Ten Favorite Books Read in 2007

I admit it: despite criticizing rankings here and in articles, I like a good “Top 10” list as much as the next guy. As Harold Bloom opined in a recent podcast, there are more great books out there than you can possibly read in a lifetime, so you have to make choices. Since I get a lot of my reading from used book stores, not all of these were published in 2007. Without further ado, here are my picks:

10. David Feige, Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey Into the Inferno of American Justice. As I noted before, it’s a briskly written, insightful work by someone trying to do the right thing in impossibly difficult situations. Feige whisks you through a single day of his life as a public defender in the South Bronx. Most events in the day bring up some memory of past clients, who take on an almost palpaple presence in the narrative despite being limned in a series of fast-paced sketches. If you like “The Wire” or other crime dramas, you will almost certainly enjoy this book (and you might also like this podcast from Judge Nancy Gertner).

9. Frank Ackerman & Lisa Heinzerling, Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing. Ackerman & Heinzerling have an enviable knack for combining rigorous analysis with accessible prose. They do a great job exposing misuses of economic analysis.

8. Richard G. Wilkinson, Mind the Gap: Hierarchies, Health, and Human Evolution. This thin volume offers great insight into why rising inequality can lead to bad health outcomes for those at the bottom of the ladder. Many thanks to Daniel Goldberg at the Medical Humanities Blog for recommending it.

7. Junot Diaz, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. If you want a good reason for ending the “canon wars,” look no further than this moving and hilarious novel about a Dominican-American family’s travails (and occasional triumphs) in New Jersey and the DR. It’s a Faulknerian narrative, bildungsroman, history lesson, and fanfic all rolled into one cracklingly good read.

6. Barbara Fried, The Progressive Assault on Laissez Faire: Robert Hale and the First Law and Economics Movement. This is one I should have read long ago. Ian Ayres puts its significance well:

[Fried’s work] traces the career of Columbia Law School Professor Robert Hale, who used principles from finance and economics to attack justifications for constitutionalizing laissez faire during the Lochner Era. The reviewer argues that while Hale’s policy prescriptions may miss the mark, his refutation of a priori defenses of the free market is nonetheless important for contemporary debates over the appropriate levels of regulation and redistribution.

Anyone working in the IP or health care fields would do well to consult Fried’s book before buying into further “market-based” reform of either area. When at least 43% of the spending on health care comes from the federal government (which also sets the rules for most IP), scare quotes ought to surround the term “market” in these fields far more frequently than they do presently.

5. Charles Karelis, The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-off Can’t Help the Poor. I’ve tried to apply Karelis’s insights here. Can a philosopher have valuable insights for economists? One IMF division chief has stated that “the reader—especially if he or she is a trained economist—will be frustrated by the author’s reliance on words and a few simple diagrams.” But as Deirdre McCloskey has stated,

What distinguishes good from bad in learned discourse . . . is not the adoption of a particular methodology, but the earnest and intelligent attempt to contribute to a conversation . . . You can tell whether [an argument] is persuasive only by thinking about it and talking about it with other thoughtful people. Not all regression analyses are more persuasive than all moral arguments; not all controlled experiments are more persuasive than all introspections.

As James Angresano has argued, “orthodox economic education” can “inhibit poverty alleviation” when perspectives like Karelis’s are neglected.

4. Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950. I quoted it here; here’s a summary from the OUP web page:

Well-being has lagged behind affluence in these societies, because . . . the capacity for personal and social commitment is undermined by the flow of novelty. His approach draws on economics and social science, makes use of the latest cognitive research, and provides a detailed and reasoned critique of modern consumer society, especially the assumption that freedom of choice necessarily maximizes individual and social well-being.

3.5: Schuck and Zeckhauser, Targeting in Social Programs. I review it here.

3. James Hackney, Under Cover of Science: American Legal-Economic Theory and the Quest for Objectivity. I discuss it here.

2.5 Dan Solove, The Future of Reputation. I review it here.

2. Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen, The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America. As the subprime crisis accelerates, expect more Americans to join the missing class’s ranks. The book is a compelling example of qualitative social science, sensitively exploring the lives of people in difficult economic circumstances. One of the biggest issues in the 2008 election is whether a sensibility like theirs can inform political debate, or if we become a society of “devil-take-the-hindmost.”

1. Robert Frank, Falling Behind. I’ve probably done 5 posts on it this year, many collected here. This book was not quite the “summa” I was hoping for; it’s hard to cram all of Frank’s great ideas of the past twenty years into one slim volume designed for popular consumption. Nevertheless, the following blurbs speak for themselves:

“‘Falling Behind’ is a compact example of a professional economist brilliantly deploying the tools of social science to illuminate the human condition.”–New York Times Book Review

“The most influential ideas often turn out to be those that seem obvious–once someone has had the wit to point them out. Robert Frank’s ideas in Falling Behind meet this test. In this short, lucid set of essays he explains exactly how and why an unequal society leaves almost all its members worse-off, including most of those who objectively are doing ‘better.’ This is a very important application of economic logic to modern America’s main domestic problem.”–James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly

“Robert Frank escapes the fog of economics wars by illuminating the meaning of facts on the ground, not numerical theories in the sky. He sketches a theory of human economic nature and links it responsibly to the rickety choices of policy-makers who have no such theory or, worse, a truly faulty one.”–Lionel Tiger, Rutgers University

“Robert Frank is the rare sort of economist whose work disconcerts economists and delights the rest of us. This is not mainly because he mischievously highlights the blind spots of his learned profession, but because his insights reveal fundamental, unnoticed, and yet very important truths about the society in which we live. As inequality has grown in America over the last three decades, Frank shows in this fluent and powerful little book, we have all been led by human nature to act in ways that are bad for virtually everyone. Frank’s ideas should play an important and innovative role in the gathering debate about inequality in America.”–Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University

ALSO NOTEWORTHY: Erik Barnouw, et al., Conglomerates and the Media; Philip Mirowski, Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science; Michael Sandel, The Case Against Perfection; Ramachandra Guha, How Much Should a Person Consume; Wolff and de Shalit, Disadvantage.

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