The best books about economic inequality

2 authors have picked their favorite books about economic inequality and why they recommend each book.

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A Theory of Economic History

By Sir John R. Hicks,

Book cover of A Theory of Economic History

I love this book for two reasons. It condenses a massive amount of economic history into a small book, and it shows how our unequal societies are backtracking to older models of the economy.

Who am I?

Peter Temin is an economist and economic historian, currently a professor at MIT and the former head of the Economics Department. His research interests include macroeconomic history, the Great Depression, industry studies in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and ancient Rome. 


I wrote...

The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy

By Peter Temin,

Book cover of The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy

What is my book about?

The United States is becoming a nation of rich and poor, with few families in the middle. In this book, MIT economist Peter Temin offers an illuminating way to look at the vanishing middle class. Temin argues that American history and politics, particularly slavery and its aftermath, play an important part in the widening gap between rich and poor. Temin employs a well-known, simple model of a dual economy to examine the dynamics of the rich/poor divide in America, and outlines ways to work toward greater equality so that America will no longer have one economy for the rich and one for the poor.

Knocking on Labor's Door

By Lane Windham,

Book cover of Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide

Labor unions played a key role in lifting millions of Americans—mostly white male industrial workers—into the middle class in the mid-twentieth century. The passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s opened access to unionized manufacturing jobs and led to new waves of labor activism by women and people of color, but these were undermined by political and economic shifts that eliminated millions of jobs in the late twentieth century. Windham shows how anti-union policies and practices made it more difficult for workers to organize and force employers to the negotiating table, which explains the persistence of racial and economic inequality in the twenty-first century. Like Foner’s Nothing But Freedom (mentioned above), the book provides ample evidence that nothing about this was foreordained—once again, those who set the rules of a more globalized economy did so in ways that allowed some people to prosper while others starved.


Who am I?

I’m a historian of the African American freedom struggle with more than two decades of experience researching and teaching on this topic. My work focuses especially on the connections between race and class and the ways Black people have fought for racial and economic justice in the twentieth century. I write books and articles that are accessible for general audiences and that help them to understand the historical origins of racism in the United States, the various forms it has taken, and the reasons why it has persisted into the present.


I wrote...

You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

By Greta de Jong,

Book cover of You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

What is my book about?

I look at how African Americans in the rural South continued their struggles for racial and economic justice after the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, which failed to do anything about mass unemployment and poverty caused by agricultural mechanization. Social justice activists pressured the federal government to pay attention to these problems and invest more in anti-poverty initiatives, while white supremacists blocked every effort to help displaced workers who were left without jobs, homes, or income. These conflicts helped shape the experiences of other Americans whose jobs were lost to deindustrialization and globalization later in the twentieth century, and their outcomes still affect our lives today.

The College Dropout Scandal

By David Kirp,

Book cover of The College Dropout Scandal

This is a positive book that shows how education can help Blacks and other minorities get an education that will help them stay out of mass incarceration. It is good to have a positive program as we attempt to deal with American racism.

Who am I?

Peter Temin is an economist and economic historian, currently a professor at MIT and the former head of the Economics Department. His research interests include macroeconomic history, the Great Depression, industry studies in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and ancient Rome. 


I wrote...

The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy

By Peter Temin,

Book cover of The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy

What is my book about?

The United States is becoming a nation of rich and poor, with few families in the middle. In this book, MIT economist Peter Temin offers an illuminating way to look at the vanishing middle class. Temin argues that American history and politics, particularly slavery and its aftermath, play an important part in the widening gap between rich and poor. Temin employs a well-known, simple model of a dual economy to examine the dynamics of the rich/poor divide in America, and outlines ways to work toward greater equality so that America will no longer have one economy for the rich and one for the poor.

Feudal Society

By Marc Bloch,

Book cover of Feudal Society

An English translation of a book published in French in 1940 (La société féodale). One of the truly great books on medieval society, it brought the richness and diversity of the Middle Ages alive for me in ways that have stayed with me throughout my career as a scholar and author. It also introduced me to History as written in France, again something that has always inspired me.


