The best books explaining why some groups of people tend to be richer or poorer than others

Why am I passionate about this?

Inequality and fairness are basic issues in human conflict and cooperation that have long fascinated me. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I was confronted with the extreme racial segregation of schools and neighborhoods. My Catholic upbringing taught me to cherish the cardinal virtues of justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance, and my education in political economy taught me that markets can fairly and efficiently allocate resources, when legal power is evenly shared. My formal education culminated in a Ph.D. in Public Affairs from Princeton University, which led me to my current roles: Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Principal Economist at Gallup. I care deeply about the social conditions that create cooperation and conflict.


I wrote...

A Republic of Equals: A Manifesto for a Just Society

By Jonathan Rothwell,

Book cover of A Republic of Equals: A Manifesto for a Just Society

What is my book about?

Income inequality—the gap between the rich and everyone else—tends to be lower in democratic countries than in dictatorships, but it is unusually high in the United States compared to other democracies. This book explains why. Drawing on a wide range of social science and scientific fields, this book debunks the myth that free-market capitalism causes inequality between classes or racial and ethnic groups. Instead, it shows how unequal political power—via government policies and the failure to provide equal access to public goods and markets—is the fundamental cause of extraordinary inequality. The author—affiliated with the Brookings Institution and Gallup—draws on a wealth of evidence and history to lay out the argument and advance his vision of market egalitarianism.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ethnic America: A History

Jonathan Rothwell Why did I love this book?

Sowell doesn’t let political sensitivities stop him from asking and answering the basic questions that most people have about inequality between ethnic groups in the United States and around the world.

He has little sympathy for conventional left-wing theories, but he does show respect for each group of people, celebrating achievements and pointing out barriers to opportunity. The book is rich with insight and intelligent commentary. His faith in the dignity of common people—including his readersshines through.

By Thomas Sowell,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This classic work by the distinguished economist traces the history of nine American ethnic groups,the Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, Chinese, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans.


Book cover of American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

Jonathan Rothwell Why did I love this book?

This is an absolute classic in social science.

Written by Douglas Massey, my PhD advisor at Princeton and a towering scholar, it lays out with force and clarity how Black people were purposefully and forcefully segregated in the United States, when it peaked, and how that segregation led to devasting social consequences.

You cannot understand the Black experience—nor racial inequality in the United States—without knowing the facts in this book.

By Douglas S. Massey, Nancy A. Denton,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This powerful and disturbing book clearly links persistent poverty among blacks in the United States to the unparalleled degree of deliberate segregation they experience in American cities.

American Apartheid shows how the black ghetto was created by whites during the first half of the twentieth century in order to isolate growing urban black populations. It goes on to show that, despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968, segregation is perpetuated today through an interlocking set of individual actions, institutional practices, and governmental policies. In some urban areas the degree of black segregation is so intense and occurs in so many…


Book cover of Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World

Jonathan Rothwell Why did I love this book?

Can ideas change the world? How does belief in political equality—the idea that everyone deserves basic unbridgeable liberties—affect innovation and economic development?

Dierdre McCloskey—one of the most creative and interesting economists alive—takes on these topics and much more in her characteristically witty, fast-paced style. She loves describing and refuting bad ideas—or even ideas widely regarded as brilliant—in an effort to go deeper into the forces that lifted humans out of poverty and sustain innovation to this day.

By Deirdre Nansen McCloskey,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

There's little doubt that most humans today are better off than their forebears. Stunningly so, the economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey argues in the concluding volume of her trilogy celebrating the oft-derided virtues of the bourgeoisie. The poorest of humanity, McCloskey shows, will soon be joining the comparative riches of Japan and Sweden and Botswana. Why? Most economists from Adam Smith and Karl Marx to Thomas Piketty say the Great Enrichment since 1800 came from accumulated capital. McCloskey disagrees, fiercely. "Our riches," she argues, "were made not by piling brick on brick, bank balance on bank balance, but by piling…


Book cover of The Race between Education and Technology

Jonathan Rothwell Why did I love this book?

To understand why some workers are paid more than others, you have to understand how skills are valued and rewarded in the labor market, and how that has changed, as the economy has evolved.

Focused on the United States, Katz and Goldin provide a sweeping overview of how education leads to skills and income, drawing on the most well-established theories in economics. It misses some important causes of inequality, but is essential for understanding the one of the deepest economic forces governing wages: the supply and demand of human capital.

By Claudia Goldin, Lawrence F. Katz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This book provides a careful historical analysis of the co-evolution of educational attainment and the wage structure in the United States through the twentieth century. The authors propose that the twentieth century was not only the American Century but also the Human Capital Century. That is, the American educational system is what made America the richest nation in the world. Its educational system had always been less elite than that of most European nations. By 1900 the U.S. had begun to educate its masses at the secondary level, not just in the primary schools that had remarkable success in the…


Book cover of Political Order and Inequality: Their Foundations and Their Consequences for Human Welfare

Jonathan Rothwell Why did I love this book?

Why did Northern and Western Europe lead the industrial revolution after thousands of years of stagnation in human living standards?

More fundamentally, where does inequality come from, and what are its evolutionary and institutional origins? Carles Boix is a professor at Princeton and one of the deepest thinkers in the world. This book answers these fundamental questions with more thought and rigor than anyone ever has.

For those less interested in theory, you can skip the first chapter and go straight to the analyses of ancient societies, hunter-gatherer tribes, and how Boix has used bone fragments to estimate wealth inequality. His reach and ambition are astounding.

Most importantly, he provides compelling answers to where political institutions come from, and how free cities created the background conditions for innovation.

By Carles Boix,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Political Order and Inequality as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The fundamental question of political theory, one that precedes all other questions about the nature of political life, is why there is a state at all. Is human cooperation feasible without a political authority enforcing it? Or do we need a state to live together? This problem then opens up two further questions. If a state is necessary to establish order, how does it come into place? And, when it does, what are the consequences for the political status and economic welfare of its citizens? Combining ethnographical material, historical cases, and statistical analysis, this book describes the foundations of stateless…


You might also like...

Act Like an Author, Think Like a Business: Ways to Achieve Financial Literary Success

By Joylynn M Ross, Falessia Booker (editor),

Book cover of Act Like an Author, Think Like a Business: Ways to Achieve Financial Literary Success

Joylynn M Ross

New book alert!

What is my book about?

Act Like an Author, Think Like a Business is for anyone who wants to learn how to make money with their book and make a living as an author. Many authors dive into the literary industry without taking time to learn the business side of being an author, which can hinder book sales and the money that can be made as an author.

This resource serves as a guide to mastering the art of financial literary success and to help avoid the mistakes that many authors make while learning the ropes on their own. This book helps authors “think outside…

Act Like an Author, Think Like a Business: Ways to Achieve Financial Literary Success

By Joylynn M Ross, Falessia Booker (editor),

What is this book about?

Do you want to make money with your book? Do you want to make a living as an author? There’s more to doing so than simply writing and publishing your book. Many authors dive into the literary industry without taking time to learn the business side of being an author. This could dramatically hinder your book sales and the money you can make as an author. Without a guide such as this, mastering the art of financial literary success can take you years, and you’ll be sure to make mistakes during the learning phase. Some mistakes could cost you money;…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in innovation, economics, and technology?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about innovation, economics, and technology.

Innovation Explore 81 books about innovation
Economics Explore 392 books about economics
Technology Explore 126 books about technology