The best books on understanding our public policy challenges and failures

Why am I passionate about this?

Much of my academic work has been focused on American domestic public policy. Previously, I wrote a ground-breaking book called The Laws that Shaped America, which focused on 15 key laws in American history. My latest book, American Public Policy: Federal Domestic Policy Achievements and Failures, 1901 to 2022, focuses on what we have accomplished, but even more importantly on what we have failed to do. And, boy, do we have work to do: inequality, climate change, immigration, racial injustice, gun violence, drug addiction, and more. I’m passionate about what good government can accomplish, and, like so many, sadden by what we have failed to accomplish.


I wrote...

American Public Policy: Federal Domestic Policy Achievements and Failures, 1901 to 2022

By Dennis W. Johnson,

Book cover of American Public Policy: Federal Domestic Policy Achievements and Failures, 1901 to 2022

What is my book about?

This is a sweeping narrative of American domestic public policy—its triumphs, struggles, and failures over the past 120 years. It is a reflection on how the United States has grown and matured, faced challenges and opportunities, and how its federal leaders and policymakers have responded or failed to confront pressing problems. Further, the book addresses the hurdles and challenges that still lie ahead. 

Four critical questions are posed and answered: what were the most significant adversities endured by the American people? What were the landmark domestic policies designed to address the problems? What did policymakers fail to do? What do we still need to do?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Poverty, by America

Dennis W. Johnson Why did I love this book?

Why do we have so much poverty in America? Matthew Desmond writes that we have such poverty because the rest of American society benefits from having poor people.

This is a tough pill to swallow, but Desmond certainly convinced me. We live in the richest country in the world—with our gated communities, our tax savings and incentives, our private schools, and our ability to weather the economic storms of life.

We needn’t have such high rates of poverty; policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels could make life more bearable for the poor—through schooling, decent wages, health care, and a whole host of other programs. But tragically, what is missing is the political will. Truly an eye-opener.

By Matthew Desmond,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Evicted reimagines the debate on poverty, making a “provocative and compelling” (NPR) argument about why it persists in America: because the rest of us benefit from it.

“Urgent and accessible . . . Its moral force is a gut punch.”—The New Yorker
 
ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF 2023: The Washington Post, Time, Esquire, Newsweek, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Elle, Salon, Lit Hub, Kirkus Reviews

The United States, the richest country on earth, has more poverty than any other advanced democracy. Why? Why does this land of plenty allow…


Book cover of The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future

Dennis W. Johnson Why did I love this book?

This Nobel Prize-winning economist gets right to the heart of America’s problems: the growing divide between the rich and the rest of society.

We can see the toll declines in the standard of living have taken: malnutrition, drug abuse, shortened life expectancy, lack of access to much-needed health care, desperation and increased economic insecurity among the poor and a shrinking middle class in America.

Stiglitz convincingly shows how Federal Reserve policies, budgetary policies of Congress, and globalization have increased the widening gap, but also offers hope for a more economically just future.

By Joseph E. Stiglitz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The top 1 percent of Americans control some 40 percent of the nation's wealth. But as Joseph E. Stiglitz explains in this best-selling critique of the economic status quo, this level of inequality is not inevitable. Rather, in recent years well-heeled interests have compounded their wealth by stifling true, dynamic capitalism and making America no longer the land of opportunity that it once was. They have made America the most unequal advanced industrial country while crippling growth, distorting key policy debates, and fomenting a divided society. Stiglitz not only shows how and why America's inequality is bad for our economy…


Book cover of Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

Dennis W. Johnson Why did I love this book?

James E. Hansen, the scientist who first warned us back in the 1980s of the coming climate disaster, sits down with leading environmental activist Bill McKibben, to talk frankly and directly about the disastrous impact coming in the next few decades if the world does not wake up.

Written over a decade ago, this book resonates even more today, and the message is even more urgent. This is an important, sobering book for the reader who wants a straightforward, realistic look at the coming global warming crises.

By James Hansen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In his Q&A with Bill McKibben featured in the paperback edition of Storms of My Grandchildren, Dr. James Hansen, the world's leading climatologist, shows that exactly contrary to the impression the public has received, the science of climate change has become even clearer and sharper since the hardcover was released. In Storms of My Grandchildren, Hansen speaks out for the first time with the full truth about global warming: The planet is hurtling even more rapidly than previously acknowledged to a climatic point of no return. In explaining the science of climate change, Hansen paints a devastating but all-too-realistic picture…


Book cover of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Dennis W. Johnson Why did I love this book?

Want to know why American cities were so racially segregated? Richard Rothstein’s meticulously researched and powerfully presented evidence points to one overwhelming conclusion: racial segregation was put in place and enforced by state, local, and yes, the federal government.

Rothstein focuses on residential housing, not just in the South, but throughout the United States. Restrictive covenants, “redlining,” threats of violence, fears of declining property values—all these and more reinforced this American form of racial apartheid.

A sobering account of how racial discrimination was as American as apple pie.

By Richard Rothstein,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Color of Law as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Widely heralded as a "masterful" (The Washington Post) and "essential" (Slate) history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein's The Color of Law offers "the most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state, and local governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation" (William Julius Wilson). Exploding the myth of de facto segregation arising from private prejudice or the unintended consequences of economic forces, Rothstein describes how the American government systematically imposed residential segregation: with undisguised racial zoning; public housing that purposefully segregated previously mixed communities; subsidies for builders to create whites-only suburbs; tax exemptions for institutions that enforced…


Book cover of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism

Dennis W. Johnson Why did I love this book?

This is a sobering account of what has happened to far too many blue-collar, non-college-educated workers in America.

Wracked with economic uncertainty, shunted aside, feeling left out and powerless, many have turned to alcohol, drugs, and suicide. The greed of the opioid industry—the doctors, the pharmacies, the corporate pushers—has led to an extraordinary increase in deaths among white blue-collar workers.
For working men and women, once the backbone of American economic vibrancy, capitalism, and globalization has not worked, but has crushed families and prospects for a better life.

A powerful indictment, but one we need to hear and comprehend.

By Anne Case, Angus Deaton,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Bestseller
A Wall Street Journal Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book of 2020
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Shortlisted for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year
A New Statesman Book to Read

From economist Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton, a groundbreaking account of how the flaws in capitalism are fatal for America's working class

Life expectancy in the United States has recently fallen for three years in a row-a reversal not seen since 1918 or in any other wealthy nation in modern times. In the…


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