Who am I?

I became fascinated by the history of the period from 900 to 1250 as an undergraduate at the University of Exeter where I was supervised for a doctorate by Professor Frank Barlow. The subject of my thesis was Odo, bishop of Bayeux (1049/50-1097), a biography that introduced me to a multitude of subjects. That time stimulated a fascination with France and with the place of English history, British history, and the history of the Normans in a European context, as well as an interest in biography and individual lives.


I wrote...

William the Conqueror

By David Bates,

Book cover of William the Conqueror

What is my book about?

My interest in William began when almost fifty years ago when I discovered that there were many unknown or scarcely known charters. So, it all started from an awareness that there was a lot that people did not know. Writing the book took all this into account, but it also raised serious issues for me about how to place in context culturally and morally. I always think about the words on page 513: "William’s life is ultimately a parable on the eternal moral conundrum of the legitimacy of violence used to achieve what its perpetrators believed to be a justifiable end."

The book has been translated into French and Chinese.

The Captured Economy

By Steven M. Teles, Brink Lindsey,

Book cover of The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality

This is a good book to understand the pervasive existence of “rents” in the economy. From the literal rents that homeowners in popular areas can charge, to the rents that accrue to copyright or patent holders, to the rents earned by firms using regulation to block competition, the authors document all the places in our economy where this restricts innovation. It is ultimately a book asking “what is fair?”.


Who am I?

I’m a professor of economics at the University of Houston, with a focus on long-run growth and development rather than things like quarterly stock returns. I write a blog on growth economics where I try hard to boil down technical topics to their core intuition, and I’m the co-author of a popular textbook on economic growth.


I wrote...

Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success

By Dietrich Vollrath,

Book cover of Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success

What is my book about?

Most economists would agree that a thriving economy is synonymous with GDP growth. The more we produce and consume, the higher our living standard and the more resources available to the public. This means that our current era, in which growth has slowed substantially from its postwar highs, has raised alarm bells. But should it? Is growth actually the best way to measure economic success--and does our slowdown indicate economic problems?

Motor City Green

By Joseph Stanhope Cialdella,

Book cover of Motor City Green: A Century of Landscapes and Environmentalism in Detroit

Nature takes on different meanings in the landscape of the post-industrial city. On a city block in the middle of a shrinking city, the return of green space can signify abandonment, disinvestment, and decay instead of healing, flourishing, or balance. Cialdella brings much needed nuance and historical context to the place of nature in postindustrial Detroit, providing a wider range of stories about the ways in which gardens and green, from the wide expanse of Belle Isle to urban potato patches and backyard sunflowers, have helped connect communities to the city and each other. Nature in the city doesn’t replace people; it helps them flourish.


Who am I?

I have always been both a nature lover and committed urbanite, and those twin passions have shaped my approach to history. My very first published writing (when I was ten years old) was an essay about a willow tree in an urban park I loved in Minneapolis, MN. Now, as a historian, I have written about guerrilla gardening in the shadow of the Berlin wall, forestry outside Detroit, and working-class foraging practices in the nineteenth century. My interest in urban nature remains not just academic, but personal. On weekends, you’ll find me mapping native and invasive species with my ten-year-old son along the River Rouge in Dearborn, MI.


I wrote...

Germany’s Urban Frontiers: Nature and History on the Edge of the Nineteenth-Century City

By Kristin Poling,

Book cover of Germany’s Urban Frontiers: Nature and History on the Edge of the Nineteenth-Century City

What is my book about?

In an era of transatlantic migration, Germans were fascinated by the myth of the frontier. Yet, for many, they were most likely to encounter frontier landscapes of new settlement and the taming of nature not in far-flung landscapes abroad, but on the edges of Germany’s many growing cities. From gardens, forests, marshes, and wastelands, Germans on the edge of the city confronted not only questions of planning and control, but also their own histories and futures as a community.

