If You Need Something to Read

Here are some popular books from the latter half of the twentieth century that I would put in the queue ahead of many recent works. My guess is that you have not read all of them yet.

The New Industrial State, John Kenneth Galbraith, 1968. Galbraith actually got some things right–I agree with his take on the significance of bureaucracy within corporations, rather than viewing the CEO is an autonomous actor. But with the benefit of hindsight you can see how wrong he was about big things. He minimized the differences between the Soviet and American economies. He thought that new, small firms were insignificant. By blogging standards, his writing is gentle (if long-winded). He takes on conservatives with quips rather than base insults. But the main reason to re-read him is to see the contrast between a highly-reputed intellectual’s outlook and subsequent events. Incidentally, there is much in Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, particularly on Civil Rights, that does not hold up very well, either.

The Money Game, ‘Adam Smith’ (George J W Goodman), 1969. Goodman, a journalist, had a great instinct for what made a good story and a wonderful ability to tell it. This was the first popular treatment of the efficient markets hypothesis. As Goodman put it, “Stocks have no memory, and yesterday has nothing to do with tomorrow.” I also recommend two other books of his, both hard to find. Supermoney (1973) among other things introduced the world to Warren Buffett, then a relatively young, successful money manager. Goodman’s description of the Fed’s response to the Penn Central bankruptcy is classic. Finally, Powers of Mind (1975), which I was lucky to come across in a used book store, is a very rich treatment of the New Age psychology that emerged in that period, and which still echoes through the halls of major corporations today (teambuilding, anyone?).

Liars Poker, Michael Lewis, 1989. This was Lewis’ smashing debut onto the financial journalism scene. The recent financial crisis made this book topical once again.

Microcosm, George Gilder, 1990. One thing I remember about this book is the way Gilder emphasized that the main material resource in computers–silicon–is sand. After reading this book, I felt that I really “got” the economics of the computer revolution. It influenced me to become an Internet entrepreneur a few years later. It influenced me as an economist to focus on intangible wealth, ultimately leading to my book with Nick Schulz.

The Work of Nations, Robert Reich, 1991. Today, everyone talks about skill-biased technological change and the plight of less-educated workers. With this book, Reich got there before the crowd. This is nothing like the predictable partisanship of Reich’s recent opinion pieces.

Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell, 1996. Not at all charitable to those with whom he disagrees. Still, I think this book is insightful. I would be hard pressed to deny that my thinking on the oppressor-oppressed axis can be traced to Sowell.

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5 Responses to If You Need Something to Read

  1. Georg Thomas says:

    We need a new industry, well, a line of business, perhaps just a niche, but we need it: and perhaps some people will know how to make money in that occupation: of course, they would have to think up a phrase more catchy than my “synchronic archaeology.” Actually, it would lend itself to some sort of legitimate and productive extortion (or rather ousting/cleansing) business.

    Constantly, we are being told lies, untruths, erroneous prescriptions and projections about our present and future condition. No matter how egregious these messages turn out when judged with the benefit of hindsight, they are rarely traced back to be updated and revealed as what they are – scandalous hype to begin with -, let alone in a manner that might be instituted to put a check in this regard on political entrepreneurs and other “Baptists” (and their complementary bootleggers).

    I seem to remember that “acid rain” was one of the scams that launched the Green party in Germany. It turned out a case of disingenuously false alarm, but no one followed up on the scam.

    Is there a viable business model that might sustain private rating agencies judging media output against the historical record?

  2. Trent McBride says:

    The contrast between “A Conflict of Visions”, where Sowell seemed to make an honest attempt to be charitable, and “Vision of the Anointed”, where he clearly did not, is stark. It had to be a deliberate choice. And the difference to me means the former is an all-time favorite while the latter I never finished.

  3. Greg Ransom says:

    Galbraith actually had insights mixed among much buncombe.

    He understood important aspects of the institutional complexity which would make nuclear power problematic in the American context.

  4. Ted Craig says:

    Do you mean “Telecosom?”

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