to equality and accountability, restore the individual agency engendered by the three dimensions of freedom.


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