Germany’s Urban Frontiers tells their story, examining how nineteenth-century notions of progress, community, and nature shaped the changing spaces of German urban peripheries as the walls and boundaries that had so long defined central European cities disappeared.

Wealth Explosion

By Stephen Davies,

Book cover of Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

The great fact of economic history is that we all used to be poor, and now most of us are not. 200 years ago, almost 90 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, today around 9 percent does. This is the story of that remarkable transformation and what made it possible. Of course, there are many good books on this, and I have greatly enjoyed for example Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey, and David Landes, but this is a powerful, short book by a great historian, that manages to weave together economic, political, technological and intellectual factors into a very compelling narrative of progress and its preconditions over the past one thousand years.


Who am I?

I did not use to believe in human progress, but thought there must have been good old days behind us – until I studied history and understood that my ancestors did not live ecologically, they died ecologically, at an early age. Since then I’ve been obsessed with progress, what makes it possible and how we can spread it to more people. I am a historian of ideas from Sweden, the host of a video series on innovations in history, New and Improved, and the writer of many books on intellectual history and global economics, translated into more than 25 languages.


I wrote...

Open: The Story of Human Progress

By Johan Norberg,

Book cover of Open: The Story of Human Progress

What is my book about?

Mankind conquered the planet because we use more brains and more hands, always learning from and exchanging with others. History’s great civilizations were dependent on openness to people, goods, and ideas from strange places – and so are we.

But there is a catch. We developed this ability to cooperate harmoniously so that we could kill and steal. Competition between groups in pre-history turned us into traders, but also tribalists, tempted to divide the world into us and them. We need openness, but are often uncomfortable with it. This is the historical and psychological background to the current battle between Open and Closed. Part sweeping history and part polemic, this book makes the case for why an open world is worth fighting for more than ever.

Pass Go and Collect $200

By Tanya Lee Stone, Steven Salerno (illustrator),

Book cover of Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented

I am fascinated by how everyday objects are invented, and in this book, readers will discover the real story of how the beloved Monopoly board game was created. The story is often misreported with the credit attributed to Charles Darrow, the man who popularized the game and sold it to the Parker Brothers. In fact, the game was invented by Lizzie Magie, who wanted to draw attention to financial inequality. The author challenges readers to decide – who was the real winner? Because, ironically, Magie sold her patent for only $500, while Darrow stood to make millions and appropriated the credit for the invention. But without the changes and improvements to the game made by the two of them, perhaps nobody would get to play Monopoly as we know it today.  


Who am I?

I love to get kids fired up about true stories, using their imaginations and believing in themselves as future innovators, inventors, and creators. Crayola crayons inventor Edwin Binney's story is a fabulous springboard for exploring nature, color and creativity. I love to draw and make stuff just like Binney, so his story resonated with me. The more I researched, the more I admired how he listened to what people needed and looked to nature for inspiration. I am intrigued by the origins of everyday objects. Here are some books that inspired me when I was writing, and that have that fascinating a-ha moment that spurs on innovation.


I wrote...

The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons

By Natascha Biebow, Steven Salerno (illustrator),

Book cover of The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons

What is my book about?

What child doesn't love to hold a crayon in their hands? But before Edwin Binney set out to change things, children couldn't really even draw in color. Here’s the true story of the inventor who so loved nature’s vibrant colors that he found a way to bring the outside world to children – in a bright green box for only a nickel! Discover how Binney and his team at Crayola created one of the world’s most enduring, best-loved toys – empowering children to dream and draw in color

Winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, NSTA best STEM book, ILA Children's Choice Reading List, Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection.

