The best books on how we as societies can thrive in the challenges ahead

Who am I?

I advise private and public sector clients on the unlocking of value from public assets. After a few years in investment banking in Asia and Europe, I was asked to lead the comprehensive restructuring of Sweden’s USD70bn national portfolio of commercial assets—the first attempt by a European government to systematically address the ownership and management of government enterprises and real estate. This experience has allowed me to work in over thirty countries and serve as a Non-Executive Director. Ultimately sharing the collective experience in two books written together with Stefan Fölster—The Public Wealth of Nations—which was awarded The Economist and Financial Time’s best book of the year, as well as The Public Wealth of Cities.

I wrote...

The Public Wealth of Nations: How Management of Public Assets Can Boost or Bust Economic Growth

By Dag Detter, S. Fölster,

Book cover of The Public Wealth of Nations: How Management of Public Assets Can Boost or Bust Economic Growth

What is my book about?

The first question we need to answer is not ‘how to spend it,’ but how to generate the money we need to meet the many challenges ahead. Spending ‘other peoples’ money is easy. Making it is much harder. By reassessing the potential of the commercial assets of balance sheet, governments can bring about transformative change.

When Singapore and Jamaica achieved independence some almost 50 years both island nations had roughly the same economic metrics. Today they are poles apart. Against all odds, the tiny Asian city with no significant resources, not even basic utilities such as water or electricity, has thrived thanks to innovative and bold thinking. And in the process the government has provided more than 80 percent of its population with public housing.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Gambling on Development: Why Some Countries Win and Others Lose

Why did I love this book?

There is a lot of talk about why some societies are successful while others are not. Why do some remain poor while others stumble on a path to growth and development? Often the excuse it is someone else’s fault. Stefan Dercon’s is an unusual voice in this rather noisy crowd, with his simple claim that growth happens when its leaders want society to succeed rather than just profit themselves. To do so, they must gamble on increasing the size of the economic pie rather than carving up the one that already exists. This is risky. Politicians often claim that they know what to do, but not how to get re-elected afterwards. Read this book and at least you will know what to ask for from your government.

By Stefan Dercon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gambling on Development as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the last thirty years, the developing world has undergone tremendous changes. Overall, poverty has fallen, people live longer and healthier lives, and economies have been transformed. And yet many countries have simply missed the boat. Why have some countries prospered, while others have failed? Stefan Dercon argues that the answer lies not in a specific set of policies, but rather in a key 'development bargain', whereby a country's elites shift from protecting their own positions to gambling on a growth-based future. Despite the imperfections of such bargains, China is among the most striking recent success stories, along with Indonesia…

Book cover of How Europe Made the Modern World: Creating the Great Divergence

Why did I love this book?

A thousand years ago, a traveller to Baghdad, Constantinople, or China would find vast and flourishing cities of broad streets, spacious gardens, and sophisticated urban amenities; meanwhile, Paris, Rome, and London were cramped and unhygienic collections of villages. Europe was then a backwater. How, then, did it rise to world pre-eminence over the next several centuries? Having experienced China and its epic growth since being in Student in Shanghai in the early 1980s and then later as a banker, it seems there could be something to learn from history. Daly avoids the twin dangers of Eurocentrism and anti-Westernism, strongly emphasizing the contributions of other cultures of the world, as well as the vibrant and internal competition among cities and nations of Europe.

By Jonathan Daly,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Europe Made the Modern World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One thousand years ago, a traveler to Baghdad or the Chinese capital Kaifeng would have discovered a vast and flourishing city of broad streets, spacious gardens, and sophisticated urban amenities; meanwhile, Paris, Rome, and London were cramped and unhygienic collections of villages, and Europe was a backwater. How, then, did it rise to world preeminence over the next several centuries? This is the central historical conundrum of modern times.

How Europe Made the Modern World draws upon the latest scholarship dealing with the various aspects of the West's divergence, including geography, demography, technology, culture, institutions, science and economics. It avoids…

The Reckoning

By Jacob Soll,

Book cover of The Reckoning

Why did I love this book?

Governments' Ridiculous Budget and Pension Accounting "Would make Enron blush" Bill Gates once said. Having worked with balance sheets in both the private and public sectors, I bear witness to the sad fact that governments all over the world are obsessed with a focus on cash. They do not even have the faintest interest in learning from what has created wealth in the private sector, adopting proper accounting in order to meet the multitude of challenges facing our society.

Jacob Soll presents a sweeping history of accounting, drawing on a wealth of examples from over a millennium of human history to reveal how accounting has shaped kingdoms, empires, and entire civilizations. Perhaps we can learn some rather old lessons from this surprisingly exciting history of accountancy. Or pay the price of our own ignorance.

By Jacob Soll,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In The Reckoning, award-winning historian Jacob Soll shows how the use and misuse of financial bookkeeping has determined the fates of entire societies. Time and again, Soll reveals, good and honest accounting has been a tool to build successful companies, states and empires. Yet when it is neglected or falls into the wrong hands, accounting has contributed to cycles of destruction that continue to this day. Combining rigorous scholarship and fresh storytelling, The Reckoning traces the surprisingly powerful influence of accounting on financial and political stability, from the powerful Medici bank in the 14th century Italy to the 2008 financial…

Book cover of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

Why did I love this book?

Would you rather that your local football team or even the national team was selected through family ties or political connections? How did meritocracy—the idea that people should be advanced according to their talents rather than their birthbecome the world's ruling ideology? Why is meritocracy now under attack from both right and left? Adrian Wooldridge shows what transformative effects it has had everywhere it has been adopted, especially once women were brought into the meritocratic system. He also shows how meritocracy has now become corrupted and argues that the recent stalling of social mobility is the result of the failure to complete the meritocratic revolution. Rather than abandoning meritocracy, he says, we should call for its renewal.

By Adrian Wooldridge,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?


'This unique and fascinating history explains why the blame now being piled upon meritocracy for many social ills is misplaced-and that assigning responsibilities to the people best able to discharge them really is better than the time-honoured customs of corruption, patronage, nepotism and hereditary castes. Wooldridge upends many common assumptions and provides an indispensable back story to this fraught and pressing issue.' Steven Pinker

'The Aristocracy of Talent provides an important and needed corrective to contemporary critiques of meritocracy. It puts meritocracy in an illuminating historical and cross-cultural perspective that shows how crucial the…

Book cover of The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism

Why did I love this book?

What system is best suited to deal with all of the challenges that we face? The frustration and anger with Democratic capitalism are understandable. Democratic capitalism remains the best system for human flourishing. But something has gone seriously awry: the growth of prosperity has slowed, and the division of the fruits between the hyper-successful few and the rest has become more unequal.

But citizenship is not just a slogan or a romantic idea; it’s the only force that can save us, Wolf argues. Nothing has ever harmonized political and economic freedom better than a shared faith in the common good. This epic human story of the dynamic between democracy and capitalism concludes with the lesson that our ideals and our interests not only should align but must do so. For everyone’s sake.

By Martin Wolf,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, a magnificent reckoning with how and why the marriage between democracy and capitalism is coming undone, and what can be done to reverse this terrifying dynamic

Martin Wolf has long been one of the wisest voices on global economic issues. He has rarely been called an optimist, yet he has never been as worried as he is today. Liberal democracy is in recession, and authoritarianism is on the rise. The ties that ought to bind open markets to free and fair elections are threatened, even in democracy’s heartlands, the United States…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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