Bourgeois Equality

By Deirdre Nansen McCloskey,

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

In Bourgeois EqualityMcCloskey presents one of the most intellectually rigorous, and forward-looking critiques of neoliberalism. She identifies that neoliberal institutionalist economists wholly rely on incentives, and material rewards, to incentivize actors to achieve anything. She argues that for the past two centuries of western liberal capitalism, this neoliberal hypothesis for the Great Enrichment of humankind misses on the one hand intrinsic rewards, and on the other hand virtue. She argues that people are motivated by ideals including freedom and dignity. Economists who believe that these can be reduced to rewards that actors can maximize have entirely missed the grandeur of the last two centuries. Hence the neoliberal solution of institutional design with correct incentives overlooks that ideas and virtuous ideals are powerfully transformative and the basis for human progress.


Who am I?

I have been studying neoliberal political economy and its future transformations since I wrote Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy. One major insight has been the deep entanglement of neoliberal political-economic practices with de facto power relations. The liberal normative bargaining characterizing Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations yields to coercive bargaining in which threats of harm are the surest and best means to get one’s way. If one seeks to understand how systems will evolve when governed by strategic competition, then orthodox game theory is useful. However, if one seeks to live in a post-scarcity society in which genuine cooperation is possible, then we can enact solidarity, trust-based relationships, and collective moral accountability. 


I wrote...

Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy

By S.M. Amadae,

Book cover of Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy

What is my book about?

Is capitalism inherently predatory? Must there be winners and losers? Is public interest outdated and free-riding rational? Is consumer choice the same as self-determination? Must bargainers abandon the no-harm principle? Prisoners of Reason recalls that classical liberal capitalism exalted the no-harm principle. Although imperfect and exclusionary, modern liberalism recognized individual human dignity alongside individuals' responsibility to respect others. Neoliberalism, by contrast, views life as a ceaseless struggle. Agents vie for scarce resources in antagonistic competition in which every individual seeks dominance. Money becomes the medium of all value. Solidarity and goodwill are invalidated. Relationships are conducted on a quid pro quo basis. However, agents can freely opt out of this cynical race to the bottom by embracing a more expansive range of coherent action.

Once in Golconda

By John Brooks,

Book cover of Once in Golconda: The Great Crash of 1929 and its aftershocks

There should be at least one book about the 1920s on this list, and this one deserves mention because it elegantly brings to life several of the most interesting characters from that era. There are some dubious ones, such as Jesse Livermore, the “Boy Plunger” who operated bucket shops, shady financial firms that manipulated stocks with fake news. And there are more legitimate leaders of the era: Pierpont Morgan’s son, Jack, and his brainier partner, Tom Lamont, and the power brokers of Kuhn Loeb. Brooks vividly skewers all of them. He misspelled “Golkonda,” but the essence of his story nails the excesses of the era, and is an apt reminder of how much wealth and economic inequality can result from the Federal Reserve going wild with loose monetary policy.


Who am I?

Frank Partnoy is the Adrian A. Kragen Professor of Law at UC Berkeley, where he co-runs an annual conference on financial fraud and teaches business law. He has written four trade press books (WAITThe Match KingInfectious Greed, and F.I.A.S.C.O.), dozens of scholarly publications, and multiple articles each for The AtlanticThe New York Review of BooksHarvard Business Review, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as more than fifty opinion pieces for The New York Times and the Financial Times. Partnoy has appeared on 60 Minutes and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and has testified as an expert before both houses of Congress. He is a member of the Financial Economists Roundtable and has been an international research fellow at Oxford University since 2010.


I wrote...

The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, the Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals

By Frank Partnoy,

Book cover of The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, the Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals

What is my book about?

At the height of the roaring '20s, Swedish emigre Ivar Kreuger made a fortune raising money in America and loaning it to Europe in exchange for matchstick monopolies. His enterprise was a rare success story throughout the Great Depression. Yet after his suicide in 1932, it became clear that Kreuger was not all he seemed: evidence surfaced of fudged accounting figures, off-balance-sheet accounting, even forgery. He created a raft of innovative financial products-- many of them precursors to instruments wreaking havoc in today's markets. In this gripping financial biography, Frank Partnoy recasts the life story of a remarkable yet forgotten genius in ways that force us to re-think our ideas about the wisdom of crowds, the invisible hand, and the free and unfettered market.

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